Pep Guardiola only had three defenders in the starting lineup. This was all the more weird because not all of those defenders were center backs, which would have drawn the obvious conclusion that City would implement a three-man backline. Instead, Kyle Walker was included along with Nico Otamendi and Aymeric Laporte, leaving the masses to wonder just what Guardiola had up his sleeve.
Pep is well known for trying new things with his lineups, it’s both a strength and weakness of his. His penchant for experimentation in big games has certainly flopped in the past, but on Sunday it turned out he got his tactics just right.
The basis of City’s formation against Arsenal was the hybridization of Fernandinho, who was the right sided center back in defense and a defensive midfielder in a double pivot going forward.
Guardiola has commonly moved a defender into the midfield in possession in the past, but it has generally been the left back doing the inversion. Doing so pulls the left back well out of their nominal defensive channel, thus making recovery runs tricky. Shifting this role to the center back allows for a more simple vertical movement from Fernandinho while his horizontal positioning isn’t all that effected.
Ilkay Gundogan accompanied Fernandinho in the double pivot while remaining midfielders were stationed far forward, essentially as additional attackers. Building out from the back routinely looked like this.
As soon as Fernandinho would step forward, the rest of the backline would spread out evenly across the width of the pitch. Unai Emery responded to City’s unusual 3-2-5 look with a narrow 4-4-2 that allowed a passing option from Walker and Laporte to the wide wingers.
The Blues’ attack was asymmetrical in its approach, yet effective down both flanks. On the right, Kevin De Bruyne sat on the inside shoulder of Arsenal left back Nacho Monreal. This held Monreal in a tight position, giving Bernardo space in a deep spot to receive possession. Getting the ball in that spot pulled Monreal out so De Bruyne could run into space down the wing.
There was a concerted effort to get De Bruyne into space where he could drive crosses across the face of goal. Kolasinac’s defensive contribution was less than impressive in this match, often forcing Monreal to make a decision on Bernardo while leaving Mattéo Guendouzi the responsibility of tracking De Bruyne.
Alternatively, Raheem Sterling and David Silva worked in tight spaces on the left, looking to create one-two combinations that would release Sterling diagonally towards the endline.
All of City’s goal originated off the left wing, two of which were assisted by Raheem Sterling. The Blues looked dangerous in all areas of the pitch however, and Emery’s lineup that featured mostly defensively oriented players was inadequate on both sides of the ball.
Kolasinac and fellow wide midfielder Alex Iwobi were unable to balance their responsibility of containing the City wingers defensively while also providing width on the counter. Iwobi had a few bad giveaways, one of which took place within their defensive third and directly resulted in Aguero’s first goal. It was no surprise that both of these players were substituted in the 66th minute and there’s a strong argument the changes should have been made earlier. The Gunners were desperate for creativity going forward and Kolasinac, who played very much like a left wing at times, is not suited for that role.
However, even after Emery brought on Aaron Ramsey and newcomer Denis Suarez, Arsenal’s attack could do nothing to penetrate City’s defense. Arsenal had 0.70 expected goals (xG) for the entire match and none of that production came after the substitutions. In fact, they didn’t register anything on the xG scale in the entire second half and only had 0.10 xG from open play overall (0.60 xG on Koscielny’s corner kick goal).
It was a defense from Guardiola that is fairly standard in it’s shape. It can be described as 4-5-1 or a wide form of the 4-3-2-1 “Christmas tree” with the wingers dropping deep while the attacking midfielders apply pressure.
Arsenal’s attack was more focused on exploiting transition opportunities, but Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were overmatched trying to play through the midfield. It was truly an inept offensive show, with only 16% of the match being played within City’s defensive third.
Through and through, this was as comprehensive a victory as you’ll see against a fellow big six club. Sergio Aguero, who I somehow haven’t mentioned until now, bagged a hat trick with all three goals coming from buildups that left him with straightforward finishes right on the doorstep. Without question, Pep Guardiola’s tactics maximized City’s ability to unlock the Arsenal defense. He was so pleased with the way the team was playing that he only made two substitutions, both of which maintained the strategy. Pep didn’t even bring on a natural left back to see the game out.
The single complaint you can have is that City conceded on a set piece again, the fifth time that’s happened this season (not counting penalties). They’ve employed the hybrid marking approach on corners for a while now but that is one aspect of their play that needs refining.
Nevertheless, it was an encouraging bounce back performance after the Newcastle loss and a great start to a three-match week within which Manchester City need all 9 points.