Another Premier League match and another Premier League victory for Manchester City. It feels like clockwork at this point for what has quickly become one of the best teams I have ever seen in any sport. City beat Arsenal 3-1 on Sunday to continue their run of dominance through England and Europe. Arsenal did play very well in this game and posed more of a threat than most teams have, but even their best wasn’t good enough in dealing with City.
The chess match between Pep Guardiola and Arsene Wenger throughout this match was interesting to follow. Neither team came out with any surprises in the starting lineups, with the sole exception of Alexandre Lacazette being left on the Arsenal bench.
Much was made before kickoff of Wenger’s comments in regards to the best defense being an effective attack. Arsenal were expected to take the attack to City and they did just that for much of the game. Arsenal did not press relentlessly, instead opting to bracket passing lanes, cut off the wings, and funnel City passes into midfield. Arsenal would ramp up pressure when City showed any weakness in possession and retreated further into their defensive third.
City have been vulnerable in the past, and were again Sunday, in giving up chances due to their stubbornness in playing out of the back. Pep’s first adjustment was instructing his team to play it over the top of the press onto the head of his attacking midfielders for flicked headers to attackers with space. This kept the Arsenal press at arm’s length and allowed City to maintain possession for long stretches.
This game was a test in patience for both sides, with each team looking to react and expose their opponent’s moves. With City possession in the attacking half, Arsenal were hesitant to overcommit to defensive closeouts, aware of how well the Blues utilize quick one-twos to take advantage of space created by defensive movement. Arsenal allowed City to push forward into the attacking third, where they could pounce on opportunities to regain possession and build an attack of their own. Wenger’s team avoided booting the ball long safely, opting to match City’s possession-based style.
City’s opening goal by Kevin De Bruyne was created due to Arsenal’s inability to react quickly from this patient approach. Off a quality save from Petr Cech, City maintained possession just outside the 18 where a quick one-two between De Bruyne and Fernandinho left the Belgian with space to run into the box. Three Arsenal players were slow to react, allowing De Bruyne to pick out the far post for the first goal of the game.
Manchester City, always a team to create heavy ball pressure, did not chase the ball mindlessly but upped their aggression with certain players in possession, specifically Francis Coquelin, a natural defensive midfielder shoehorned into the center of a 3-man backline. In fact, City tried to take advantage of Coquelin’s unfamiliarity with this new position as much as possible, though the Frenchman handled himself fairly well back there.
When City won the ball back from Arsenal while their wingbacks were still caught upfield, Pep had his team directly attack either of outside center-backs, Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal. This often left space out wide for overlapping runs and left Coquelin in the center of the box to manage runs by Sergio Agüero and incoming midfielders. For the most part Arsenal handled this as well as can be expected, but Coquelin was the first player Wenger took off in the second half in favor of a 4-man backline.
Throughout the first half and early in the second half, Fabian Delph played more of a traditional left-back position than we are used to seeing from him. His movement into midfield was diminished and he maintained defensive positioning while Kyle Walker was aggressive in the attack, even pinching into the center of the pitch himself. Pep likely opted to reign in Delph due to the presence of Mesut Özil and Hector Bellerín on that side of the pitch. These two posed a greater threat than Alex Iwobi and Sead Kolasinac, who were operating on Walker’s side of the field.
Wenger combatted this in the second half by first getting Lacazette into the game for Coquelin, which moved Iwobi to the right wing and Alexis Sánchez to the left from his earlier central position. Özil moved into the attacking midfield right behind the striker within a 3-man midfield. Pep adjusted further to switch the roles of his full-backs, with Walker now staying defensive to account for the dangerous Alexis.
Arsenal continued to move towards an ultra-attacking lineup, bringing on Olivier Giroud for Iwobi, pushing Lacazette out onto the right wing. This allowed Özil to move across the width of the field, creating dangerous attacking combinations on either wing. Fernandinho was the one who handled most of the responsibility in tracking Özil, making sure he was never given too much space to pick out a pass.
Arsenal’s lone goal was well earned, created by a quick break and smart movement into space behind Fabian Delph, who was caught upfield. Aaron Ramsey was able to get a position advantage over Fernandinho and made a run right in between Stones and Otamendi. With each center-back giving attention to Ramsey, Lacazette was unmarked to make a run down the right for a nice finish to beat Ederson.
With the lead reduced to one goal again, City increased their pressure once again, quickly looking to strengthen their position. The Blues have been great in responding to goals throughout the season, always looking to attack while other teams might go uber-defensive and try to see the game out.
City definitely deserved the victory on Sunday despite some complaints Arsenal fans may have about the refereeing. They were the better team and created the better chances throughout. Yes, City scored two goals on borderline calls but Arsenal put themselves in poor positions in each scenario. The penalty earned by Raheem Sterling was a tight call but an understandable one. David Silva was offside in the buildup to Gabriel Jesus’ goal, but Arsenal have no excuse for giving up on the play before the whistle, with multiple defenders standing around with their hands in the air while Jesus stood alone in front of goal. They get no sympathy from me on that one, sometimes that’s just the way the cookie crumbles in football.
But as Ice-T famously said, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”