Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

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Arsenal and Manchester City's out-of-possession battle

Odd that Arsenal didn’t start Kai Havertz based on how well they were able to stop Manchester City in the Community Shield with the narrow front three of Havertz, Ødegaard, and Rice counter-pressing.

Bernardo Silva moves behind Akanji opening space in the half-space

April 7, 2023 — Arsenal’s man-to-man press led by Martin Ødegaard, Kai Havertz, and Declan Rice did very well to neutralize Manchester City in the first half, but City made key adjustments in the second half to disrupt and penetrate through the press.

To start, Arsenal was much more passive in their counter-press than they were in the Community Shield, which benefited Manchester City. It allowed them to quickly progress into Arsenal’s half. Throughout the match, Arsenal tightened things up, but City still found ways to play through them.

Bukayo Saka was not in the squad, so that drastically changed how Manchester City played. If Saka is on the pitch, City has to play more defensively because they have to allocate more resources to defending wide areas. Josko Gvardiol did a good job up against Gabriel Jesus at right-wing, halting any attempted progression down Arsenal’s right side.

In the first half, David Raya and Arsenal had issues moving the ball out of their end. You need to zoom out to see why David Raya had no options. Why he was making errors. That pressure from Kovacic, Silva, and Lewis was making it impossible for Arsenal to progress in the first phase. Manchester City gave them a taste of their own medicine, sort of replicating how Arsenal pressed them in the Community Shield.

Figure 1.1 - Illustration of Manchester City's out-of-possession zonal marking structure.

Manchester City used zonal man-marking. Each player was assigned to defend a zone and then follow their man within the zone. They would hand off responsibility from player to player. Rico Lewis was the one furthest forward of the midfielders.

Jorginho’s inclusion meant Zinchenko did not invert from left-back as often. When he did invert, it was very crowded centrally. Declan Rice had to move wide at times to open up more space when Zinchenko inverted. They tried many things to create options for Raya.

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Figure 2.4

Arsenal never looked like scoring in the first half. Rico Lewis was a major reason for that. He has a great understanding of knowing where to move to block off a pass or pressure a midfielder, a better understanding than Bernardo Silva or Mateo Kovacic. He could read David Raya and know where he needed to be to force him long.

Erling Haaland had a great game. I was impressed with his hold-up play, an area of his game that has massively improved since last season. His performance went under the radar because he didn’t score. His head-on to Nathan Ake in the first half should have been scored.

Figure 3.1 - Erling Haaland heads on a cross behind to Nathan Ake.
Figure 3.2 - Nathan Ake shoots the ball over the bar as William Saliba pressures him.

Haaland accumulated 0.00xG, but they should attach a picture of the other Manchester City outfield players to that stat, not William Saliba and Gabriel. Both center-backs had a great game, as they usually do up against Haaland, but there was no central progression into Haaland.

Haaland is not someone who will dribble past players, so to accumulate xG (shoot), he has to be fed the ball. If they don’t create enough chances for him, he won’t shoot, and therefore he won’t score. No chances, no zen celebration.

Bernardo Silva after the game:

“I was in number six, the manager asked me to do it. It’s not my natural position, but I was comfortable. I was trying to be between the center-backs; I’m used to it. It was not a big thing. Last season I was a bit more uncomfortable at left-back. It is what it is. Tough game for us, especially because of the outcome, because I believe we didn’t play that bad.”

Bernardo Silva provides experience, experience Pep can lean on. On the ball, he has that sense to see the game. He’s like a chameleon. He can, without thinking, adapt his play to any role. Plug-and-play.

Pep Guardiola after the game:

“The fact that we didn’t have Rodri, I wanted to put more protection with the ball, players who are really good with the ball: Bernardo, Kova, and Rico, and have players in the middle who have the ability to turn and attack (Alvarez and Foden) and that was the reason why we were not so wide.”

Manchester City was narrow; that’s why Josko Gvardiol and Kyle Walker had so much space wide.

Figure 4.1 - Phil Foden moves infield opening space wide for Nathan Ake to play Josko Gvardiol in.
Figure 4.2 - Josko Gvardiol open on the break because Phil Foden drags Ben White infield.

That space wide from Gvardiol was always on because Phil Foden tucked in, dragging Ben White with him.

The main problem for Manchester City is that you’d want someone other than Gvardiol attacking that space. Someone like Nathan Ake, Jérémy Doku, Manuel Akanji, or Jack Grealish. Jack Grealish is my favorite pick of those four because he’s the most positive attacking option, and he still provides that defensive security 1v1.

The entire match was an out-of-possession tactical chess match. Neither created many meaningful chances. Who would blink first and make a mistake.

Thomas Partey’s line-breaking passes were the difference-maker in the second half. Neither Jorginho nor Declan Rice provided those in the first half. That’s something Rodri brings. A good 6 knows how and when to break a line to move the opposition. John Stones played those types of passes when he came on in the second half to play as a 6 for City.

Slowly Arsenal began winning corners, looked more threatening with Gabriel Martinelli running at defenders. David Raya grew in confidence and tuned his long passes. They trapped Manchester City in the corners. Bernardo Silva pressed higher with Rico Lewis moving back, which opened up space because Silva wasn’t as effective tracking his man. Phil Foden switched to the right-wing. A bunch of dynamics changed with the substitutions.

Then Manchester City blinked. All of Arsenal’s substitutes combined to score: Thomas Partey plays a long pass to Takehiro Tomiyasu, who heads it down to Kai Havertz, who controls with his chest with his back to goal, and plays the pass to Gabriel Martinelli to shot and score off an unfortunate deflection from Nathan Ake.

This match against Arsenal and the Wolves match showcases the importance of Rodri. Any team with supreme talent can look mediocre without a holding midfielder. Bernardo Silva did his job well, I don’t think he was the problem. If someone else is played in in the areas Gvardiol was played in, they open up Arsenal and score.

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