Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

Arsenal is emotionally exhausted and didn’t press Manchester City

April 26, 2023 — There are certain matches where it’s almost pointless to dive in too deep into the structure of a team when you can see that they’re emotionally exhausted. Arsenal in this game was exhausted, but they were instructed not to press which compounded the overly emotional aspect of their team.

I can talk about the structure, who did what better, when and where, but mentality is just as much a part of tactics as structure is. If the mental part goes then reviewing the play is a waste of time. There’s no point in critiquing how they played or how well City played.

Similar to how it’s hard to critique teams like Chelsea right now who are not there mentally, their season has ended in their mind. Arsenal’s season isn’t over but their bodies are giving out to the demand of the schedule.

Figure 1.1 - Arsenal 2-0 down to Manchester City in a 4-4-2 low-block.

Arsenal deployed the same wide 4-4-2 out of possession that they used when they faced Aston Villa, which allowed Villa to go 2-0 up in the first half. Manchester City took advantage of the same weakness between the lines. You could comfortably fit two to three Manchester City players between each midfielder.

Manchester City are Manchester City, if you allow them to play their game and maintain possession, they will not make mistakes. Arsenal were setup to wait for City to make mistakes, but they were so sloppy on the ball that it didn’t matter if City ever made one mistake. They’d immediately loose the ball, they couldn’t put more than two passes together.

Figure 2.1 - Arsenal waiting stationary as Manchester City built up.

In the first and second half, when Manchester City built up, the six Arsenal midfielders and forwards stayed stationary, waiting patiently for City to penetrate. Martin Odegaard or Gabriel Jesus would hint at jumping forward to challenge Dias or Stones, but they’d then hold back and wait, because they were instructed to wait, they had to be. Why would you wait to press Manchester City when they are known to have issues when pressed in their own defensive end?

Figure 3.1 - An example of Arsenal pressuring Manchester City in their defensive end.

I expected Arsenal to press Manchester City relentlessly into their own defensive end, forcing City into errors when they play the ball long. We didn’t see any of that. Sit back and allow City to attack at will was the game-plan.

The decision to not press compounded the visible exhaustion. They have had an intense couple of weeks, like a roller-coaster, up and down emotionally.

  • 3-2 comeback win against Bournemouth in the 97th minute on March 4th
  • 2-2 on March 12th and a 1-1 draw against Sporting CP to go out of the Europa League on penalties March 16th
  • 2-2 draw to Liverpool on April 9th
  • 2-2 comeback draw to West Ham on April 16th
  • 3-3 comeback draw to Southampton on April 21st

Meanwhile, Manchester City are coasting along, this being their 17th consecutive game without a loss since losing 1-0 to Tottenham Hotspur on February 5th. Arsenal have been going at full tilt from gameweek 1 till now with little to no rotation in their lineup to rest players.

This was a game between an experienced team in incredible form against an inexperienced team at the end of a long season in a rough period. This is football. I didn’t think Manchester City overachieved, Arsenal drastically underachieved and allowed Manchester City to keep possesion, penetrate and score.

The one notable positive thing to come out of this game, other than the incredible team performance, was an experiment gone right with Pep Guardiola trialing Manuel Akanji at left-back for the first time this season.

The combination of Walker, Stones, Akanji and Dias has not been used by Man City since switching to a three-at-the-back structure this season. They left Aymeric Laporte on the bench, the regular backup to Nathan Ake at left-back and left center-back.

I have a theory why this was tested.

With Nathan Ake injured, this could potentially be the backline City use when they face Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final match on May 9th. Pep needed a strong opponent to test this lineup for the first time to get a good sample to see if it would work.

Kyle Walker at right-back will mark Vinicus Junior and Manuel Akanji will mark Rodrygo at left-back. That’s likely what will happen. Akanji versus Vinicus Junior was always going to be a mismatch for speed, Walker is a logical choice due to his pace, paired with John Stones at right center-back to double team Vinicus. Ruben Dias at left centre-back would likely mark Karim Benzema. Today was the first trial.

But I didn’t feel Arsenal stress tested Manuel Akanji enough for me to form a full opinion on if it would work or not against the likes of Rodrygo, Fredrico Valverde, or Marco Ascensio. Bukayo Saka was not up to the quality of Rodrygo today, nor was Odegaard up to the quality of Valverde. My worry is that Saka played poorly today, which made Akanji look very good, whereas Nathan Ake took Saka out of the game in their last meeting.

Akanji played incredibly well but when Arsenal applied pressure on him he was caught out on a few occasions and he did allow on three separate occasions for there to be a free man on the far-side.

I have concerns but I’ll critique and examine that more when they face an opponent who tests those weaknesses more extensively.

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