Arsenal 1-1 Manchester City: all the attacking down the same flank

April 1, 2014

The starting line-ups

Arsenal and Manchester City played out an enjoyable 1-1 draw.

Arsene Wenger was still without Laurent Koscielny and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had a knock, so Thomas Vermaelen continued at the back and Lukas Podolski returned to the side.

Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City side were unchanged from the side that won convincingly at Old Trafford in midweek.

City started well and took the game to Arsenal, but the home side responded and looked more likely to score at 1-1.

Midfield scrap

This match was played at an extremely quick tempo, especially in the centre of midfield. It wasn’t a dirty game, and these aren’t aggressive sides – but there were a surprisingly high number of mistimed tackles in the centre of the pitch, and four bookings before half-time.

There wasn’t actually much creativity coming from the midfield zone, however. Yaya Toure had one of his weaker matches for City, with Fernandinho starting off cautiously but becoming more of an attacking force later in the game, when others had tired. For Arsenal, the use of Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta together is clearly Arsenal’s most defensive combination, and while Flamini got himself into the box frequently – eventually scoring the equaliser – City could sit deep and stay compact rather than feeling the need to press high up the pitch.

Creativity?

So where were the flashes of imagination coming from? Well, not upfront – where neither Olivier Giroud nor Edin Dzeko contributed much in isolated lone striker roles. Giroud can be effective with his back to goal, but he needs to be high up the pitch and have midfield runners getting in advance of him – when Arsenal are camped deep inside their own half, with the midfielders helping provide a shield for the defence, he’s not particularly good at holding up the ball. Vincent Kompany and Martin Demichelis pushed up, but were rarely spun.

Dzeko came towards the ball more – but again, there generally wasn’t anyone (ie Sergio Aguero) running in behind to stretch Arsenal in the other direction.

Lopsided

The game was shaped by the lopsided nature of the sides. Both had an imbalance caused by the use of a drifter (Samir Nasri and Tomas Rosicky) down the same side, and a more direct player (Lukas Podolski and Jesus Navas) on the opposite wing. The former pair helped with build-up play, the latter pair contributed to the penetration.

City were the first to offer an attacking threat, partly because they were retaining the ball better in midfield. David Silva helped to make City’s attackers flow down the right – he drifted laterally from his number ten position and thrived in a pocket of space created by the fact Kieran Gibbs was being dragged towards the touchline by Navas. Silva played a couple of great passes from that position, including a clever through-ball to find Navas breaking in behind the defence, and (in a slightly different situation) the ball to Dzeko which saw the Bosnian hit the post – Silva turned in the rebound.

Podolski

Also a key factor, however, was Podolski playing a very attacking role on the left. The alternative way of putting this, of course, is that he wasn’t defending very well against Pablo Zabaleta. The Argentine right-back broke past the Arsenal defence in the opening couple of minutes, deciding to pull the ball back rather than shoot – and he continually motored forward throughout the game, Podolski not having the discipline to stick with him.

Podolski at least offered an attacking threat, and in a rare moment of Arsenal attacking in the first half, produced a fine cross towards Giroud which forced Martin Demichelis to clear.

Second half

The pattern continued into the second half, and Arsenal continued to suffer in their left-back zone. Navas beat Gibbs and hit a low cross into the box, which trickled wide via Per Mertesacker – the closest City came to extending their lead.

To justify leaving Gibbs so exposed, Podolski had to produce some more attacking magic. And, to be fair, he did. He provided the cross for Flamini’s equaliser, started to push back Zabaleta and therefore created room for Gibbs just behind – the left-back swung in a couple of dangerous crosses in the final half hour. Podolski also had the best chance at 1-1, forcing Joe Hart to save with his feet after a loose ball broke towards him.

Such was Arsenal’s dominance down that flank, Pellegrini was forced to become more defensive. James Milner was introduced as Navas’ replacement and sat deeper, protecting Zabaleta. Arsenal now created little down that side, and Podolski was (as usual) substituted before the end, with Oxlade-Chamberlain on in his place, playing on the right flank with Rosicky switching flanks.

Just afterwards, a defensive substitution (Javi Garcia for Samir Nasri) meant Milner switched sides, and defended down the opposite flank, where Arsenal now had their most direct threat, Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Conclusion

The shape of the game was crucial in creating many of the game’s best opportunities – everything came down the Gibbs-Podolski v Zabaleta-Navas flank.

The most interesting thing was how the managers responded to this, though. Wenger didn’t respond – he must have been aware his side were suffering in the left-back zone, but trusted the attacking capabilities of Podolski to justify his adventurousness, which eventually paid off.

Pellegrini, on the other hand, was more pragmatic – turning to Milner once he realised City were suffering down that flank. He made City more secure, but offered less going forward than Navas. It sums up the different style of the coaches. Overall, a point was fair.


Arsenal 1-1 Manchester City: all the attacking down the same flank

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