Manchester City tend to play their most potent football when they play their wingless formation, which starts David Silva and Samir Nasri out wide. This system gave Arsenal all sorts of problems in their 6-3 loss at the Etihad because complicates solving the dynamic resource allocation problem. Before we get into the football, let us look at the value of interaction and specialization.
Economic Insights from the 18th and 19th centuries
David Ricardo came up with the theory of comparative advantage in 1817, arguing that free trade and specialization led to more wealth, as nations could focus on what they do best, allowing greater extraction of value from the Earth’s scarce resources. Nations then trade with one another. However, this does not mean that every nation should completely specialize. Specializing in writing blog posts on Arsenal does not represent the best use of my resources (probably not even a sustainable use of my resources) if I cannot economically interact with others. This brings us to Adam Smith’s insight that specialization is limited by the Market. Specialization is only as valuable as my ability to economically interact with others. Not only does greater interaction with others increase my ability to obtain the goods and services I forego producing due to specialization, but it also allows me to exploit my comparative advantage to a greater degree. When history links prosperity with the greater ability to trade, most likely the increased economic interaction allowed for greater specialization led to the ability to do more with scarce resources.
Interaction and Specialization on the Pitch
When facing only one center forward, a center-back partnership can allocate itself such that one gets tight to the center forward and the other sweeps in behind. This allows the proactive defender to play with greater aggression and to take more risks to intercept or win the ball, as he knows his teammate has his back. Ultimately, the two center-backs read the game similarly, communicate with one another, and assist each other (interact) allowing them to dynamically specialize, allocating their resources to best deal with that threat in that point in time and space. Assuming that a team lack two intelligent complete center-backs, this helps to explain why the fit of the two center-backs plays a key role in their effectiveness. A pairing with the same deficiencies has less to gain from interaction and specialization, as it ensures that one of the defenders’ deficiencies comes into focus during a passage of play.
And this idea of interaction of specialization applies to any grouping of players that work together. For example, the use of two center forwards operates best when the two complement each other stylistically, allowing them to plan how they will specialize over the course of a match. Looking at Jovetic and Dzeko/Aguero, we have a creator/goal-scorer (albeit two different kinds of goal-scorers) dynamic that fits. Even the Dzeko/Aguero pairing can operate like a big man-little man combination with a Dzeko looking to hold-up play and Aguero looking to run in behind the defense (the problem with that pairing has more to do with their positioning defensively).¹
Manchester City’s use of two center forwards against sides with two center-backs works to limit the ability for the two center-backs to interact and specialize over the course of the match. With each center-back having to deal with an attacker, fewer resources go towards analyzing the overall play in front of them and considering the impact of their actions on the team’s ability to defend spaces. Even though the goal of defending is to defend the space and not the man, it seems natural for a player to hone in on the ball or a man nearby, leading them to lose focus on defending the space. It also reduces the ability for the two defenders to communicate as they allocate more resources towards the opponent in front of them (the marginal cost of communication or looking to see how one’s defensive partner is doing increases). When done well, it can help turn the two center-backs into two individual defenders. Now some center-backs play well one-on-one; however, as Jonathon Wilson has pointed out, most center-backs have become used to/developed in an environment playing against a lone center forward that it made more sense for them to invest in developing as a member of a duo than as a lone wolf.
Now this means little if the ball cannot get to the center forwards. And if the ball does not get to the center forwards, the opportunity cost of the having an extra man up front, instead of in midfield, can lead to Manchester City getting overrun (see their first group stage match against Bayern last season). City accomplish this by playing two creative players inside-wide in David Silva and Samir Nasri.
Manchester City’s Half-Space Attackers
These two look to exploit the half-spaces (often the space in front of the FB/CB gap…a more detailed description of what the half-space is can be found here) the defense leaves open. They will look to exploit the space to the left and right of the central midfielders. This makes a 4-1-4-1 potentially problematic against City. Unless you have a fantastic holding midfielder (we are talking Busquets level space covering…which makes the thought of Steven Gerrard trying to operate in that role comical), both Silva and Nasri can find quite a bit of freedom to receive the ball, turn, and play incisive passes. In particular, David Silva plays the role of the pivotal playmaker that often exists in Pellegrini sides (Riquelme at Villareal, Santi Cazorla and Isco at Malaga, and no one at Real Madrid due to the departure of Wesley Sneijder and Kaka’s decline). If there is one player that needs to be stopped, it is the Spaniard, not Yaya Toure.
