By Naveen Maliakkal
The Set Up
While Manchester City could go with their 4-2-2-2, they have not started a match with that kind of system since their 3-0 victory over Southampton. With Sergio Aguero, Stefan Jovetic, and Edin Dzeko all fit for this match, they may go with this mode of playing, and the problems that this system causes for City’s opposition are, in part, described in the preview of the earlier fixture between these two sides. However, if City do go the system they have been using recently, which could be defined as an asymmetric 4-2-3-1, then it poses some slightly different questions for Arsenal.
At the back, Gael Clichy and Pablo Zabaleta represent City’s first choice left-back and right-back, respectively. While both fullbacks can and will go forward to support City’s possession play, particularly when the play goes down a particular side. Zabaleta will probably spend more time in an advanced position than Clichy. Even though a 4-2-3-1 with Navas wide on the right may not create as much open space for Zabaleta to run into, he still remains a force down the right. Zabaleta, Navas, and Silva could look to form triangles to exploit a lack of ball-side flooding by Arsenal, which will allow them to exploit a potential 3-on-2 advantage down their right side.
At the center back position, a real dilemma seems to be present due to Vincent Kompany’s return to fitness. While Martin DeMichelis is the best center back in Manchester City’s squad, and his ability on the ball would have more value than normal, due to the absence of Yaya Toure, Pellegrini has tended to favor the Kompany-Mangala partnership, when all three center backs have been fit. In the nine EPL matches that City have had their top three center backs in the squad, Mangala and Kompany have started seven times (one of the two times the two did not start together was against Arsenal, earlier this season). If City go with Mangala and Kompany, they will have to make up for the drop in intelligence, game-reading, understanding how to defend 360 degrees of space, and on-ball ability, with athleticism and physicality. With Kompany, in particular, looking to atone for his lack of quality in defending on the front foot with shirt pulls, fouls, etc. the officiating in this match could play a key role in the effectiveness of City’ center backs.
As with the 4-2-2-2 formation, City will probably look to have four midfielders in/around the central third of the pitch. Samir Nasri will look to come infield from his wide position (or James Milner, if one of these two cannot play), while David Silva floats horizontally, probably starting in a kind of No. 10 position. Although Silva’s bread-and-butter is to come infield from wide areas, he is still effective when asked to make Mesut Ozil type movements, movements from the center of the pitch to wider areas.
Deeper, Manchester City will probably field Fernando and Fernandinho. Even though he started against Arsenal in their first EPL encounter, Frank Lampard has not started a Premier League match since City’s 1-0 win over Leicester. Outside of some appearances at the top of City’s formation, James Milner’s last Premier League start for City came against Everton. Of the two deeper midfielders, Fernandinho seems the candidate for a more vertical role, both when City have the ball and when they do not. These two players may be relied upon to penetrate Arsenal’s defensive lines, to get the ball to the likes of Nasri and Silva. Otherwise, City will have to take a more circuitous route, so to get the ball to their most dangerous players, in their ideal areas of operation.
Up top, if Sergio Aguero is fully fit, it seems unlikely that City would go with anyone else. While he does have the ability to play a creative role in City’s attacking build-up, Pellegrini prefers to have him higher up the pitch, and even more so this season. Aguero has excelled in this relatively limited role, given his skills. He has completed 3.3 dribbles/90 minute with a 56% completion rate. Compare that to his 2.5 dribbles/90 minutes with a 43% completion rate, last season. During the 2014-15 English Premier League season, Aguero has averaged 6.4 shots/90 minutes, with about 75% of them coming from inside the penalty area. His 6.4 shots/90 minutes represents about a 28% increase in his shooting volume over last season. His 4.8 shots/90 minutes from inside the penalty area represents about a 30% increase over last season. This has helped increase his scoring rate by about 21%, to an absurd 1.2 goals/90 minutes. At the same time, he has only completed 22.1 passes/90 minutes and 1.3 key passes/90 minutes, about a 21% and 41% decrease from last season, respectively. His 0.8 tackles+interceptions/90 minutes represents about a 45% decrease from last season (stats from whoscored.com). It seems obvious that the devastation that he can cause calls for Arsenal to build their game plan around shutting off the supply, rather than trying to directly stop the individual.
Compactness, Coordination, and (Maybe) Pressing
In Arsenal’s 6-3 defeat to Manchester City last season, Arsenal’s passivity out of possession stood out. While sitting in a deep defending position, looking to keep the opponent at arm’s length, can prove effective, it requires exceptional coordination of the XI, along with an emphasis on vertical and horizontal compactness. Arsenal lacked both the coordination and compactness necessary to successfully defend in this manner.
