Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics


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Previewing Manchester City vs Arsenal

Shutting off the passing lane to Arsenal’s 8s, a high Arsenal counter-press to force Manchester City into errors, and exploiting the space on the left-wing by dragging Ben White inside. Those are my three keys to the Manchester City vs Arsenal match.

Figure 1.1 - Martin Ødegaard free in the right half-space.
Figure 2.1 - Manchester City allow Martin Ødegaard to check to the ball, opening up this wall pass infield.
Figure 3.1 - Martin Ødegaard open in the middle of the pitch to receive and turn.
Figure 3.2 - Martin Ødegaard turns and passes wide to Gabriel Jesus.

In their last meeting at the Emirates in October, Manchester City offered Arsenal’s 8s too much time and space in the half-spaces and the center of the pitch.

Arsenal need access to Martin Ødegaard. They need those wall passes like in Figure 2.1 to work from the wide areas, out to in, to open play. If you allow them to have that central outlet in the midfield to turn and switch play like in Figure 3.1 and 3.2, you can’t press as aggressively and play becomes very open.

Figure 4.1 - Porto shadow cover to force Arsenal to play up the wing, blocking the pass inside or back.
Figure 4.2 - Ben White inverting to try to disrupt Porto's structure. Jorginho drops. Porto continue their shadow cover to block the pass central or wide on the ground.

We know this because of Arsenal’s match against Porto. Porto cover shadowed Arsenal’s 8s, Declan Rice and Martin Ødegaard, which forced them to play long over the midfield. They had trouble creating chances and progressing forward on the ground in the first leg and second leg against them in the Champions League.

If I’m City, I would like to see Rodri sit deep to help win second balls when they’re played long and headed down by Kai Havertz, and then have two midfielders aggressively follow Martin Ødegaard and Declan Rice around the pitch. Cut off the passing lane into their feet.

Worst comes to worst, Ødegaard must always be covered. This sounds like a job for someone like Mateo Kovacic or Bernardo Silva to follow Ødegaard.

If I’m Arsenal, I would constantly be moving Ødegaard around to open that passing lane into him, into feet. Get the ball into his feet and it will become a basketball game, and we know how well City have managed transition games lately.

Figure 5.1 - Arsenal's high and intense counter-press.

I think Arsenal are at their best when they are high and assertive, unsettling their opponent in the build-up. They have the best counter-press in the Premier League, if not in all of Europe. They should use it more often.

Billy Carpenter put out a preview for the match, delving deep into the data, which you can read here. There was two stats that stood out to me about City’s passing.

Four of Man City’s worst short-passing percentage games (i.e., below 92.2%) have resulted in a draw (Liverpool), draw (Chelsea), loss (Arsenal), and loss (Aston Villa). Short passing success is not only important for all teams; when compared to league averages, it is disproportionately important to the success of Man City.

When they complete fewer than 250 short passes, their record is 1-4-2. When they complete more than 250 short passes, they are 18-2-1.

Josko Gvardiol is great but having someone like Jack Grealish, Bernardo Silva, or Phil Foden there on the left side of the pitch to the left of Nathan Ake would help in the build-up and in attack.

Figure 6.1 - Phil Foden moves infield opening space wide for Nathan Ake to play Josko Gvardiol in.
Figure 7.1 - Josko Gvardiol open on the break because Phil Foden drags Ben White infield.

Arsenal ignored Gvardiol. Ben White followed Phil Foden inside on several occasions leaving Gvardiol free. The problem is that Gvardiol is not very good at crossing. He has the pace to be a problem down the wing, but the delivery on the run is inconsistent.

Figure 8.1 - Ball is played forward to Phil Foden and Josko Gvardiol runs on to the pass.
Figure 8.2 - Josko Gvardiol carries infield and Ben White follows him.

You’d rather have someone like a Jack Grealish bursting into the middle of the field to spray a ball forward to a forward on the counter, or bomb down the wing to cross into the box.

Have someone like Jérémy Doku or Phil Foden invert from the left-wing, then have Bernardo Silva or Jack Grealish holding width. Overload that left-wing and put a lot of pressure on Ben White’s ankles.

Figure 9.1 - Illustration of a proposed lineup and formation out-of-possession for Manchester City.

If Pep Guardiola wanted a more attacking option instead of Gvardiol, I could see him trying this. But even if he doesn’t try someone like Grealish at left-back, the same principles apply. He’s known to try new things in the big matches, without testing them prior. Rodri can drop back to center-back in-possession to help in the build-up. Bernardo Silva marks Declan Rice higher out-of-possession. Jack Grealish holds width when Phil Foden inverts.

I think Manchester City have the harder job because they are at home and are expected to win. If Arsenal can put them under pressure, keep the midfielders open, and win the second balls, they’ll have the momentum.

Everyone is hyping this up as the Premier League final. The managers have to get the fans and players behind them. The media has to get people to watch. I wouldn’t put that much weight behind it. It’s three points to win, lose, or draw.

There is one point separating the top three teams. Everyone was talking about Bayern Munich still being in the Bundesliga title race and they were ten points behind Bayer Leverkusen before yesterday. Tottenham are eight points behind Arsenal (with a game in hand) today. Anything can happen.

Pre-Match: Manchester City vs Arsenal, 31 March 2024

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