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Manchester City Tactics: Opening the Season Strong

City frequently changing shape played a big role in their season opening victory against Arsenal.

Arsenal FC v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

We’re back Bitter & Blue family!!

And it is oh so good to be back. I’ve never been as jacked up for a Premier League as I am right now! There are so many reasons to be excited that I would love to talk about (for example, has there ever been more talent on newly promoted teams as Fulham/Wolves this year?), but this article is not the place for that. But without a doubt, the thing I am most excited about is to see Manchester City get back on the field and defend the throne. There will undoubtedly be a target on their collective back and it won’t be easy, but challenges like this make it all the more fun.

Manchester City didn’t waste any time reminding everyone just what they’re capable of, easily dispatching of Arsenal by a score of 2-0 even though they were far from their best. How City went about doing that is a very interesting conversation to have. It would have been reasonable to expect Pep to play it safe in City’s first game of the season, especially given the fact that he’s still getting his full squad settled back in. But instead, this was one of the more tactically flexible games we’ve seen from the team in recent memory.

The two things to look at how Pep approached this game were in the team’s shape and their press.

City opened the game defending in what could most accurately be described as a 4-4-1-1 with Bernardo Silva roaming behind Aguero and a midfield four with Sterling on the left and Mahrez on the right. However, when City possessed the ball this formation reverted back to their traditional 4-3-3 with the outside midfielders advancing forward on the wing. This structure didn’t last long at all due to the way Arsenal manager Unai Emery designed his formation.

One of the biggest questions facing Arsenal coming into this season was where Mesut Ozil fit into this team. After this match, I’d argue that that question has yet to be answered. Looking at the team sheet before the match, he figured to play on the right wing as Henrikh Mkhitaryan paced the left. Well, Emery was doing some experimenting of his own as he was dropping Ozil into a midfield three when City’s backline had possession, pushing Aaron Ramsey forward in between Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang. Ramsey’s role was to pressure the ball but more importantly, to man mark Fernandinho.

This effectively took Fernandinho away as an option for City center backs Stones and Laporte to pass to in build up. This was coupled with the Arsenal forwards lurking around the passing lanes between the center and full backs, leaving Ozil deeper to pick up errant passes and coordinate the counter. Ultimately, this strategy was successful in thwarting Fernandinho’s impact on the attack. He had trouble getting into the flow of the game offensively and looked shaky on the ball at times. That being said, Pep made the necessary adjustments to make sure that didn’t spread to the entirety of City’s attack.

The changes that Pep made to unlock this game can be directly tied to the World Cup and England manager Gareth Southgate. Kyle Walker played as the right center back in a three-man backline for England and the aptitude he showed at that position had to have played a role in Pep feeling comfortable shifting him into that position against Arsenal. This move was accompanied by pushing Mendy forward into the midfield (usually into the space around Ozil) while Sterling and Mahrez stayed wide on the touchlines. If you’re having a hard time envisioning what this looked like on the field, it was something like a 3-4-3 diamond with Mendy and Gundogan as the wide midfielders and Bernardo as the attacking tip.

This gave the team more options when passing out of the back, thwarted Arsenal’s press, and put Ozil in a position where he was forced to defend when City could transition from the backline to the attackers quickly. Inverting Mendy allowed Sterling to attack Arsenal right back Hector Bellerin in space, pushing him deep into the corner and preventing him from using his space on the counter often. Mendy would then make runs based on Sterling’s decision, forcing Bellerin and Ozil to communicate on marking responsibilities as the City left side worked off each other.

Check out the heat maps for the City fullbacks from this match to get an idea of the different responsibilities each player was given.

Kyle Walker heat map. Courtesy of
Benjamin Mendy heat map. Courtesy of

But the real beauty in this tactic was in its dynamism. You’d think moving into a back three would hinder the dangerous runs Walker likes to make forward. Not at all, the Englishman routinely took his chance when it was available and received cover from either Fernandinho or Gundogan. Furthermore, City’s shape would change from a back three to a back four with the snap of your fingers. At one point Arsenal adjusted to the City’s three-man backline by shifting Guendouzi and Xhaka into a wide double pivot and Pep went right back to their starting formation. City would often transition to defense back into a four-man backline as well, though the amount of space Mendy was forced to make up often left them vulnerable to counters coming off Arsenal’s right wing, particularly off switches of play.

