Welcome to Talking Tactics: the home of weekly tactical analysis, whether it be a comprehensive breakdown of themes I have spotted over the weekend of football, or previewing an exciting battle that is around the corner.
The first edition focuses on the Premier League’s opening weekend blockbuster fixture between two heavyweights in Arsenal and reigning champs Manchester City.
On the day Pep Guardiola’s City got the better of The Gunners in Unai Emery’s Arsenal debut, despite not being at their best.
Let’s have a look what tactical themes Guardiola employed to get the win, whilst also keeping an eye on Emery’s gameplan and how it may have helped Arsenal’s ultimate poor performance…
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Cech; Bellerin, Mustafi, Sokratis, Maitland-Niles; Guendouzi, Xhaka; Ozil, Ramsey, Mkhitaryan; Aubameyang.
Manchester City (4-1-4-1): Ederson; Walker, Stones, Laporte, Mendy; Fernandinho; Mahrez, Gundogan, B. Silva, Sterling; Aguero.
- City playing with inverted full backs
- Arsenal sitting deep and narrow, defending in a 4-4-2 inviting City to play wide
- Pep’s transition between 3-4-3 and 4-3-3
- The varying roles of Benjamin Mendy
- Stones and Laporte’s ever growing importance
City’s use of inverted full backs
It’s not a new invention, in fact we’ve seen City play with inverted full backs many times in Pep Guardiola’s tenure in Manchester, especially in his debut season.
The reason in the first season was Guardiola’s acknowledgement that Sagna and Clichy were not capable of bombing up and down the touchline like the trademark Guardiola full back seen in Barcelona, Bayern and now with Walker and Mendy at City. He instructed his full backs to come narrow to overload the midfield and gain a numerical advantage. Often, this paid dividends, but it left City susceptible to the counter attack, as his defenders didn’t have sufficient recovery pace.
“If you’re a full back, you’re a failed winger or failed centre-back, no one grows up wanting to be a Gary Neville”
Jamie Carragher made this joke at the expense of Gary Neville and although it was humorous, it was an underlying realism of football of a decade ago. Full backs were seen as the least important players on the pitch.
In modern times, they are as important as any other player. In a Guardiola system, they could be viewed as the most important. There is no coincidence that Pep Guardiola spent circa £130m on full backs in summer 2017 and then went on to break all those records – they are pivotal to how his teams play.
Benjamin Mendy yesterday was no exception to that rule. After an injury ridden first season at the Etihad, Benjamin Mendy is back. City fans salivated at the thought of him back bombing up and down the left flank, utilising his venomous low cross.
At the Emirates, however, we saw a different Benjamin Mendy. Yes, he still did get forward quick at every opportunity, but often it would be in the left half-space.
In the above image, you can see when Aymeric Laporte, the left centre-back, receives the ball, Benjamin Mendy is in a narrow position as an auxiliary central midfielder. This gives City the necessary numerical advantage, whilst creating space for the winger, in this case Raheem Sterling.
Fabian Delph often occupied this role last season, but in a less aggressive manner and mostly deeper. In fact, Mendy’s role against Arsenal was probably the middle ground between the Delph role of last season and the Mendy ‘wing back’ tactic of very early 17/18.
It is not just on the ball that this tactic helps City, it is off. Mendy occupied the half space with his body shape open, allowing him to read and intercept many balls to prevent the counter attack.
City concede so few chances not because their back four is simply unstoppable, but because the first line of defence is so quick to get the ball back. If it goes through the first line of press, there is another, and if it escapes that, there is Fernandinho. No surprise that Fernandinho accumulates so many yellow cards per season.
Indeed, it was this occupation of the half space in a defensive manner that led to City’s opener.
As you can see, when Riyad Mahrez crossed the ball into the Arsenal penalty area, Benjamin Mendy (#22) and Fernandinho (#25) were positioned in similar positions, ready to intercept a clearance.
Mendy did pick up the loose ball, before passing into Sterling. The Frenchman made an overlapping run which left Bellerin in two minds, allowing Sterling to take it round him and finish well.
The inverted full back is a role that I am sure we will see many times this season from City, especially away from home, as they look to assert dominance.
Pep’s fluid formation changes
One feature of Pep Ball that makes him stand out from other top coaches is his in game management.
