This weekend, Arsenal showed why they can’t be taken seriously going into big games. On paper, Unai Emery’s plan may have seemed right but, in action, it definitely wasn’t.
From the off, it seemed that Emery had conceded defeat to Manchester City. This could be seen in the shape of the team. The selection suggested a three/five-man defence would be played. Instead, he opted to use a flat 4-4-2. This included left-back/wing-back Sead Kolasinac at left midfield.
Emery knew Arsenal wouldn’t dominate at the Etihad. That isn’t why he was at fault for this shape. Instead, it was the manner in which the team played. Over the course of the game, sticking with this shape proved costly for Arsenal.
That flat 4-4-2 was evident before Manchester City scored their opener after 48 seconds. This brought back memories of their famous win at City in the 2014/15 season. In that game, Arsene Wenger arrived in Manchester willing to forfeit possession play for points.
However, there was a big difference in how that was executed on Sunday. This was a mixture of square pegs in round holes as well as what seemed to be a much too cautious approach.
How that played into City’s hands
With Arsenal retreating at every opportunity, this opened the pitch up greatly for City. They were able to move the ball patiently and create patterns of play to make openings.
A big reason why they were able to do this with ease was Arsenal’s compactness. Conceding possession so willingly, Manchester City were in control of the game. Knowing this, Arsenal became more compact as the game went on, even once they equalised.
This meant that if City’s wide players held their width, they’d be left in acres of space. Funnily enough, with Pep Guardiola practicing this type of discipline with his wingers for the past decade, this is what happened.
Here’s how those patterns began to emerge.
This is a move that City put together time and again. When Arsenal became rigid, this was a way they could be broken down. The defence were clearly not a unit able to move in unison.
As Arsenal edged closer to half time, there was a sense of false security. They seemed to have got back into the game. Manchester City weren’t attacking as potently as in the opening exchanges. However, those patterns are what helped them regain the lead just before the break.
Arsenal’s failure on the counter
With Arsenal’s defence and midfield dropping so deep, their strikers did too. Often during the game, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang could be seen as part of Arsenal’s deep block.
This limited Arsenal heavily. With their main attacking threats so deep they couldn’t break upfield, there was no out ball and no support once they got into advanced areas.
This is another reason why Emery got his tactics wrong on the day. Against Manchester City, the central areas are always going to be packed when you have the ball. When they’re attacking, however, they’ll make the pitch as wide as possible. Knowing this, going with the expected three/five-man defence looks like it would’ve been the best way to combat them.
In defence, it would have given the wing-backs more confidence to go and mark their wingers. In attack, like for City, it would have opened the pitch nicely and given Arsenal opportunities to progress upfield.
Rather than having two lines of players to help progress, you have at least double. You can have threats from the wing-backs, central midfielders, the more advanced midfielder and your strikers. This will give you a greater chance of reaching the danger areas around the box as players have more support.
Sead Kolasinac has done well in that system this season, so it was surprising that he wasn’t used there on Sunday. Here’s an example of how he has excelled there this season.
Arsenal’s defence must improve
Finally and probably most importantly, Arsenal’s defenders need to improve individually. Keeping just four Premier League clean sheets this season, that goes without saying. However, the goals conceded at the Etihad could have been prevented by more Premier League defenders if they had been doing their jobs.
This applies for each City goal on the day and proves there is a lot of work to be done before Arsenal have a solid defence. Just look at the goal images earlier in the piece to see how.
Overall, the result was expected, but the performance wasn’t. In retrospect, this approach most likely came from the thrashing at the hands of Liverpool in December. With that being said, however, seeing Arsenal accept defeat at kick-off isn’t something that Arsenal fans would want to become accustomed to over time.
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