Premier League football returned to an empty Etihad stadium as Manchester City took on Arsenal. This marked the return of football in England after an absence of well over 3 months, with the league constantly going through vigorous testing to make sure the players and staff are being taken care of amid the Coronavirus Pandemic.
You can find out all you need to know about the Premier League’s return and how it came about here: Premier League Returns.
Both teams came into this match with good runs under their belt. Arsenal had remained unbeaten in the Premier League in 2020 with a daunting task of besting the Champions at their own turf. While Manchester City, despite being 25 points behind Liverpool, have enjoyed a better Champions League campaign and maintain their decent league form.
Although they did lose more games than Arsenal this season (yes, we double-checked this). So here’s our analysis of the game which was basically decided through one substitution born out of necessity.
Manchester City lined up in their usual 4-3-3 formation with young Spanish CB Eric Garcia getting the nod ahead of the more experienced options that Pep has played in the past (namely Fernandinho). Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy provided the width while the midfield trio of David Silva, Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin de Bruyne controlled the match for Manchester City.
Gabriel Jesus lead the line, he was being supported by Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling on the flanks. Sounds like your typical Manchester City line up, nothing out of the ordinary here. But with Pep Guardiola, you’re never really sure.
But It was the Arsenal side that surprised us the most. Leno in goal with Mustafi and new signing Pablo Mari at the back with Bellerin and Tierney starting together for the first time in months. Midfield was composed of Granit Xhaka, Matteo Guendouzi and Joe Willock. Young englishmen Eddie Nketiah led the line with Bukayo Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the flanks.
No sign of Ozil, Lacazette nor the 72m man Nicolas Pepe. Arteta went bold in his approach and although It didn’t pay off its nice to see a manager diverging from the norm to achieve results.
Arsenal’s Strategy and Shortcomings
Mikel Arteta had deployed a midfield duo of Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi to patrol the midfield. He knew it was very likely that the game would be played in their half (he was right) so he made some tactical adjustment to get Arsenal attacking Manchester City.
He deployed two left footers in Pablo Mari and Granit Xhaka due to their ability to pick the early ball should the chance present itself. With their stronger foot and Xhaka’s new found affinity towards the left hand side, they would easily be able to find Aubameyang’s out to in runs in behind Walker and Garcia.
There were two problems with this:
- Granit Xhaka and Pablo Mari both had to come off injured
- Whenever they did get the chance, they chose not to play Aubameyang through
This strategy relied on Arsenal’s forward taking the few chances they were going to get from the game, and although Granit Xhaka went off injured inside 2 minutes that’s how we see the game panned out.
In this phase of play, Arsenal brilliantly play out of Manchester City’s press to start a counter attacking situation. Nketiah drops deep to recieve the ball and as he does Aubameyang makes the darting run in behind Walker. But Nketiah chooses not to play that pass and switches to the opposite flank.
Despite that, Arsenal was disciplined, tidy, and hard to break down for around 35 minutes of the first half. They restricted Manchester City to little chances, tracked runners, and made it difficult for them to penetrate from the half-spaces which City are so good at exploiting.
Arteta opted for Willock’s industry and physicality over Ozil’s guile in this game, and considering what his team were trying to do, this made all the more sense.
The defending began with the forwards, with all three of Aubameyang, Saka, and Nketiah willing to drop narrower to restrict City from penetrating the middle of the pitch. They intentionally let the fullbacks have width, with the forwards also dropping in to support the fullbacks if City progress the ball towards the half way line.
Joe Willock would drop in himself to help Arsenal defend the middle of the pitch, effectively making it a midfield three. It was the young Englishman’s versatility that opted Arteta to start him, sacrificing the team’s creativity for athleticism and steel.
Manchester City’s Strategy
Pep Guardiola deployed his Manchester City team in his typical 4-3-3 system, although one key aspect we noticed was that their press wasn’t as aggressive as it normally is. This may be due to the following two factors:
- Man marking
City may not have been aggressive, but their pressing was still very effective. They had placed their pressing triggers in two key areas. First was when the ball went wide towards the fullbacks and the second was Matteo Guendouzi, who’s lack of awareness when pressed was probably talked about.
You can also see Kevin de Bruyne closing down Kieran Tierney aggressively to win the ball back. They were clearly told to force turnovers out wide so that Mahrez/Sterling can exploit the space that they leave behind.
What Manchester City tried to do if they couldn’t produce turn overs was force Arsenal backwards towards their keeper. They made sure that Arsenal couldn’t play out from the back with all the players man marked in midfield, leaving Leno unable to pick them out and instead resorted to just booting the ball upfield when he got the chance.
They also had their secret weapon: Ederson. The Brazilian as you well know is a phenomenal ballplayer in his own right. He could probably start in midfield for some teams considering how well he plays with the ball at his feet. The graphic detailed below showcases that (and Allison)
Here we can see Ederson’s phenomenal passing ability in the opening stages of the game, as he is able to carve Arsenal open creating opportunity for City’s midfielders to run at the defense.
It enabled Manchester City to take control of the game (especially after David Luiz’s introduction) and after Arsenal went 1-0 down it was always going to be difficult. We’ll get to the two goals that turned the game on its head later.
Mikel Arteta said after the game that there was “a reason” David Luiz did not start the match. Going by how his introduction into the game panned out, the Spaniard may have a point.
Here’s the running xG for the game below provided by StatsBomb’s very own Scott Willis below:
Two takeaways in terms of why Arsenal were dominated in terms of chances created throughout the game.
- City increased the intensity of their play near the end of the half
- David Luiz
The Brazilian’s been sort of an enigma throughout his entire footballing career. To get the best out of him, you have to limit the space with which he has to work with. The less time he has to think and do more on his instincts, the better. When he thinks, he’s like a self destruct button.
KdB puts in a rather uncharacteristically poor ball into a dangerous area, which David Luiz somehow manages to make a hash of allowing Sterling to pounce in and get his first goal of 2020 against Arsenal.
After this goal, it was always going to be an uphill task for the Gunners to get level, which was made even more difficult in the second half by Luiz again. It’s a relatively simple ball to defend, but due to a possible rush of blood to make up for his error earlier int he game, Luiz overcommits.
It allowed Mahrez to turn him and get into the box prompting Luiz to foul him, give away a penalty and leave the pitch reducing his team to 10 men. David Luiz has conceded 4 penalties and 2 red cards in his first season at Arsenal in the Premier League. We can safely assume that the Brazilian hasn’t worked out and It would be better for Arsenal to not offer him any kind of renewal.
This put Arsenal completely out of the game, with City pummeling them with shots after shots (20-2). The game went as expected with Arsenal trying to limit the damage already done, with Phil Foden scoring the 3rd to finish the game.
Mikel Arteta has his work cut out as he begins to build Arsenal in his image. There were some very positive signs early in the game, but Manchester City’s difference in quality shown in the end, combined with David Luiz’s contributions.
If Arsenal are to get back to former glory they must trust Arteta with this rebuild and help mold the team in the Spaniard’s image going forward.