With City fielding two half-space1 attackers in Samir Nasri and David Silva, the space to the left and to the right of center, in between the lines, could be under siege. In a 4-1-4-1 formation, this threat makes the holding midfielder’s task of controlling that space between the two lines of four rather difficult. What can help is the entire XI being vertically compact. Compactness in this dimension lowers the amount of space the holding midfield must control between the two lines of four and enhance the ability of a center back or full back to make a challenge on the ball or the player, if the ball advances past the first line of four. Horizontal compactness also helps as well. Compactness, in this dimension, at the back, allows for the fullbacks to aid in defending those half-spaces. In the first defensive line of 4, such compactness enhances the team’s ability to deny entry of the ball into the space between the lines. It shrinks the windows though with passes travel. With this need for compactness, comes a need for the entire unit to shift, depending on the position of the ball so to properly deny passes from wide areas to central areas.
That compactness necessitates that coordination of the entire unit. If compactness allows for greater concentration and interaction of defensive resources, proper coordination allows for those resources to be located more ideally with respect to space, time, the ball, and the opponent. Looking at the second goal that Arsenal conceded in the 6-3 loss last season, one can see a complete defensive breakdown by Arsenal, while defending in a deep position.
Off a throw-in, Arsenal try to flood the ball-side with defenders. However, Ramsey moved into the back line to man mark Aguero, even though Koscielny is free to deal with the Argentinean. Mathieu Flamini, who has a central role in Arsenal’s first defensive line of four, is closest to the right touchline. Theo Walcott seems content to just occupy a space in a right-sided midfield position. Mesut Ozil is stuck in between defending the pass into the interior or the pass back to Fernandinho, and ends up not shutting off either passing lane. Although keeping Giroud that high up the pitch may have been strategic, his positioning, leading to the unit’s lack of vertical compactness, makes Arsenal less able to deny a pass into the center of the pitch, if City switch the play to the other side. This leaves Yaya Toure in plenty of space to receive a pass, and Fernandinho makes that pass. With that inability to control the center of the pitch, any ball-orientation by Arsenal becomes useless, as City can quickly move the ball from one side of the pitch to another, before Arsenal have time to reorient themselves, allowing them to move the ball into more advantageous spaces they control. Toure receives the ball, with plenty of time to turn, see the run of Zabaleta, pick him out, and Zabaleta picks out Negredo to put City up 2-1. Giroud tries to apply pressure to Toure, but has to travel too far of a distance. Mathieu Flamini faces the same problem. So even though Yaya Toure will not participate in this match, coordination failures like this will make it too easy for City to create quality chances.
If Arsenal wish to have a more proactive defensive plan2, they still need to have the necessary compactness and coordination to not leave gaps. Arsenal’s first goal, in their 6-3 defeat, came from Aaron Ramsey putting Yaya Toure under pressure and winning the ball. However, this one-man press posed some risk for Arsenal. While Theo Walcott and Mathieu Flamini appear well positioned, given the angle at which Ramsey presses Toure, to deny the vertical pass, they are 10 meters away from Ramsey. Also, Arsenal’s front two are not in a position to deny entry of the ball into the space Fernandinho occupies. So, for this one-man press to work, Ramsey has to win possession. Even dispossessing Toure, given the lack of Arsenal players sufficiently close to Ramsey, may prove useless, as City can get onto the loose ball and exploit Arsenal’s weak defensive shape. If Yaya Toure spins away from Ramsey, then he can advance the ball until an Arsenal defender must come out to challenge him. Options start to appear for City. Vertical passing lanes to Silva or Nasri may open up; he could play the ball to Fernandinho, who can continue to carry the ball forward; he could play the ball wide to Clichy, who could look to make an interior pass between the lines. Fortunately for Arsenal, Ramsey wins the ball.
Pressing City, to deny entry of the ball into the spaces occupied by the likes of Silva and Nasri, especially with Yaya Toure not playing, could prove an effective method of controlling the match out of possession. A potentially useful wrinkle could be having the wider players in the first line of four be the one to initiate pressure on either Fernando or Fernandinho. Say the ball goes to City’s right central midfielder. Instead of having the left central midfielder press the man with the ball, potentially exposing a passing lane, into a more dangerous central area, the team could have the left midfielder apply pressure. He should bend his run to increase the difficult of making a successful pass to the right-back. At the same time, the man at the top of the defensive shape can look to press the man with the ball, making sure his run shuts down the passing lane to City’s left center back.
If Arsenal have enough compactness in their defensive shape, the two central players can deny the more vertical passing lanes, with the holding midfield and center backs able to make interceptions or put pressure on the receiver. Arsenal’s right-sided midfield and right center midfield are close enough to City’s other central midfielder to either block the passing lane, make an interception, or quickly apply pressure if the ball reaches him. If the man on the ball has a good left foot, there is the danger of him playing the ball to City’s right winger. For this reason, the left-back must push up from his position to deny that passing lane. With the pressure applied on the ball, the probability of an accurate ball over the top to the right winger seems small. Therefore, the keeper may need to sweep up so Arsenal can better control the space behind the back line and claim an over-hit ball. The left center back must also be willing and able to defend in a wide position, should the ball be played towards the corner flag.
Outside of playing a rather impressive pass, with his right foot, across the field, to the left-back, the man on the ball does not have many options. He could try to dribble through the press, but that takes a high level of close control to do. If he loses the ball, Arsenal’s compact shape gives them plenty of players to take control of a loose ball. If the press is executed properly, the path of least resistance for the man on the ball will be a pass back to the right center-back.