And the center forwards can make that task difficult. For example, a team could attempt to narrow their back four and give their fullbacks license to close down City’s creative half-space attackers. However, especially when Sergio Aguero plays, City have center forwards who can make those inside-out runs, those runs from the center going through the FB/CB gap. Therefore, the fullback’s desire to close down his opponent could lead to space for the center forward to exploit. This type of run can provide a passing lane for a deeper midfielder or give Silva/Nasri the ability to make a quick penetrating pass, if the pressure comes too late. Once the ball gets into these deep positions, City tend to overload the box with someone making a run from wide to get in front of a defender for a tap-in or header, and with plenty of runners coming from deeper central areas, either charging in on goal or stopping short to provide an option for the cutback.
The Base of Midfield: Yaya Toure or Bust
Moving further back from this attacking quartet, we arrive at the base of midfield, which often comprises of Yaya Toure and Fernando/Fernandinho. In either pairing, Fernando/Fernandinho operates more as the ball-winner and Toure operates more as the creative player on the ball. Once again, we see an instance of interaction and specialization on the pitch. Specifically with Toure, City have an attacking talent that can not only play the ball into the attacking quartet, but also carry the ball into those positions, join up in the attack, and make those runs into the box to benefit from the penetration of the attacking quartet. When he cares, his blend of size, strength, athleticism, and technical ability is unmatched in the Premier League, outside of Mario Balotelli. Given the options he provides City, his apathy in matches can prove quite a killer. With his decreasing interest in doing anything defensively, City probably need more of a defensive specialist next to Toure. But when Toure loses interest, the problems of specialization reveal themselves. It makes the team less robust to shocks, makes them less able to deal with uncertainty (although hedging against the apathy of one’s own player is a troubling risk to have to manage). And it’s not like healthy Ilkay Gundogan’s or Arturo Vidal’s grow on trees for City to buy and play next to their temperamental superstar. So while David Silva makes this side tick in attack, Yaya Toure’s effort in any particular match determines whether City play like a very good team or a truly elite team.
Providing Width with Fullbacks
If you have noticed that City have a rather narrow set up, then I would agree with your perception. Looking at this central column, it seems that the ideal defense against Manchester City would involve playing two narrow backs of four (or the squashed diamond that Villareal used against Barcelona in their 1-0 loss). This would make playing through the center exceedingly difficult. However, Manchester City are fully aware with this and use their fullbacks to provide this width in attack. Specifically, they tend to favor using Pablo Zabaleta to provide this wide threat. Along with Branislav Ivanovic, there may not be two right-backs who make better runs, both overlapping and especially underlapping runs, than these two. Throw in Seamus Coleman and the Premier League has some of the best off-ball attacking right-backs in the world.
Zabaleta’s runs have the potential to exploit Arsenal’s poor defending of deep runners. Very early in the 1-1 draw at the Emirates last season, Zabaleta punishes Lukas Podolski’s lack of desire and/or inability to defend. (I would normally include screen grabs here but I had technical difficulties with the site hosting the video, 7) Vincent Kompany brings the ball forward under no pressure and Lukas Podolski’s positioning is such that he does not eliminate the pass into the half-space to Silva, the pass to Zabaleta, or the pass to Jesus Navas.
Kompany opts for Navas, and Navas drives infield to have Gibbs commit to him. At this point, Silva makes a center-wide run through the FB/CB gap, but the run takes him offside. However, Navas’ quick feet allow him to keep possession, and as Silva slowly drops into a deeper position, Zabaleta bursts through the gap between Gibbs and Silva. With Gibbs’ receiving help too late from Santi Cazorla and absolutely no help from Lukas Podolski, City outnumber Arsenal 3-to-1 out wide.
While Silva moves deeper and coming back onside, Zabaleta makes a run into the gap between Gibbs and Silva. Navas plays the ball into Zabaleta, who has already beaten the static Kieran Gibbs. Zabaleta cuts inside and now can shoot, play a ball across the box for Edin Dzeko tap-in at the back post, or cut the ball back for Nasri. Zabaleta opts for the cut-back which Mikel Arteta cuts out beautifully. However, his under-hit ball to Santi Cazorla is intercepted by David Silva. This leads to another opportunity to exploit Arsenal’s in ability to track deep runners, ending in a Navas curler that goes just wide.
