Premier League, February 15 2023
Saka (42 pen)
De Bruyne (24)
Manchester City overtook Arsenal at the top of the Premier League after winning this title-race six-pointer at the Emirates Stadium. City went to north London knowing that anything other than a win would leave Arsenal, who have a game in hand on City, with a sizeable lead that their visitors might struggle to overturn. However, the reigning champions proved they are not going to hand their title over without a struggle, and earned a valuable three points.
City manager Pep Guardiola admitted afterwards that his first-half experiment with Bernardo Silva at left-back hadn't worked, and he chose to change things at half-time. “I tried something new [at first] and it was horrible. [In the] second half, we were more like we are. We struggled a lot to control it, that is why we suffered and they were much better, but in the second half we were there.”
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta, meanwhile, rued missed opportunities and defensive errors from his side. “It’s exceptionally difficult to play at the level [City] require you to play to have a chance to win," he said. "I thought in many moments we did and we had them, but if you give three goals away the way we did and don’t put away the big chances that we had, the margin for error is almost zero.”
SHOTS / ON TARGET
ATTACKS INTO AREA
EXPECTED GOALS (XG)
Arsenal started in a 4-3-3 shape but quickly adapted into a 3-4-3 structure in the opening exchanges, with number eights Martin Ødegaard and Granit Xhaka widening (below). Oleksandr Zinchenko inverted from left-back to join Jorginho in midfield and create a double pivot, with wingers Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli ready to roll inside to create a four-on-three overload in central midfield. As a result, Manchester City’s 4-3-3 defensive shape was left a little confused, with Bernardo Silva – used at left-back to begin with – marking Ødegaard rather than Saka. In a relatively even start to the match, individual moments or pieces of skill were the only way either team made much progress.
Arsenal soon reverted back to their 4-3-3 structure, which then helped them dominate the ball and regularly progress into City’s half. Jorginho dropped out to the right side, with Ødegaard and Xhaka now more central. The gap between the visitors’ central-midfield three and wingers was exploited with incisive forward passing from Arsenal’s defenders (below), allowing the home side to connect into their winger. They would then look for the eights between the lines, with Saka in particular getting more opportunities to receive and get the better of Silva. When Arsenal worked the ball from right to left through Jorginho, Zinchenko got into dangerous crossing positions in the final third, with runs through the middle from Eddie Nketiah, Xhaka and Martinelli all providing a threat in the box.
A change of shape from City then saw Kevin De Bruyne jump out to join Erling Haaland in a first-line pair when the visitors pressed high. Haaland therefore started slightly to the left, encouraging the ball to go to the Arsenal left. Silva, by now in midfield, then pressed Zinchenko, with City’s front two pressing Arsenal's centre-backs (below). City often left Arsenal’s far-side number eight – usually Ødegaard – free, with Jorginho and Xhaka covered, but Arsenal struggled to access their spare man.
Leandro Trossard replaced Martinelli on Arsenal’s left, and the hosts’ wide rotations became key. Saka held his width for longer on Arsenal’s right, waiting for delayed overlapping support from Takehiro Tomiyasu, while Ødegaard was a key link between the lines. On Arsenal’s left, meanwhile, Zinchenko moved forward earlier, both inverting to push Xhaka higher, but also overlapping around the outside, especially when Trossard moved inside (below). These rotations helped Arsenal build around the visitors' press and progress forward; they created some good chances, but ultimately paid for failing to make them count.
When in possession, Manchester City set up in a 3-4-3 shape that featured a box central midfield. Bernardo Silva – who defended at left-back – moved inside alongside Rodri to create a double pivot. Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gündogan then attacked as two number 10s inside wingers Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish (below). As Zinchenko moved back out to defend the wide areas – having inverted into central midfield when Arsenal had the ball – City could then exploit a central-midfield overload or force Eddie Nketiah to drop back, which in turn reduced how effectively the hosts could press. One of Arsenal’s centre-backs – usually Gabriel – would at times jump to press into midfield, which then released Nketiah to press higher. Haaland was then left one on one with William Saliba, though, and he made probing runs through City’s right inside channel as the visitors went direct to find him.
Arsenal’s high press forced City into far more longer passes forward than they would have wanted to play. Although a long ball led to the opening goal, it came after an individual error from Takehiro Tomiyasu rather than any particular game plan from the away side. Saliba was comfortable in dealing with Haaland when one on one, and Gabriel continued to jump into midfield to deal with City’s potential central-midfield overload. The home side matched City man-for-man across the pitch (below), defending with aggression and intensity to limit the away side’s deep build-up and intricate passing play.
City changed shape in the second period, moving back to a 4-3-3 when in possession after Manuel Akanji replaced Mahrez and Bernardo Silva moved to the right wing. This helped them press high and also enhanced their transitions after regains in the middle third of the pitch. City made use of both number eights in the inside channels, with De Bruyne’s position coupled with Haaland’s movements beyond helping to disrupt Arsenal’s central defence. Grealish and Silva provided secondary support in attack; it was Grealish who put the visitors ahead after another impressive transition from midfield by the away side.
A key point of contest in the second half was how effectively the City midfield three dealt with Arsenal’s counter-pressing in central areas. Whenever De Bruyne, Rodri and Gündogan managed to bypass the Arsenal press and work the ball into the final third, City posed a real threat. If one of Arsenal’s wingers recovered to join this counter-pressing effort, they often won the ball back as they overloaded City’s central midfield. This limited service into Haaland’s runs temporarily, but City’s quality showed in the moments when their eights broke the press (below). They consistently found the gap between Arsenal’s centre-backs and full-backs to feed Haaland, who showed his quality in the box late on to put the result beyond doubt.
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Author: The Coaches' Voice