We praised City all of last season for their positional interchanging and versatility throughout the lineup but what we saw on Sunday was another level. The ability to interchange from a three to a four-man backline with Kyle Walker as the swing man opens the game up and doesn’t allow lineup selections to necessarily dictate what City can do on the field.

Granted, we have not seen enough of Mendy in the midfield to know how effective he’ll be in that role and I still think he’s more dangerous out wide giving service into the box. But putting a defender into Ozil’s space before he even had a chance to get on the ball is a useful way of getting in the way of Arsenal’s plan. Unai Emery did make some changes of his own to account for Ozil’s lack of impact on the match, moving him forward into the Ramsey role, bringing on Lacazette, and moving Mhkitaryan deeper. Even when Arsenal was able to take control of the ball for sustained stretches and generate opportunities, the run of play still leaned toward Cech’s goal throughout.

How City pressed Arsenal was the other interesting aspect of this match. City were not overly aggressive in how they closed down but squeezed the ball into Arsenal’s midfield and collapsed upon Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi. It seems as if Pep identified these two players (with good reason) as weak links in Arsenal’s possession as the City frontline was clearly trying to funnel the ball to their feet. Aguero, Sterling, and Mahrez were closing out on the center of Arsenal’s defense with their bodies shaped to shut off the pass to the outside. Once the ball was there, the Sky Blues collapsed on them from multiple directions to force an errant pass or a turnover.

It’s easy to understand why Pep would do this. Xhaka has been often criticized for being slow on the ball and Guendouzi is a 19-year old who had only played eight first division games in France before Sunday. I don’t care how impressive he’s been during the preseason, starting him in the season opener against the defending champions is akin to throwing him to the wolves.

All in all, the pressing plan worked well as Xhaka was ineffective and was removed for newcomer Lucas Torreira in the 70th minute. Guendouzi looked shaky throughout and was regularly flared out wide into space to limit the danger he could experience with the ball at his feet. He was also arguably at fault for City’s first goal, when Sterling found himself in space on the left wing due to Mendy’s inverted position keeping Bellerin tight. City moved the ball from right to left quickly, with Mendy ultimately setting Sterling up to attack off the dribble. The Englishman cut inside Bellerin onto his right foot as Guendouzi stepped to cut off the lane to the middle. The Arsenal midfielder did not do nearly enough (he was essentially a traffic cone) that Sterling worked around with ease to set himself up for a wonderful strike to give City the early lead. Sterling was great in this match by the way, he was routinely putting Arsenal defenders in the spin cycle and getting into dangerous spaces.

Arsenal FC v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

One of the most promising things about this match was how well City looked against a top six (?) club when they looked far from their best. As I mentioned before, Fernandinho looked off the mark and Gundogan did not dramatically impact the game. Ederson’s distribution was very poor, probably the worst we’ve seen it in a City shirt. Even Kevin De Bruyne, when he came on in the second half, wasn’t as pinpoint with his passing as we are used to. Now obviously, it’s the first game and we can attribute most of these things to rust. But that’s the promising part! We all know how capable these players are so when they get back to doing what they do best, this team will likely be just as scary as ever.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give Bernardo the proper time and credit he deserves. He continues to grow as a player and was the fulcrum of City’s attack in this match. Bernardo is able to create offense from so many different areas on the pitch and understands the game to know when to press the attack and when to reset. His goal (City’s second) was an absolute peach and the great cutback run he made to lose Arsenal left back Stephan Lichsteiner was perfectly accompanied by the great finish into the top corner off another Mendy assist. After featuring on the wing for much of last season, we should expect him to get much more run as a central playmaker. I don’t want to get ahead of myself because, again, this is a small sample size to be sure, but we may seeing the evolution of the next City great. Make sure no one lets me drive the Bernardo hype train, it may get out of control.

Arsenal FC v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images