In addition to David Silva, Pablo Zabaleta is the most important player when it comes to City’s attack functioning properly. No other fullback does what he does offensively as well. In that sense, it seems odd that Manchester City did not purchase an appropriate right-back to provide cover for Zabaleta. While Bacary Sagna could provide valuable depth at center-back (though with Kompany, DeMichelis, Mangala, and Nastasic, City do not seem to lack center-backs), in no way does he provide what City need at right back.
As you could observe in their 1-0 loss to Stoke City, Sagna’s age and inability to do much of anything going forward allows a team to organize two narrow lines of four. Essentially, Sagna, in this particular 4-2-2-2 set up, makes the dynamic resource allocation problem simple for the opposition. Pellegrini could play Sagna with Jesus Navas (the last of the traditional wingers) to give the side width, but that comes at an immense opportunity cost, as City lose a half-space attack in Samir Nasri. The other option would be fielding Kolarov at left-back, and forcing City’s attack down the left side more than they would with Zabaleta. This means that City divest from attacking down the right where David Silva tends to overload the opposition, leading to a decrease in City’s attacking potency.
The Potential of a City 4-2-3-1
In City’s first big EPL match of the 2014-15 season, Pellegrini went with City’s more fluid 4-2-2-2 against Liverpool. However, last season, he started with a 4-2-3-1 structure away to Arsenal, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, and Chelsea. With Stevan Jovetic potentially unavailable and a match against Bayern Munich on Wednesday, Pellegrini may look to save Sergio Aguero’s hamstrings for their trip to Germany. This could lead to a 4-2-3-1, with Fernandinho, Fernando, and Toure in the middle, Silva on the left and Navas/Nasri on the right, setting his side to disrupt things in midfield and rely more on strength, fouling, and athleticism (the Mourinho/SAF post-Invincibles way of dealing with Arsenal). If Pellegrini desires better control of the match, he could go with Fernando and Toure at the base, Silva/Nasri in either the left or central attacking trio positions with Navas wide.
Arsenal: The Return of the 4-2-3-1?
With Mikel Arteta coming off of injury and Mathieu Flamini good for a yellow card betting pool and not much else, a 4-1-4-1 could prove suicidal against the half-space attacking of Silva and Nasri. Also, Arsenal lack the familiarity and the players of that Bayern side (this really falls apart without players like Lahm, Muller, and Neuer) to implement such a pressing system to pin City in their own half (though I did describe how Welbeck could lead to a future of high pressing for Arsenal). Therefore, it seems like this match could see a return of the 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 giving Arsenal an improved ability to defend against the movement of Silva and Nasri.
Defend the Half-Space Entry Passes/Don’t Let City’s Midfielders Breathe
With Manchester City so dependent on playing passes into the half-spaces, Arsenal should look to block those passing lanes. In a 4-4-1-1, with Welbeck and Ozil up top, Welbeck could look to deny a pass into the one of the half-spaces, preferably the half-space on the side of City’s more attack-minded fullback. On the other side, the wide midfielder can look to tuck inside to block the passes into that half-space. If Arsenal can cut off City’s attacking quartet from the rest of the team or force Silva and Nasri to collect the ball far from goal, they will have gone a long way towards winning this game.
Also, Arsenal cannot start with the passive approach with which they often start these big non-Champions League matches. With the two best options being press and harass or keep things compact and look for opportunities to break, the last thing Arsenal can afford to do is start with the unorganized, space-out, and low energy/urgency defensive scheme that allows the opposition quite a bit of joy on the ball. At their worst against Manchester City, it seemed Arsenal did not want to apply pressure until City moved the ball right in front of the back line.
This also seems odd when you consider that the center-backs and central midfielders of City do not have greater close control or elusiveness. There is no Xavi at Manchester City. Also, the base of City’s midfield is a specialized duo that needs to interact for the team to function. Cutting off Fernando/Fernandinho from Yaya Toure could go a long way in reducing the potency of City in possession.
In fact, in the 6-3 loss to City, Arsenal’s first goal came off of Aaron Ramsey pressing Yaya Toure. In this passage, City play the ball wide to Sergio Aguero, who wants to pass it to David Silva, but Theo Walcott has done well to prevent that pass with his positioning. Aguero plays it back to Yaya Toure. Ramsey runs to pressure Toure who attempts too slow of a turn, in an attempt to protect the ball. Ramsey wins the ball and with Gael Clichy and Zabaleta high up the pitch, Ramsey and Giroud occupy the two center-backs. Toure and Fernandinho attempt to track the play, but no one is in position to deal with the run of Mesut Ozil. Ramsey picks out Ozil, who is now 1-1 against Kompany. Ozil buys some time with some feints, giving Theo Walcott time to get to the top of the box. Ozil plays the cut back; Walcott shoots and scores.
