Arsenal 1-0 Manchester City: City lose the midfield battle – and probably the title
Mikel Arteta’s long-range strike settled a match Arsenal could have won by more.
Arsene Wenger made one change from the side that lost to QPR last weekend. Aaron Ramsey, who looked uncomfortable out on the left in that match, was dropped and replaced by Yossi Benayoun, a player who more naturally drifts inside from the flank.
Roberto Mancini was without David Silva, so used Samir Nasri, James Milner, Sergio Aguero and Mario Balotelli, who almost always starts big games ahead of out-of-form Edin Dzeko. Pablo Zabaleta played at right-back, with Micah Richards on the bench.
Arsenal made this much harder work than it should have been – they hit the post, missed an open goal, had a goalbound shot by one of their own players. The win was never certain, but they were clearly the better side.
From the line-up, it could have been assumed that Manchester City were playing the 4-4-2ish shape they’ve played in most big Premier League games this season, with Balotelli upfront and Aguero behind. But instead, Mancini was being a little more cautious and seeking to match Arsenal in the centre of midfield. Nasri was the attacking midfieler, with Milner on the right and Balotelli high up on the left – the role he played away in Napoli, for example.
That was an attempt to compete in terms of possession. City enjoy more possession, on average, than any other Premier League throughout away games – but Arsenal have more than any side in home matches.
It didn’t remotely work, however, with Arsenal completely dominant in the opening stages, and prospered through the unlikely approach of hitting crosses into the box. Bacary Sagna got plenty of freedom out on the right, with Balotelli generally staying high up the pitch and not defending the left well (though when he did, his tackles were often reckless, so he was probably best off staying high up). A couple of Arsenal corners also threatened.
Toure off, Pizarro on
The first half changed when Yaya Toure went off injured, and the obvious man to replace him was David Pizarro. He could quite easily have played the Toure role (or at least the Toure position – they’re clearly different players), but instead Mancini took the curious decision of playing him at the top of the midfield three. This meant that Nasri moved out to the right, Milner came inside to a left-centre position, and Barry became the right-centre midfielder. It caused mass disruption to the shape of the side, when it could have been quite a simple change.
But it helped City get some degree of control in the game. Pizarro didn’t look for space in between the lines like Nasri had in that position. He dropped deep and helped City retain the ball in midfield, with his reverse movement encouraging the likes of Milner and (to a lesser extent) Barry to move past him towards goal.
When Pizarro got the ball in deep positions, he played a couple of good long straight passes in behind the defence, trying to exploit the space in behind defence (due to their high defensive line). Wojciech Szczesny had to sweep.
However, City now had none of their midfielders or forwards in their favoured position. Nasri was right when he likes being central, Aguero alone upfront rather than with a partner. Balotelli prefers upfront to the left, Pizarro likes to be deeper, Milner likes to be more of an attacking player, while Barry is better on the left of the midfield two.
Playing Barry on that side of the pitch was probably because Tomas Rosicky was drifting there, with Yossi Benayoun moving inside from the flank into that zone. City had to be tight there, rather than on the other flank, where Theo Walcott was high up against Gael Clichy, with no midfield support needed.
Mancini changed things in the second half. Pizarro dropped back to play as the deepest midfielder, with Barry to the left and Milner to the right. These two essentially played as blockers, looking to move up high and close down Alex Song and Mikel Arteta deep in the Arsenal midfield, giving space to Pizarro.
This worked reasonably well and City were OK at the start of the second half. Pizarro swept one wonderful ball out to Clichy on the left.
But the move affected City defensively. Pizarro is clearly not best as the primary holding player – he’s a fierce tackler but lacks the positional sense to play there, and isn’t particularly mobile. Arsenal started to get space between the lines, with Rosicky free in that zone. When he stayed there and drifted either side of Pizarro (rather than dropping deep into midfield), Arsenal created some decent opportunities.
The second result of Pizarro being brought deeper was Song’s role. He’d been fairly cautious in the first half and saw Nasri, then Pizarro, as his responsibility. But now City were 4-3-3 without a real attacking midfielder, so Song could be more of a playmaker. He drifted into a good position to play a (trademark?) chip over the top to Robin van Persie, and Arsenal hit the post. Later in the half he was found drifting out to the left wing, then into an attacking midfield role – pretty much anywhere where he could find space. He and both Rosicky were getting time on the ball, and now Arsenal were clearly dominating.
Mancini needed to make a change, and his first move was odd – Nasri off, Aleksander Kolarov on. City now moved to a 4-4-2ish shape, with Kolarov left, Milner right and Balotelli told to join Aguero upfront. Later, Carlos Tevez would replace Aguero in a straight swap.
But this was a game contested in midfield, and won in midfield. Having helped to stabilize City in the first half, Pizarro made a mistake to let Arsenal in for the winner. He lost the ball, Arteta got space in front of the defence, and thumped the ball in.
A disappointingly tame performance from City, in a game they really had to win. Mancini left Edin Dzeko on the bench for the entire game and Carlos Tevez only played five minutes while City struggled to create opportunities, which doesn’t help Mancini shake off his reputation as a defensive coach.
Mancini could quite rightly argue that City didn’t need another attacker on when they were struggling to compete in midfield, and that the obvious type of switch (Dzeko for Milner, say) would have furthered City’s problems in the centre. But they neither won the midfield duel nor offered a significant attacking threat on the break, and it wasn’t really clear what their gameplan was.
Arsenal started with their usual system and played it throughout the match. There was nothing particularly interesting tactically about their approach (although the use of Benayoun worked well, with Arsenal returning to the team they used against Tottenham), they rather just played their own game and let City struggle with the positional adjustments and unclear strategy.
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