LONDON, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 21: Mesut Ozil of Arsenal challenged by Fabian Delph and Yaya Toure of Man City during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester City at Emirates Stadium on December 21, 2015 in London. (Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)
Arsenal scored two goals in the final 15 minutes of the first half to defeat Manchester City.
Arsene Wenger was still without Alexis Sanchez so he made no significant changes to his starting XI.
Manuel Pellegrini welcomed back Sergio Aguero to lead the line, while Fabian Delph started on the left over Raheem Sterling. Delph played alongside David Silva in the no.10 role, and Kevin De Bruyne operated on the right.
Recurring issues with tactical discipline witnessed Arsenal overwhelm Manchester City at the Emirates following a positive start to a match where they simply lost control.
One of the key feats heading into the match was how either side would approach the match. City have showcased their pragmatism in big domestic games – this led to a dull goalless draw at Old Trafford – whereas Wenger employed reactive tactics to defeat Pellegrini’s men at the Etihad last season.
At the Emirates, neither side was willing to push forward. Despite dominating plenty of possession, City quickly dropped into two banks of four with Delph tucking centrally to help Silva press Aaron Ramsey, and quickly shifting towards the flanks to prevent Hector Bellerin from pushing forward.
The partnership of Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini deprive Arsenal of creativity and astute passing in deeper positions, so the intent to stifle the former was logical. With Aguero left with the responsibility of harrying both Arsenal centre-backs, Laurent Koscielny often pushed forward to play passes into midfield – though they were often misplaced, the Frenchman’s passing was eventually decisive.
Arsenal, on the other hand, were more of a 4-5-1 with Ozil joining Ramsey and Flamini in midfield, opting to minimize passing lanes in central areas. Olivier Giroud’s work-rate was occasionally useful as well, as he dropped off to apply pressure on Yaya Toure and Fernandinho, who had ample time to spread play to the wings as the hosts dropped off into their defensive base shape.
Ultimately this lead to a dull opening half hour of football, as neither side was keen on allowing the opposition space between the lines.
There was a sense of caution in City’s approach from the opening whistle – Delph’s inclusion on the left justified the notion – as they dominated possession throughout the first half but failed to create chances from open play. Wenger’s men deserve credit for remaining compact and limiting spaces between the lines, but City are also culpable for their lack of conviction in the final third.
They preferred safe sideways passes with Toure and Fernandinho within close proximity of each other leading the charge at the half way line, while De Bruyne and Silva were stifled between the lines. Aguero lacked match sharpness and was contained well by the Arsenal centre-backs, and City’s attacking full-backs lacked options in the box when they pushed forward to play crosses.
Nevertheless, prior to Walcott’s opener it was De Bruyne who created the best chances of the match. The Belgian delivered plenty of crosses that were easily cleared throughout, but initially, he comfortably glided past Arsenal left back Nacho Monreal and forced Petr Cech to make a near post save.
The game-defining moment however, came seconds prior to City conceding. Coincidentally it was Eliaquim Mangala – another centre-back igniting a positive move – that located Aguero, and the Argentinian dropped off Koscielny and instantly flicked the ball into space behind Walcott and Monreal for De Bruyne.
De Bruyne drove into the box, and opposed to passing to Silva – in fairness Per Mertesacker did well to cut off the lane to the Spaniard – the Belgian flashed his shot wide of the net. It appeared that City’s dominance was beginning to fluster Wenger’s men, but City’s possession was predominantly bland, and a moment of brilliance from Walcott changed the match.
Silva vs. Ozil
The exciting element to this match involved the Premier League’s star creative midfielders, and it was fitting that both men started in their preferred no.10 role. David Silva has been the key man for City in recent years, and arguably the league’s best performer over the past 24 months, but Ozil’s 13 assists heading into the match represented the German rediscovering his best form.
However, the contrast in how they were marked prove decisive. Both prefer to drift laterally between the lines to receive the ball, but neither playmaker did so with ease in the opening stages. Silva was man-marked across the pitch by Flamini and was unable to receive the ball in tight spaces.
Apart from one moment at the edge of the box when Silva skied his shot over the net, the Spaniard’s best moments stemmed on the break where he had enough space to freely play forward passes to the wide players. In open play, the City playmaker was restricted to dropping deeper towards the halfway line to influence the game.
City’s approach didn’t have the same impact on Ozil, but initially it was simple and effective. The German’s attempt to bypass City’s midfield block involved movement towards the flank, but Pellegrini instructed the closest holding midfielder to shuttle over to apply pressure.
Ultimately, Pellegrini gambled with his midfield pairing, as on countless occasions Toure has been guilty of leaving Fernandinho exposed with his reluctance to quickly retreat into shape. Yet, to no surprise, Arsenal’s best moves in the first half involved Ozil recording two assists by exploiting space behind the Ivorian.
- 5th min: Koscielny’s pass finds Ozil in space behind Toure, but the German’s ball to Walcott was slightly over-hit.