With Arsenal’s pace on the counter and a passer/decision maker like Mesut Ozil, Arsenal have all the reason in the world to try to create turnovers in central midfield, helping them defending City and use their defense to attack (especially with Yaya Toure possibly fatigued after playing two ACN qualification matches for Ivory Coast).
How Will Arsenal Deal with City’s Right Side Threat? Hopefully Not With Ozil
While there are merits to playing Mesut Ozil on the left (half-space attacker, can operate as a carrier, fantastic decision making on the counter attack, etc.), playing him on the left against a marauding right back is problematic. It either forces Ozil to drop deep to defend, reducing the marginal benefit of playing him on the left as a counter-attack springer, or it leaves the left-back completely alone, hoping for a central midfielder to help him, to deal with the right-back, the right sided attacking player, and overloaders. The cost-benefit analysis of Ozil on the left against a right-back like Zabaleta, probably tips the balance in favor of playing Ozil centrally, maybe on the right, or not at all.
Vincent Kompany, the weak link
Vincent Kompany is not the central defender that he once was. This should not come as a shock as much of his value came from his athleticism. His age combined with his recent muscle injury history paint the picture of a player in physical decline (whose contract takes him through the 2018-19 season). Despite this, he still has the tendency to advance forward in defense, to close down the opposition, and in possession, to carry the ball into advanced positions. This presents an opportunity for Arsenal to exploit.
As I wrote in my look at Alexis Sanchez, the Chilean excels at exploiting FB/CB gaps. In that match against Real Madrid, he did well to punish Real Madrid’s defenders who looked to close down Barcelona’s midfielders. In this game, Sanchez and Welbeck may look to exploit that gap created when Kompany goes forward to close down at Arsenal player. It also gives Arsenal the incentive to give Kompany the false impression that he should advance the ball into space. While cutting off the easy passes, Arsenal could collapse on Kompany, especially with a player who starts behind Kompany, win the ball and look to break quickly into the space he left behind.
Diagonal runs could prove quite effective against Manchester City as it would force DeMichelis to run with Sanchez/Welbeck or it could give Sanchez/Welbeck plenty of space to receive the ball to drive Arsenal’s attack forward, with a run from a central position to a wide area. With Zabaleta likely to take up advanced positions to supply that crucial width in attack, attacking down the left could prove quite beneficial for Arsenal, despite their desire to attack down their right side.
Diagonal runs between DeMichelis and Clichy could also prove quite effective. That ability, to attack this gap and finish, helped make Theo Walcott one of Arsenal’s most effective players against City. He will be missed, but it will be interesting to see how Arsene Wenger sets up his front 4.
I would prefer a 4-2-3-1/4-2-1-3/4-4-1-1 with a fluid quick trio of Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in front of Mesut Ozil. This seems like the best way to exploit City on the counter and have enough athleticism to break from deeper defensive positions or to more effective apply pressure. However, with Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla fit, we may see an attempt to control the game with Ozil, Cazorla, Ramsey, and Wilshere, a mistake in my opinion. Wenger’s squad selection may give us a clue as to how he wants the side to progress with Danny Welbeck and without that elite holding midfielder who is essential for a 4-1-4-1.
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¹Looking at the other team in Manchester, a pairing of Robin Van Persie (at this stage in his career) and Radamel Falcao involves two penalty-box players who want to finish moves. Throw in Wayne Rooney, who looks much more suited to a penalty-box role, rather than a creative role (unless a team desires to attack at a snail’s pace), and United have three individualistic penalty-box players. At best, the quality of these players is additive, certainly not multiplicative. In reality, due to diminishing marginal returns of having two penalty-box players on the pitch, the quality they provide United as a pair is less than the sum of their individual quality (A alone+B alone> A+B together). The inability for United’s center forwards to extract value from interaction and specialization makes it less likely that they can overcome the opportunity cost of playing two up front (often involves divesting from central midfield or divesting from the flanks). Throw this into the mix with what I wrote about Falcao in my first Welbeck piece, United going after Falcao looks like an even greater waste of resources.