premier League, april 26 2023
De Bruyne (7, 54)
Manchester City made their title credentials absolutely clear to anyone who dared to have any doubts with a resounding win over rivals Arsenal at the Etihad Stadium. The visitors came into the game five points clear at the top of the table, but having dropped points in their previous three matches they had handed the advantage back to City, who have two games in hand. Mikel Arteta's side are still top of the table, but their lead has now been cut to two points and City, on a run of seven straight wins in the league, are showing no signs of weakness. Their fate is firmly in their own hands now, to the extent that they can even afford to drop points – though on this form that seems highly unlikely.
"We cannot lose our focus, now it's in our hands," said City manager Pep Guardiola after the game. "The reality is we're still behind Arsenal. It will not be easy for us, but it is game by game and we see what happens. When it's in our hands, we have to use it."
SHOTS / ON TARGET
ATTACKS INTO AREA
EXPECTED GOALS (XG)
Manchester City built from a 4-2-3-1 shape, with Ilkay Gündogan and Rodri as the double pivot ahead of a back line of four – rather than the back three we have grown used to seeing them use in possession. Kevin De Bruyne operated as a central number 10 instead of attacking from his usual position in the right inside channel. Kyle Walker advanced higher from right-back than Manuel Akanji on the left, while Bernardo Silva and Jack Grealish gave the team its width (below). By stretching Arsenal, space was created for De Bruyne and Erling Haaland to link up, and that combination proved too much for Arsenal’s central defenders in the first half. City were happy to play over Arsenal’s press to find Haaland, with De Bruyne timing his movements particularly well to work off Haaland’s hold-up play. This proved their route to goal for the opener, with Haaland dominating Rob Holding before finding De Bruyne. Arsenal goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale was forced into several saves to keep the score at 1-0 as City's front two caused lots of problems.
Arsenal pressed their opponents aggressively early on, but City played over this pressure whenever they needed to – and they had plenty of success in doing so. With Martin Ødegaard often jumping out to press City’s centre-backs, Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka were left to cover City’s double pivot. This left De Bruyne free to roam between the lines and into advanced positions, with Haaland doing an outstanding job of securing direct passes from City’s defenders. This meant De Bruyne could surge in behind (below), as was the case with the opening goal, and but for a great block from Ben White City might have got a second early on. Arteta moved Gabriel Martinelli away from Walker and into a half-and-half defensive position to help the central midfield back-press De Bruyne. This change stemmed the flow of the tide, temporarily at least.
Arsenal continued to press high in the second half, but they did a better job of screening central passes into City’s nine and 10. Partey started slightly deeper, making it harder for City to clip balls into Haaland (below), while also being better positioned to compete for second balls. This allowed one of Arsenal’s centre-backs to cover in behind while the other stepped in to compete for the first ball. Arsenal’s left winger – Martinelli and then later Gabriel Jesus – continued to leave Walker free earlier so they could back-press into midfield. City’s wingers then found themselves one on one with the Arsenal full-backs in lots of space more often, so they became increasingly influential in the game.
Ramsdale kept Haaland at bay for much of the game, but he could not stop De Bruyne, who got his second and City’s third shortly after the break following an uncharacteristic error from Ødegaard. The Norwegian gave the ball away cheaply in midfield and City transitioned forward at pace to score, rendering meaningless any improvement in Arsenal’s attempts to stop City playing over their press. City then managed to create several two-on-two scenarios against Arsenal’s centre-backs, with Haaland and De Bruyne totally dominant. Once the visitors changed to a double pivot with Jorginho introduced, Haaland and De Bruyne then received under more pressure between the lines, but this opened up access to Bernardo Silva and Jack Grealish out wide, who isolated Arsenal’s full-backs (below). This meant City were a huge threat in transition throughout the second half.
Arsenal were set up in their usual 4-3-3 formation, and established early periods of possession by creating a box central midfield with left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko moving inside. Centre-forward Gabriel Jesus then dropped to add another number in central midfield, though he was followed aggressively by City’s centre-backs (below). This often left wingers Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli one on one with a City full-back, but the visitors failed to work the ball to those two dangerous wide players often enough. City’s 4-4-2 block protected the central spaces, and they carefully picked their moments to jump out and press. Arsenal’s possession early on led to very little penetration as City's out-of-possession strategy did a good job of keeping their opponents at bay.
City pressed Arsenal’s deep build-up high up the pitch from the start. The visitors struggled to play out, with De Bruyne and Haaland blocking central passes very effectively, before then jumping out to press Arsenal’s centre-backs and goalkeeper. City’s wingers covered Ben White and, when he remained wide, Zinchenko, and City went man-for-man elsewhere, happy to commit a centre-back into midfield to press Ødegaard (below). With Jesus, Saka and Martinelli unable to secure balls played over City’s press like the home side did through Haaland, they had no route through, around or over City’s press. They produced very little attacking output in the first half as a result.
Arsenal changed to double pivot in the second half, with Jorginho joining Partey in the build-up. This helped limit City’s central penetration, especially in transition from their mid-block, but with Arsenal going three goals down, they had to take the game to their opponents. Leandro Trossard came on up front and dropped to link with the double pivot, with Jesus moving to the left (below). Ødegaard drifted between the central lane and the right inside channel, attempting to work off Trossard’s dropping, but with City content to sit back for longer periods, Arsenal struggled to produce much of note.
The away side played the final stages of the game with a back three, with Zinchenko moving high to provide the width on the left (below). Partey and Jorginho maintained the double pivot ahead of the defence, with Jesus moving back inside and rotating well with Trossard and Emile Smith Rowe in a 3-4-2-1 shape. This meant Arsenal could combine between the lines while playing around City’s first line in the early part of their build-up. The increased combinations around City’s double pivot, coupled with City’s block dropping deeper, allowed Arsenal to grab a consolation goal, though it meant little as they later conceded a fourth. The result leaves Arsenal hanging on to the title race by a thread, with City very much in control and on course to win a fifth title in six years.
To learn more from the professional coaches of The Coaches’ Voice, visit CV Academy
Author: The Coaches' Voice