At halftime on Saturday, there was quite a lot to like about Arsenal’s performance at the Etihad Stadium. Sure, Arsenal were behind, but at a stadium where they hadn’t gotten a point since 2016, they looked in decent shape. Manchester City were only a goal ahead, were without Kevin de Bruyne, and, crucially, Arsenal had threatened.
Bukayo Saka had forced Ederson to make two saves, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a good chance ruled out for what looked to be an incorrect offside. All of Arsenal’s chances had come in the final quarter of the first half, putting Arsenal in a good stead for the second half. It didn’t work out like that. Arsenal had four shots in the final 44 minutes of the match; one from open play.
In part, Arsenal’s attack has become too predictable. Everyone can recognize the signature move, that gets Aubameyang away down the left hand side, with the possibility to cut in and score. The problem is that because everyone can recognize it, so too can opposition managers. On Saturday, Pep Guardiola tinkered with his defence to counter Arsenal’s attacking pattern. Kyle Walker moved to a right-centre back role, the mark Aubameyang role, and Joao Cancelo was played as a right back/extra midfielder, to counter Arsenal’s wingback—who Guardiola presumed was going to be Ainsley Maitland-Niles, because Bukayo Saka doesn’t move into central midfield as much from wingback.
Arteta, of course, countered with his own move: Willian at centre forward. While Arteta was vague about the rational for having Willian there, it’s likely he wanted the technical security, and hoped for better possession, allowing Arsenal’s amorphous shape to become 4-2-3-1 in possession, with Aubameyang through the middle, and Willian just behind at number 10. And, in Arsenal’s best moments, that did happen.
The problem is it didn’t happen enough; especially in the second half. Arteta failed to rotate the Arsenal attack enough to allow Aubameyang to take up central positions, and Willian had a poor game. One solution, of course, is having Aubameyang through the middle to begin with. Arsenal’s best moments came when City’s quickest defender, Walker, was dragged into the middle by Aubameyang, creating space for Saka behind Cancelo. With Riyad Mahrez not tracking back, Arsenal were on the front foot when Kieran Tierney was able to push forward and instigate attacks.
Of course, Mahrez was City’s most dangerous player during the first half, and in the second half, Ilkay Gundogan came on to stregnthen City’s midfield and further push Saka into wider, less dangerous positions. It was here that Arteta needed to take initiative and force City into some uncomfortable positions, much like Arsenal did in the first half. Yet, he did not. The substitutes were like for like: Lacazette replaced Willian, Partey replaced Xhaka, and Nketiah replaced Pépé, but played down the right hand side, rather than change the system. This is a larger issue: Arteta is wedded to his system.
It is not a bad thing to be dedicated to system and structure, especially as Arteta is trying to develop Arsenal’s play. Yet, there is also the element of the match in front of you, and making adjustments based on what is happening during the game. Arsenal could’ve taken control of the second half, as this was a weakened City: no De Bruyne, and after 64 minutes, no Aguero.
There were possibilities: flip the bias, and have Arsenal attack down the right hand side more, potentially allowing Aubameyang to get isolated on the left. Yet there were other options too. While Arsenal do need to desperately develop the right-hand side of their attacking play, it is not a bad thing to focus on the things that Arsenal are good at, and the left-sided bias is obviously a thing Arsenal are good at.
While Arteta’s Arsenal is always going to fill five channels, both defensively and going forward, there were changes that could’ve enabled Saka to get behind Cancelo and down the side of Walker, and have Aubameyang in a central position. An obvious one is Maitland-Niles; this may have concentrated Arsenal’s play down the left, but it also would’ve matched City, taking away the counter-move of Cancelo. With Luiz and Gabriel, Arsenal could’ve pushed the issue down the left, with the added of benefit of potentially isolated Pépé against Nathan Aké.
It’s possible that Guardiola would’ve countered those moves, and hindsight is, of course, 20-20. But regardless, Arsenal needed to push the issue against City in the second half, and they did not. For Arsenal to move into the next stage of their development under Arteta, it is something that is going to have to change. There are obvious weaknesses in the side, which means that, for now, Arteta is going to have become innovative in order to force the jssue.