Man City 0-2 Arsenal: impressive defensive performance from Arsenal earns fine victory

January 19, 2015

The starting line-ups

Arsenal produced a tactically mature performance, largely nullifying Manchester City’s attacking threats.

Manchester City selection

Manuel Pellegrini welcomed back Sergio Aguero, who played as the lone striker with David Silva just behind, and captain Vincent Kompany. City still have some key players unavailable: Samir Nasri is injured, while Yaya Toure is at the Africa Cup of Nations.

Arsenal selection

Arsene Wenger decided against using fit-again Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott, although Aaron Ramsey returned to take the place of Tomas Rosicky. There were a couple of inexperienced players in the side: Hector Bellerin and Francis Coquelin were notable starters. Meanwhile, Nacho Monreal got the nod over Kieran Gibbs, and David Ospina continued in goal with Wojciech Szczesny on the bench.

Match summary

This was a distinctly unArsenal performance – they defended deep and with great compactness, although their attacking in open play was unusually poor, and they should probably have created more genuine goalscoring opportunities on the break.

Nevertheless, it adds to the idea that Arsenal have become a more tactically flexible and reactive side when needed, which could prove crucial in the second half of the campaign as they compete on three fronts.

Arsenal defend deep

Arsenal looked nervous in the early stages, with Sergio Aguero and David Silva looking to run in behind the defence, then Laurent Koscielny picking up an early booking for a foul on Fernandinho. There was nothing to suggest this would be a good defensive Arsenal performance, although after the first five minutes they grew into the game and their defensive structure – basically a 4-1-4-1 – was very obvious, with the wide players getting back behind the ball quickly.

The extent of Arsenal’s defensiveness (compared to their usual performances) has arguably been exaggerated because of the collapses at Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool last season. It’s worth considering that Arsenal recorded 1-0 victories away at Borussia Dortmund and away at Tottenham last season with extremely deep defending, and defeated Liverpool 2-0 at Anfield the previous campaign with another display based around structured defending and counter-attacking.

Nevertheless, this was slightly different because Arsenal were breaking up City’s attacking moves through good positioning in midfield, rather than relying on their back four and goalkeeper for last-ditch interventions.

Silva nullified

The crucial part of Arsenal’s gameplan was in midfield, where Wenger’s midfield triangle went head-to-head against City’s trio: Coquelin was close to Silva, while Ramsey and Santi Cazorla dealt with Fernando and Fernandinho.

However, whereas recently we’ve seen plenty of Premier League sides – Manchester United in particular – effectively man-marking in midfield, Arsenal concentrated on structure, and on preventing Manchester City threading through-balls into the feet of Silva. Ramsey and Cazorla were keen to check behind them and adjust their positioning according to Silva’s movement, and there was good communication between the three in midfield, passing on City’s midfielders when they switched position. Coquelin was outstanding in a crucial role, and  made plenty of tackles and interceptions:

The only nervous moment was Koscielny’s aforementioned booking, which came for a challenge in the zone where Arsenal looked most vulnerable. With Navas staying wide and pulling Monreal out to the flank, there was a pocket of space that Silva (with his clever drifts), Fernandinho (with his sudden bursts, given license to attack without Toure) or Pablo Zabalata (with his ‘underlapping’ runs inside Navas) could exploit. The more the game continued, though, the more Cazorla’s defensive qualities became obvious, and Arsenal rarely left this space open.

Silva’s game is all about lateral movement – either drifting inside from the flank, or drifting into wider zones from a central starting position. Here, fielded as the number ten, he found it so difficult to receive penetrative passes from the deeper midfielders that he drifted into positions which were too wide. This, combined with Aguero’s usual lack of sharpness after an injury lay-off, and quiet performances from the wide players, meant City simply didn’t play many dangerous passing combinations.

Arsenal breaks

With City’s formation often looking like a 4-2-4 when they lost possession, City were failing to pressurise Arsenal. The away side had time to play an intelligent, measured first pass out of defence, then the onrushing midfielders combined to get past Fernando and Fernandinho.

From there, Arsenal were disappointing in open play. Alexis Sanchez misplaced a lot of passes in the first half, while Ramsey looked rusty and tired badly after half-time.

The breakthrough came from an unlikely source – a penalty awarded following a forward run from Monreal, who had otherwise remained much deeper than usual.In a sense, though, City always seemed vulnerable to an attack of this kind – you simply expected it would come from Sanchez.

Both Zabaleta and Kompany are keen to get tight to opponents, which can create space down that side, and makes City vulnerable to a one-two. Kompany’s challenge was hardly a lunge, but it was the type of foul he commits too often – he also tackled Olivier Giroud rather clumsily later in the first half, for which he was booked.

