Arsenal: Cech; Monreal, Coquelin (Lacazette), Koscielny; Kolasinac, Xhaka (Giroud), Ramsey, Bellerin; Iwobi (Wilshere), Sanchez, Ozil
Manchester City: Ederson; Delph, Otamendi, Stones, Walker; D. Silva, Fernandinho, de Bruyne; Sane (B. Silva), Aguero (Jesus), Sterling (Gundogan)
Arsenal’s Defensive Structure
Wenger adjusted Arsenal’s 3-4-2-1 defensive approach depending on the area of the pitch Manchester City were starting their initial buildup. If City’s transitional play occurred deep in their own half, the front three along with the two central midfielders would press aggressively. Typically, Sanchez would press aggressively around the central sector. Ozil and Iwobi would move inward to deny easy progression to Fernandinho. The two central midfielders, Ramsey and Xhaka, stayed centrally and moved their position according to de Bruyne and Silva. If City tried progression down the flanks, the wing-back would step up and press against the touchline. Several times when Arsenal was able to win the ball back, the positional setup of their press would make for easy progression into the final third. Wenger clearly borrowed heavily from Maurizio Sarri’s tactics, though adopted a more tempered approach as to avoid fatigue.
When City started build up closer to the midway line, Arsenal was more likely to adopt a space-oriented press based on a conservative 5-4-1 with Sanchez as the lone forward. For parts of the game, Arsenal was able to keep their defensive block stable and prevent City easy access into central areas. Iwobi and Ozil were diligent at times to choke off vertical passing lanes by keeping compact and pressuring the space. Their strong spatial occupation made it easier for Arsenal to progress quickly when they were able to counterattack. Quick one-two’s around the 6 space along with near-flank releases to the wing-backs established several dangerous situations that Arsenal failed to capitalise on.
Man City Exploit the Gaps
Of course, Arsenal was not able to maintain 90 minutes of defensive consistency and City were able to deploy a positional structure that kept ball progression strong. City’s utilised a flexible asymmetric structure with Fernandinho roaming around the 6 space and the ball-side advanced midfielder deeper in the half-space. With five players available for close ball circulation, City had a clear advantage in their initial buildup and would use quick passes to access either David Silva or de Bruyne in the near half space.
If Arsenal’s compactness made vertical progression difficult, City would create local overloads then quickly play long diagonals to release the wide forwards. Sane and Sterling’s positioning in the half space and not on the flank established easy switching of play. This did not give the Arsenal defence enough time to readjust their defensive shape.
As the game moved forward and became stretched, City was able to exploit the central spaces easily. The gap between the midfielder and defence for Arsenal would not be as compact as it was early in the game and the two advanced midfielders were able to receive the ball with relative ease. Even their presence caused considerable problems as it constantly manipulated Arsenal’s local pressing, with some confusion as to whether close the gap or maintain a strong defensive line. These transitional battles caused Arsenal some problems as they chased an equaliser in the second half.
Arsenal’s Possessional Weakness
Arsenal at points in the game was able to exploit the gaps in City’s defensive structure and generate some quality chances. Much of their best chances came when they were able to quickly transition into the attack, not allowing City to set up in their defensive shape. Typical of Arsenal, they would create local combinations and third-man releases to push City deeper in their half. Midfield runs by Ramsey exploited the half spaces left unoccupied, forcing either the ball-side centre back or Fernandinho to close him down. If communication broke down, Ramsey could get into dangerous positions to receive the ball.
Arsenal’s possessional frailties kicked in during parts of the game. Their ball circulation tended to stall as they moved into City’s final third, especially if their buildup occurred along the flanks. Sloppy passing left massive spaces for City to counterattack into since Xhaka and Ramsey would push higher up in their attacking phase. Strong central compactness was needed to deny City these kinds of opportunities but it is difficult to maintain over the course of the game.
On Coquelin as a Defender
Wenger had a curious comment as to why he used Coquelin in the central role in Arsenal’s back three: “You’re a defensive midfielder or a defender, it’s exactly the same. I don’t think that was a problem in our game.” For someone as illustriously well-known as Arsene Wenger, it reads as a terribly naive statement to make. Not all defenders can be defensive midfielders nor vice versa; while there may be some overlaps in the requisite skills necessary to play each position effectively, the fundamental differences are vast enough to make them difficult to interchange.
What makes the three centre back formation so effective is that the more central back can act as a modern-style libero to both start possession and add extra security in the defensive phase. Some of the best liberos in history – Franco Baresi, Gaetano Scirea, or Miodrag Belodedechi – share similar traits: positional awareness, composure, technical ability, passing, and vision. The three-back formation allows for the central defender to be more aggressive when in possession, pushing higher up the pitch to serve as a distributional outlet. In defence, they are positionally astute and are expert readers of the game. David Luiz’s peculiar qualities make him a perfect modern libero; Pep Guardiola even used David Alaba as one during his spell at Bayern Munich.
Francis Coquelin does not spring to mind when envisioning this type of player. Actually, Coquelin appears to be nothing more than a simple defensive destroyer (think Claude Makelele but from the Upside Down). He is positionally undisciplined, lacks good vision, is a simple passer, and can appear to be rushed when pressed in possession. A great example is during the 32nd minute. Coquelin receives the ball deep in the initial buildup and begins to be pressed by Kevin de Bruyne. He makes a nearly twenty yard run towards his own goal before hurriedly kicking the ball out for a Manchester City throw. If Arsenal fans had a choice, they would have gladly selected Lacazette before Coquelin in one of our most important matches of the season. Isn’t that what we paid £50m for?