If this happens, then Arsenal need to all push up the pitch (ideally, your keeper has the willingness to push up the pitch as well and the ability to defend outside of the penalty box). Not only does this potentially lead to some City players in offside positions, but it also serves to maintain their compactness, particularly their vertical compactness. The right midfield can continue pressing the ball. The center forward should look to deny the passing lane to the other center back. If he has an understanding of how to bend his run and a high level of agility, then he could try to apply pressure on the ball or run through to deny a back pass to the keeper3. If the latter, then someone, maybe the left midfielder, must push up to be able to apply pressure to the other center-back, if he receives the ball4. Due to the potential potency of center back who can play with the ball at his feet, in the face of such pressure, Arsenal would benefit from City keeping DeMichelis on the bench, if they wish to play a pressing game. And if the ball played back to the keeper, Arsenal can either continue to push the entire team forward or retreat, allowing City to build-up again, hoping to actually win the ball the next time around or just continue to keep City out of dangerous areas, until they make a mistake.
In Possession, Patience is a Virtue
While out of possession, coordinated aggression seems the best way to prevent City from playing to their strengths. In possession, a more patient approach may prove beneficial. Controlling possession starves the likes of David Silva and Sergio Aguero of the ball. With Aguero coming back from injury and the role he has played this season, City probably do not want him spending too much time closing down center backs or the holding midfield. They want him to save his energy for those 10 meter bursts, either with the ball or without it, when City have the ball in Arsenal territory. Therefore, controlling possession can help to either force City’s key attacking players to expend energy when they do not wish to, or it allows them to take advantage of these players not working with the rest of the team to control space out of possession.
If City opt for greater control out of possession, and look to exploit spaces Arsenal’s attacking shape may leave uncontrolled, then James Milner could play instead of Samir Nasri. From his wide position, he may look to play rather narrow to help Fernando and Fernandinho control the center of the pitch.
Ideally, Arsenal would have a fit trio of Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey, and Mikel Arteta, with Ozil ahead of them to give them potentially four players in the center of midfield, with the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck pinning City’s back four, in prime positions to exploit Vincent Kompany’s willingness, but lack of ability, to effectively push up the pitch to make a play on the ball or on a player.
While they do not have the ideal players fit to pull this off, they should still look to dominate the center of the pitch. By looking to constantly have a man advantage, such that an option is always available to the man on the ball, Arsenal can patiently build their attacks, allowing them to push two players up top to occupy City’s center backs. With proper movement and ball circulation, Arsenal have the ability to get a player like Santi Cazorla, Alexis Sanchez, etc. on the ball, with space and time, in front of City’s back line. With two players occupying the center backs, a City center back stepping up to challenge the ball, gives Arsenal a chance to move the ball forward to an unmarked player.
Patience in the build-up also allows for Arsenal to push one or two fullbacks higher up the pitch to help prevent the fullbacks from staying narrow and working to close down the player with the ball or to give that player the ability to switch the play, in the scenario described above. Patience in possession gives the team a greater ability to set up their attacking shape to better counter-press their opponent’s attacking transition, limiting the effectiveness of their opponent’s counter attacks. Therefore, the downside of attempting penetrative dribbles or riskier passes is mitigated. With players like Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey, who will take risks in possession, and with City’s ability to exploit uncontrolled spaces, such patience could help make the difference between a tightly contested match at the Etihad and Arsenal constantly being cut apart, leading to the match being over after the first half.
Follow Naveen on Twitter @njm1211
1.If we were to divide the field into six equal vertical columns, from left to right, we have wide area, half-space, central area, central area, half-space, wide area↩
2.Proactiveness being defined as the level of effort a team has with respect to controlling the space the ball occupies, either occupying the space in resides in at that moment in time, or by directing the ball into a space they control, with the goal of winning possession↩
3.This example illustrates one of the reasons to prefer Danny Welbeck up front over Olivier Giroud. When Giroud presses, he tends to sell the farm. If his relative inability to continue a pressing run or to change direction, his lack of understanding of how to bend his runs to press and better block passing lanes, and his relative lack of athleticism make him a significantly inferior presser. Therefore, this limits the ability for Arsenal to execute a pressing plan like this↩
4.How the center back receives the ball also come into play. For example, if he ends of controlling the ball facing his own goal, then the center forward has more reason to shut down the passing lane to the goalkeeper, as the chance of a lateral or forward pass are lower. The characteristics of the man on the ball matter, as well. For example, if the player is one-footed and receives the ball on his weaker foot, he may look to move the ball to his stronger foot, which allows the team more time to get into the next phase of this press. Also, in this situation, a center back with little ability to use his right foot, who gets pulled wide by the pass, has little ability to play a long diagonal ball, giving the pressing side to more aggressively cut off the passing lanes closer to the man on the ball. Little details, like this, can play a big role in the success of a press ↩