- 31st min: 1-0 Walcott. A similar pass from Koscielny finds Ozil again in acres of space behind Toure, but this time he connects with Walcott, who cuts back to the edge of the box and curls a splendid strike beyond Joe Hart. This wasn’t a traditional assist, but nonetheless, who was Toure marking?
- 46th min: 2-0 Giroud. A series of errors from Eliaquim Mangala and Fernandinho enables Walcott to pick up a loose ball at the half way line and locate Ozil in space behind the Brazilian. Ozil quickly slid a pass into the box for Giroud to double Arsenal’s lead.
Arsenal’s productivity in City’s third was scarce, but the difference in defending the opposing playmaker proved costly for City. Silva’s threat was thoroughly negated due to Flamini’s work-rate – despite it creating space for De Bruyne and Toure to drive into, which in fairness wasn’t a first half issue – while Ozil patiently waited for City’s midfield duo to get caught out of position to impact the match.
Arsenal second half chances
Pellegrini quickly reacted to his side trailing by two goals by turning to Sterling in place of Delph on the left. City still encountered issues going forward with Toure and Aguero still moving languidly, while Bellerin kept tight on Sterling to nullify his threat from the left. Apart from two near post Aguero headers from set-pieces, and a tame toe poke towards Cech, City offered no threat in the final third.
The same can’t be said about Arsenal, as their full-backs were increasingly proactive. Likewise, Joel Campbell ran across Aleksandar Kolarov twice in the box to blast his initial effort over the net, and force Hart into a simple save that once again stemmed from a Koscielny diagonal.
Ramsey posed a threat with is deep runs from midfield, but equally displayed the discipline issues he possesses considering there was no need to risk a City counter in this situation. A break ignited by Bellerin’s willingness to outfight Fernandinho resulted in Ramsey running beyond both centre-backs into the box, but once again he was denied by Hart.
Then, one move in the dying moments epitomized City’s poor defensive play in two phases. Both Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi failed to cope with Giroud, thus enabling the Frenchman to lay the ball off to substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and the England international picked out Ramsey who charged past Toure into the box only to clip his shot wide of the net.
Arsenal created countless chances in the second half with City eager to throw players forward, but poor finishing, and Hart’s heroics provided City with a lifeline.
Pellegrini’s initial attempt to rescue the match was unsuccessful, so he sacrificed two of his three underperforming stars in Silva and Aguero for Wilfried Bony and Jesus Navas. The formation remained the same, but it essentially gave City a new dimension with Bony serving as an aerial threat, whereas now the away side offered pace and natural width on both flanks.
The latter’s introduction appeared peculiar initially considering Wenger made his favourite substitution when ahead, introducing Kieran Gibbs for Campbell to ensure adequate protection down the flanks. Wenger also decided to move to a natural 4-5-1 replacing Ozil with Oxlade-Chamberlain, and pushing the England international alongside Ramsey and Flamini for additional protection in midfield.
The hosts now appeared content to protect their lead with an additional midfielder – even as a duo Mangala and Otamendi failed to negate Giroud’s influence and there was no need for a floater behind the Frenchman – but Pellegrini reverted to the shape that was successful in the early stages of the season, introducing two wide players and shifting De Bruyne to his preferred no.10 role.
City push for equalizer
City’s resurgence followed shortly after, with De Bruyne’s movement and Arsenal’s energy levels decreasing. Toure instantly played a pass into De Bruyne between the lines thus leading to Sterling receiving the ball in the box to cut in on Bellerin and curl a weak effort at Cech.
LONDON, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 21: Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester City at the Emirates Stadium on December 21, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill – AMA/Getty Images)
De Bruyne varied his movement to the flank to receive service, but it should also be noted that Flamini maintained his position opposed to tracking the Belgian’s movement. Along with Navas breaking past Monreal on a clear break-away and opting to pass rather than shoot – a typical error in decision-making from the Spaniard that’s displayed frequently – De Bruyne was the catalyst behind a potential City recovery.
Subsequent to Toure’s wonder-goal, De Bruyne ran beyond the defence to combine with Bony resulting in the Ivorian’s shot being blocked for a corner. Then, Toure surged through the Arsenal midfield to receive De Bruyne’s lay off in the box but the 32-year-old poked the ball wide of the net.
Arsenal’s persistence to seek a third goal left them vulnerable on the counter, but Wenger’s alterations didn’t necessarily improve their situation. De Bruyne was lively in a no.10 role, and it must be said that both wide players were handed a quality opportunity to score, which emphasizes that this is City’s most effective set-up going forward.
Arsenal claimed the most important fixture of the title race thus far, with the simplicity in the buildup to both goals once again exploiting City’s fragility in midfield and the centre-back positions. In ways, the manner in which Ozil and Silva were marked display the contrast in preparations between the two managers.
In what was building up to be a slow-burning cagey encounter, Walcott’s goal led to an open match that frankly could’ve ended as an Arsenal blowout. City’s approach was fairly conservative, but they simply looked out-of-order going forward, and enjoyed their best moments when Pellegrini reverted to an expansive shape.
The sides that focus on organization and compact shapes out of possession have prospered in the current Premier League season, and here, Arsenal followed suit.