Saturday, June 15, 2024

Tactics Column: Arsenal and Man City eschew control in stretched encounter

There were two moments that summed up Arsenal’s 2-2 draw with Manchester City – an open, end-to-end affair – both of which were captured on commentary by Sky Sports’ Gary Neville. Actually, they were two moments that left him bemused because they supposedly went against both teams’ philosophies.

The first was when Shkodran Mustafi had the ball at the back and, having seen no obvious options ahead of him, drove forward with the ball in search of a forward player to pass to. This, he thought, was completely unrecognisable from the Arsenal teams he used to play against, saying “that the basis of Arsenal’s game for 20 years under Arsene Wenger has been that the two central midfielders build the attacks; that the back four can always find them. Granit Xhaka and Francis Coquelin have to show for the ball.”

The second moment was towards the end of the first-half when Arsenal had just scored, when Willy Cabellero was urged by Pep Guardiola to pass it long. Again, he didn’t understand why Man City would quickly eschew their normal strategy of building out from the back – “to stop playing, to stop doing the things that were serving them so well in the first period of the game where they looked fantastic.”

However, both observations follow what have become common misconceptions of the two clubs and their respective managers’ philosophies.

It’s true that Guardiola tried to correct his team’s flaws in the first-half and stop the game becoming essentially a free-for-all by bringing on Yaya Toure for Raheem Sterling. He did this he said, to “complete more passes”, to bring more control to the game. Nevertheless, he’s less rigid than commonly thought, and that long ball from the goalkeeper is something he regularly employs.

Rather, it’s a certain type of pass from Caballero that he was probably urging because moments before Neville’s comments, he had kicked the ball rather aimlessly out of touch. Before then, long passes to the feet or chest off the strikers had been an effective tactic, and it helped them score their opening goal.

It was a combination of factors actually, that culminated in City’s first goal. The kick from Cabellero, which was delivered just short of Aguero, forcing Mustafi to leave his position to meet it; Kevin De Bruyne’s pass, which he was able to execute because he was used in a deeper position; and then the run from Leroy Sane, in that space behind Mustafi, because he was allowed to play high up.

It’s a tactic that Ilkay Gundogan highlighted as something Guardiola is wont to deploy if the team “doesn’t have the possibility to play with the centre-backs and the full-backs.” Sergio Aguero would then drop short and the goalkeeper would play the ball – “not high, or not to his head, but to his chest (or feet) so he can control it, and play with the holding midfielder and he plays [the ball] directly to the strikers.”

Here, the holding midfielder with the array of passes was De Bruyne who played alongside Fernandinho in a double pivot. For the goal, Aguero dropped short for the kick, and although he didn’t win it, practicing the move on the training ground saw De Bruyne alive to the clearance first to play the pass to Sane. At the same time, Guardiola would have also known that Mustafi is impetuous – he loves to attack the ball – so the space behind would be ample if they could draw him out, therefore he asked the two wingers to play really high up the pitch, whilst David Silva buzzed around in the no.10 role.

Guardiola also used De Bruyne in a deeper position because he knew Arsenal would try to press man-to-man – not necessarily 4-2-3-1 v 4-2-3-1 but 4-4-2 v 4-2-3-1 because Mesut Ozil presses as a second-striker. Instead then, Xhaka and Coquelin would press City’s two holding midfielders meaning Koscielny and Mustafi would be drawn out. To be fair, Arsenal weren’t forced out as much as one might have feared because for two 20 minute spells or so before half-time and after, they dominated.

Leaving three forwards up the pitch – especially the wingers – essentially allowed Arsenal to build from flanks rather easily and they were a constant threat down the left. Alexis and Monreal dovetailed superbly, whilst Mesut Ozil constantly darted into dangerous spaces. Xhaka was also able to spray his passes with relative comfort once the ball progressed into midfield.

As Gary Neville complained, Xhaka didn’t really have to pick up the ball from centre-backs because Man City made it easy to build from the sides. That’s how Arsenal build anyway; unlike many possession-based teams – or rather ball based-teams because the distinction is important to Wenger –the Gunners don’t follow established convention.

Wenger rarely asks the centre-backs to stretch the pitch, whilst one or two central midfielders often act as decoys, distracting the opposition midfielders by moving up the pitch, away from the ball, so that the players ahead can receive the ball in pockets from the centre-backs. That’s what Fernandinho alluded to after the game, and why he said led the game to a stretched encounter:

“We tried to push on and make some high pressing but they didn’t play and they started to play long balls. We lost some second balls and I think that makes it difficult for us. We defended more than usual at the back in front of our box. That was the reason they hit back.”

That’s testament to the change of character displayed by Arsenal in this draw: they didn’t just comeback, they also played some good football at times. Yes, I know it’s the usual, tiresome Wengerism that we always hear, but it’s hard to avoid it; this is his side, he made it.

The manager declared afterwards, “In the second half we came back to 2-2, so it will help us to rebuild confidence because we have certainly shown some mental strength. That will help us to come back to our natural fluency.”

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