Pep Guardiola and Manchester City murdered Arsenal on Sunday in the League Cup Final, and then spent about three days reviving them before murdering them again on Thursday in Premier League play.
The scary part about this game is that you could make a pretty strong case that City weren’t even at their best even though they created three fairly impressive team goals. It seemed like their brains were moving as fast as they always do in terms of their quick passing, but their bodies were a step slow and the connections were a second late at times. And they still destroyed a team that regularly qualifies for European football, regardless of what you say about Arsenal’s quality at the moment.
Manchester City saw a different look from Arsenal this time around, who opted for a 4-man backline as opposed to the back three/five we saw on Sunday. It’s hard to say whether Pep Guardiola expected this or not, but his game plan definitely appeared to benefit from this structure.
City did not dominate possession to a ridiculous extent, only maintaining ball control 54% of the time. The defensive plan was the standard (aggressive high pressing), but when Arsenal were able to withstand this Pep dropped his wingers into defensive positions while a midfielder (Kevin De Bruyne or David Silva) stepped forward. This decision may have been more based on the absence of Fernandinho and wanting to give Ilkay Gundogan some help in covering the play all the way to the sidelines.
However, an added bonus to this is how it set City up to attack Arsenal when the ball was turned over. With Leroy Sané and Bernardo Silva staying relatively deep and the press originating from midfield, Arsenal full-backs Hector Bellerín and Sead Kolasinac were tempted to go forward and join the attack. This gave City an opening to attack in transition and left the Arsenal defense scrambling.
Granted, City are phenomenal at teasing the defense into disjointedness even without the full-backs joining the attack, but it certainly helps when they do so. The first goal came off a beautiful assist from Leroy Sané and an equally beautiful curler from Bernardo Silva, but was influenced by the fact that Bellerín was way out of position and scrambling to get back. His teammates didn’t cover effectively for him and Sané and Bernardo just did what they do best.
The second goal came from a similar breakdown in the Arsenal backline, with Shkodran Mustafi forced to come out wide to defend Leroy Sané with Bellerín again out of position. With Hector now filling in Mustafi’s normal center-back position, Arsenal were uncomfortable in their shape. When Sergio Agüero received the ball at the top of box, three players converged to the ball, one of whom was Bellerín, who took one step too many towards the ball, allowing David Silva in behind him for an easy finish.
Not to pile on Bellerín, but Sané made him look foolish again on the third goal. A vicious City counter built up to a fantastic through ball from Kevin De Bruyne to Kyle Walker. The right-back was patient with his final ball and played a ball into Sané, who gingerly stepped in front of two opponents to guide the ball home for the third.
If you noticed, there were a lot of Leroy Sané mentions in the last few paragraphs. That’s not an accident: he was really, really, really, really, really good in this game.
Arsene Wenger deserves some blame for the way this game turned out as well, not that this statement surprises anyone anymore. One of Arsenal’s biggest flaws is their lack of a dedicated and strong defensive midfielder and that was never more apparent than in this game. A midfield of Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, and Mesut Özil is incapable of stopping attacks less talented than City. Those players do not have the defensive awareness or the work rate to get it done and their inability to effectively track back cost Arsenal three goals.
In City’s prolonged spells of possession they were patient and methodical, looking to maintain possession around the final third. Having the patience to not feel the need to always go towards goal is a challenging but effective mindset, as it teases the defense out and encourages your opponent to abandon their position. And Pep Guardiola teams are fantastic at doing this.
The absence of Fernandinho was somewhat apparent and we are lucky his injury is not serious. Ilkay Gundogan filled in more than capably and did a fine job, but he thrives in a box-to-box role where he doesn’t need to have to be on the back foot as much. De Bruyne and Silva do a good job of providing defensive support, which obviously helps, but it all just seems to make more sense with Fernandinho bossing things behind them.
City face another big game on Sunday with Chelsea coming to the Etihad as the quest to win the Premier League continues. Let’s win that one too, guys!
Also, quick shout-out to a Yaya Touré sighting! Good to see him out there again!