Second half – Silva moves wide

Manuel Pellegrini immediately changed things, introducing Stevan Jovetic for Milner, with Silva moving to a left-sided position, and Jovetic going upfront. Obviously, a forward for a midfielder is an attacking change, although Pellegrini’s intention was probably more about getting Silva into space.

Despite Silva theoretically being moved wide, he actually received the ball more often in a central position, because his game is all about drifting into different zones:

End-to-end

At the start of the second half, Arsenal endured a period where they lost control, and found their defence attacked more frequently than at any point before half-time.

Although this appeared as if Arsenal had completely abandoned their gameplan, in reality it was simply that City had attacked with renewed vigour, which exposed themselves to Arsenal counter-attacks more frequently. City then counter-counter-attacked, and so on. The game became frantic, which wasn’t because Arsenal were purposeful playing open, attacking football, simply that they had more opportunities to break.

Nevertheless, they probably did commit too many men forward on these breaks – Ramsey was finding it difficult to get up and down the pitch, so should have remained in position, while Bellerin flew forward somewhat riskily. In fairness, these two players found themselves with amongst Arsenal’s best chances.

Arsenal weathered this storm, and were fortunate on a couple of occasions – Monreal slashing wildly over his own goal, for example – but overall they were keeping Manchester City in front of their defence, with Coquelin continuing to excel against the threat of both Jovetic and Silva.

Pellegrini made further changes, with Lampard (perfect now the game was a back-and-forth scrap) replacing Fernandinho to offer a goal threat, and then Edin Dzeko on for Navas, who had been quiet. City ended up with almost a permanent 4-2-4 by the end, with Silva drifting inside from the right and Jovetic floating to the left, although their task remained the same: breaking down a deep Arsenal defence.

Cazorla – Giroud

By this point, Cazorla’s free-kick onto the head of Giroud had put Arsenal into a 2-0 lead, and those players deserve great praise today, especially as Sanchez, Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain were unusually inefficient with the ball.

Giroud impressed with his ability to shrug off opposition challenges to reach Ospina’s long goal-kicks, before bringing the ball down smoothly with an outstretched leg: the type of thing Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Dimitar Berbatov earn rave reviews for – Ospina was quick to acknowledge Giroud’s brilliant control after the full-time whistle by miming his touches.

This ability to gain possession in the opposition half was more important defensively than offensively – it helped relieve the pressure. Arsenal were defending well, but they didn’t want to be on the back foot for 90 minutes.

Cazorla was also superb – scoring the penalty, assisting the second, showing some wonderful control in midfield but also getting stuck in, and helping to protect the defence. This was an all-round midfield performance, one of the best individual displays of the season, and shows Cazorla can play this withdrawn role as expertly as his usual, Silva-esque position. Pellegrini, who coached Cazorla at both Villarreal and Malaga, will have been particularly impressed.

It’s worth pointing out that Cazorla’s best two spells at Arsenal (in his first season, where he won the club’s player of the year award, and over the past two months) have come when Arsenal haven’t had Ozil. There’s nothing to suggest they can’t play together, but Cazorla is thriving as the main man.

Wenger went defensive late on, bringing on Mathieu Flamini for the exhausted Ramsey, and more notably introducing Gibbs for Sanchez and switching to a 5-4-1. This is a slightly awkward shift, because it means Monreal tucking inside as a left-sided centre-back, then Koscielny shiftong to the opposite side of Per Mertesacker, who plays as the central of the five. Again, however, Wenger has done this before – see last season’s win at White Hart Lane. Wenger has become more tactically flexible over the past 18 months, and this is Arsenal’s most controlled defensive performance to date.

Conclusion

Pellegrini’s starting approach was logical, as he can’t have expected Arsenal to be so effective in denying Silva space. The half-time switch, to get Silva involved more, broadly worked, although subsequent changes had little impact.

But this was really about Arsenal. They won primarily because of good defensive work from their midfielders, and the defence itself wasn’t overly stretched because of the protection they were afforded. Particular praise must go to Coquelin, especially in comparison to the way Mathieu Flamini struggled at Anfield before Christmas – but again, the defensive discipline of others ensured Coquelin didn’t have to cover such a huge zone.

Going the other way, Arsenal weren’t at their best. By asking the likes of Sanchez and Ramsey to play strict defensive roles without the ball, perhaps Arsenal lost some of their attacking spark – although the magnificant Cazorla proved useful in both phases of play.



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