He often says he spends the first ten or fifteen minutes analysing the opposition and then gives his instructions. He has four or five tactics up his sleeve that he works on leading up to the game and then utilises them in play.
For example, against Manchester United at Old Trafford last season, Pep deployed Gabriel Jesus as a ‘false nine’. He would often drop deep allowing Sterling and Sane to tuck in behind him and make runs inside the full backs. The United defence wasn’t educated enough to know how to cope with City.
Although City only won via two goals from set plays that day, they tore the United defence apart and the 2-1 scoreline was very flattering for United.
At the Emirates on Sunday, Pep started with his base 4-3-3 formation, or 4-1-4-1, depending on how you look at it.
Often, however, City would employ a 3-4-3 shape.
Guardiola starts with a base formation, but often it looks different in and out of possession.
In the above image, you can see Mendy (#22) occupying the left wing position, whilst Sterling and Bernardo Silva are playing off Aguero in a trio. Kyle Walker (top right corner) would occupy a right centre back position, similar to that he played for England in Russia. This left Riyad Mahrez (furthest right) in space, allowing switches to both Mendy and Mahrez easy for City.
Off the ball, however, City would defend in a 4-4-1-1 shape.
You can see the transition from the 3-4-3 to a 4-4-1-1 within eight seconds in the above images. Sterling would drop in, as would Mendy, allowing two banks of four, helping City win the ball back easier, whilst limiting Arsenal’s space.
These are just a couple of examples of the fluidity of City’s transitional play, illustrating how quick they can change shapes.
Against a deeper block, which we may see next week when City play Huddersfield, who knows what shapes we may see City in. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw them play with a base of Stones and Laporte, supported by Fernandinho, but with every other player in an attacking role.
As was said, Pep will weigh up his opponent in the opening stages then make a move. When you see the master gesturing with his arms, it isn’t for no reason – he is instructing his players on what shape to use. A lot comes naturally, but Guardiola makes in play changes based on his opposition. He did so yesterday and it helped City on and off the ball.
Arsenal’s flawed game plan and painful playing out from the back
Before I start, this is not a scaling attack on Unai Emery. The first game of the season against the best team in the league is a big, big ask. But, Emery got his game plan wrong.
He instructed his players to be very narrow out of possession, probably to stop City playing through the middle. In some ways, it worked. Sergio Aguero was quiet, whilst Ilkay Gundogan struggled to make an impact from midfield in De Bruyne’s absence.
However, this just invited City to play it wide. John Stones and Aymeric Laporte both finished the game with a 93% pass completion rate, as Stones would often look to fire the ball early into the feet of Riyad Mahrez.
As is evident, Arsenal looked to shut off any balls through the middle, limiting Aguero. However, this left a lot of room for the likes of Riyad Mahrez to get the ball and pick a pass or cross.
It was all new for most of these Arsenal players, who are not used to Emery’s ideas. It was almost painful watching Arsenal play out from the back. Playing out from the back is an approach most modern coaches use, but it is not done for the sake of it.
Many football fans think playing out from the back is used by some teams simply because they are against ‘lumping the ball up’. It is not. Far from that, in fact. Playing out from the back has a purpose to draw the other team out and create space at the other end of the pitch.
Arsenal seemed to take note from City, setting up from their own goal kicks with the centre backs on each corner of the box and one of the midfielders dropping in to create a triangle. This allows the wing backs to push up. The aim is to make the pitch bigger. The image below shows City’s ideal setup on a goal kick:
From Ederson’s goal kick, because of the spaced out players, they have a three on three with Everton’s back line. The ball in this instance was chipped to Sane, who played in De Bruyne to set up Jesus for the goal.
Arsenal tried to play out from the back yesterday, but it just did not work. That doesn’t mean Emery should do away with it. It comes with practice. I’m sure the same can be said for Sarri’s Chelsea who are also implementing this for the first time.
However, against Manchester City wasn’t the best place to start. Cech was lucky on a couple of occasions, whilst Arsenal looked shaky when City’s trio of Sterling Aguero and Bernardo Silva pressed them in the 3-4-3 shape.
Overall, it was a pleasing afternoon for Guardiola and a big lesson for Emery. It is only match day one and I am sure Arsenal can bounce back stronger.
As a footnote, the importance of Stones and Laporte was crucial to City in every department at the Emirates, whilst on the other hand Arsenal’s back four looked very poor.
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