Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

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Possession without progression

When Arsenal sat back, the onus was on Manchester City to take risks. More progression and less possession. Possession without progression is defending with the ball, which is worse than sitting back. There were gaps, but the ball needs to be played in.

Figure 1.1 - Kevin De Bruyne begins making a run into the half-space.
Figure 1.2 - Ball is not played to Kevin De Bruyne.

Every run like this one from Kevin De Bruyne should be rewarded with a through ball. To create chances, you need that pass in. Without that riskier pass in, you can’t score.

Figure 2.1 - Erling Haaland peels off to make a run behind Gabriel.
Figure 2.2 - Ball is not played to Erling Haaland.

These dummy runs from Erling Haaland are rarely ever rewarded, but they do create space in front of Arsenal’s backline.

Gabriel has his hips pointed towards the left-wing. When Haaland peels off behind Gabriel, the ball should be played behind.

Figure 3.1 - Mateo Kovacic plays the ball long to Erling Haaland.
Figure 3.2 - Arsenal head the ball down, and look at the space between the back and front line.

Think of a through ball like a run in American Football, the NFL. In order to pass, you need to run the ball. By running the ball, you force the opposition’s defense to defend against it. They can’t blitz the passer like they would against the pass. By running the ball on 1st down, you open up the defense on 3rd down.

By Mateo Kovacic playing that ball long, it opens Arsenal up. It forces them to stretch out, creating space.

You need these through balls to break up the low block, whether they are successful or not.

Figure 4.1 - Josko Gvardiol ignores the open run of Kevin De Bruyne into the box.

Josko Gvardiol was great the entire match, probably Manchester City’s best player, but he’s not very good at three things when on the wing. He is not good at crossing, his touches after his first touch can sometimes get away from him, and his decision-making isn’t that of a midfielder yet so he ignores a run like this one from De Bruyne.

2v1 with Haaland versus Gabriel in the box. If De Bruyne is played in, this could be a deciding goal. At the very least, it could be a shot.

Figure 5.1 - Bernardo Silva doesn't see Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne open at the top of the box.

When the creative players, Foden and De Bruyne, were open, the pass was ignored in favor of either playing sideways or down the wing.

They needed to take advantage of that space afforded to them to open up Arsenal’s defense, make them jump out, to then play Haaland in.

The crossing was off and several opportunities to play De Bruyne, Foden, and Haaland in were avoided. Haaland can’t have an effect on the game if he never receives the ball. It’s hard to play Haaland in if Foden and De Bruyne never receive the ball between the lines.

Figure 6.1 - Illustration of Manchester City and Arsenal's position and lineup in the first half (left) and the second half (right).

In the 60th minute, Manchester City subbed Jack Grealish and Jérémy Doku in. Grealish is better at retaining the ball and crossing compared to Gvardiol, and Gvardiol is better further back in front of the opposition’s second line. Doku coming in allows Bernardo Silva to move over to the left to help overload the left-wing.

They used a combination of Grealish, Bernardo Silva, De Bruyne to try to overload the left-wing.

Figure 7.1 - Phil Foden not passed the ball in a small pocket.
Figure 8.1 - Rodri passes to Kevin De Bruyne in a pocket.

One massive improvement in the second half was this. The pass to Phil Foden in the first half in Figure 7.1 was ignored. The pass to Kevin De Bruyne, in the second half, in Figure 8.1 was played.

Figure 9.1 - Rico Lewis plays a wall pass off Erling Haaland to Bernardo Silva.
Figure 9.2 - Erling Haaland continues his run and Bernardo Silva plays him in.

You need these line-breaking passes to break down a low block. Credit to Arsenal, they had the runs covered once City broke through, but it’s volume. City needed to take more risks. They needed more shots. They needed more progressive passes through.

Figure 10.1 - Rodri plays Bernardo Silva in over Arsenal's defensive line.

The next positive change in the second half, this type of pass from Rodri is a byproduct of the overload on the left-wing. Overload, play central, and then someone from the overload breaks off into the box. Bernardo Silva is played in and then the cut-back is there.

Figure 11.1 - Jack Grealish ignores the run of Erling Haaland.

But still, runs from Haaland are ignored, the ball isn’t played, they can’t get meaningful shots off. The players on the edges are getting touches, but nothing is troubling Arsenal in the box.

I think this is a Manchester City problem more than it is a credit to how Arsenal defended.

Arsenal is one of the best defenses in the league, but I didn’t think they defended perfectly. They left gaps, but you need to actually play the ball through the gap for it to matter.

I was more impressed with Arsenal offensively. I thought they were the better team in possession. They looked likely to score on every counter-attack.

The focus should be on Manchester City’s inability to generate chances and take advantage of the space offered to them.

Match: Manchester City 0-0 Arsenal, 31 March 2024

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