Arsenal v Manchester City might take second fiddle to Liverpool v Everton in our Big Weekend, but it’s a fascinating tactical battle. We have five questions…
1) Will Arsenal’s direct dribbling cause Man City unique problems?
Throughout Manchester City’s 16-game winning run they have rarely been tested by incisive counter-attacks, and although that’s partly testament to Pep Guardiola’s 3-2 defensive shield behind the front five, it is also a reflection of the quality of opposition. Arsenal, as they showed in their 4-2 win over Leeds United last weekend, are the first team who threaten to put a spanner in the City machine.
Since Arsenal’s mini-crisis before Christmas, Mikel Arteta has evolved away from Guardiola’s methods and towards a style of football that is better suited to his squad’s talents; they are now a team of quick breaks, of direct vertical passing through the thirds and of playing on the half-turn and dribbling straight at the opponent. Bukayo Saka, Nicolas Pepe, Dani Ceballos, Thomas Partey, Emile Smith Rowe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are all given licence to play to their strengths.
Man City might not be ready for this, and in fact the last two times they faced a similar tactical strategy they drew 1-1 with Leeds United in a wild contest and lost 5-2 to Leicester City. Man City have improved dramatically since those games, but nevertheless there is a danger that Guardiola will struggle to stay in control when Arteta unleashes such a direct form of attack.
2) Can Aubameyang provide a blueprint for how to hurt City’s back three?
To run at the heart of the City defence, and therefore to expose a high defensive line, first requires breaking through the initial wave of pressing that follows from regaining possession from Man City – and herein lies the biggest challenge for Arsenal. But should Ceballos and Granit Xhaka manage to do so, setting away those talented young dribblers, then we might finally see a downside to City’s back three.
With Joao Cancelo moving into central midfield alongside Rodri, City generally hold an M-shape 3-2 formation behind the ball, with the five players spread evenly across the pitch. That means the left-back stretches right out to one flank and John Stones to the other, leaving an unusually large gap between Ruben Dias and his fellow defenders.
Aubameyang, likely to start as a central striker but with licence to swap places with left winger Smith Rowe, will certainly look to hover in the gap between Dias and Stones. So far, nobody has managed to expose the width in City’s back three. But nobody has been as direct as Arsenal will be.
I’m absolutely buzzing after that win today. Everything we want to see from Arsenal we saw today. We were sharp, we were direct and we slapped Leeds. I’m so happy for Aubameyang to get his hat trick. World class striker and we’re so lucky to have him. pic.twitter.com/ZqJhn0oyA6
— ArsenalSportZ (@ArsenalSportZ) February 14, 2021
3) Are Luiz and Holding particularly vulnerable to City’s fluid front five?
Man City are still favourites, of course, and will still ultimately hog possession. In front of that 3-2 is a fluid front five who retain balance vertically and horizontally by filling in for each other, alternating dropping off the front line, or dipping in or out, to keep opponents guessing. It has proved almost impossible to track and particularly difficult for the centre-backs, who without a direct opponent to mark can get caught in two minds.
That is clearly bad news for David Luiz and Rob Holding, both of whom are prone to rash challenges or sudden moments of madness as they rush out from the back line to close a player down. It is easy to imagine Luiz being drawn too far forward by a false nine, or erratically diving into a tackle while confused by the movement around him.
And the centre-backs are vulnerable when in possession, too. Arsenal continue to pass out from the back at every opportunity and no matter the risk. In fact, the high-risk element is a crucial part of the tactic: by appearing vulnerable and luring the opposition forward, extra space in the final third is created. Spin the man, evade the press, and the pitch opens up for dribblers like Saka. But Luiz is prone to a sloppy pass when under pressure. There is every chance Arsenal will play frustrating short passes over and over again, eventually conceding the ball around their own penalty box.
4) Do Arsenal have the midfield integrity to stop Gundogan?
The next worry for Arsenal is stopping Ilkay Gundogan who, with 11 goals and two assists in his last 15 games in all competitions, is flourishing in a more advanced position. His main tactical role is to make late runs into the space vacated by the false nine, arriving too late to be tracked and in a good shooting position just in front of those confused centre-backs.
The only team that have managed to stop him recently is Sheffield United, and only because their three-man defence and three-man midfield were practically on top of each other, as Chris Wilder’s side conceded huge amount of territory and 75% possession.
Arsenal’s midfield can be porous at the best of times, with Ceballos and Xhaka notably lacking the defensive clout needed to track runners or cut off passes into the kind of areas Gundogan exploits.
Ilkay Gundogan has scored more Premier League goals than Liverpool in 2021 🙃pic.twitter.com/B1vHN9llPG
— Goal (@goal) February 16, 2021
5) Will Cancelo versus Smith Rowe be the defining battle?
Cancelo and Smith Rowe will both be deployed in hybrid roles, flitting between the wing and the centre and occupying criss-crossing zones of the pitch. That makes for a curious head-to-head that should come to life in moments of transition.
When City have the ball Cancelo will be sat in central midfield and Smith Rowe will be hovering on the left, whereas during sustained Arsenal attacks Smith Rowe will move into the middle, replacing Aubameyang, while Cancelo drops into a traditional right-back position. What happens in the transitions, when each player makes their respective diagonal dart, will be fascinating, potentially exposing defensive frailties for both sides.
Should Cancelo start on the left, with Kyle Walker at right-back, then it is up to Saka – another player who moves seamlessly between the wing and central midfield – to tackle this dilemma.