Arsenal 0-2 Manchester City: Growing Pains

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In Unai Emery’s first game in charge, it was the passing, not pressing, which was the main focus. Petr Cech was under the most scrutiny during the game, and afterwards, he provided the best breakdown of Arsenal’s approach.

“We came to the game with our objectives to grow up as a team” he said, “to learn our way, how we want to play and obviously we had the task of doing it against one of the best teams, so it was difficult. But at times we did really well, and we put them under some pressure as well. Unfortunately, we just couldn’t find that final pass to finish the opportunities off.

“We set this out and I think you need to be brave to do that and carry on even when you know the pressure is coming and we managed to do so. There are things we need to improve, the second phase to go through that build up, but overall it was a positive performance.”

Cech himself was one of the key men in helping Arsenal build effectively, but he looked ungainly beginning attacks. Indeed, in one instance, he nearly passed the ball into his own net when the ball was played back to him by Matteo Guendouzi.

“I have to say that I enjoy it because I played under different managers with different styles and over most of my career I was always asked to play long, so this is a pleasant change for me and it will be very useful when you want to beat a team who controls the game through possession. You need to create the superiority in the back when you build up and obviously today they are very used to playing a high press and they did it very well. At times they put us under pressure but I think we did pretty well over the course of the game.”

Arsenal tried to go toe-to-toe with Man City in possession, to not let their opponent’s exert their influence on the ball, but there was clearly a gulf in experience in playing this way, and that’s reflected in the first-half stats. Arsenal attempted 42% of all their first-half passes in their defensive third, whilst it was only 23% for City – highlighting just how comfortable they are at playing out and finding practiced combinations on the pitch (and not to mention, getting through Arsenal’s press).

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Unai Emery surprisingly chose to go with a narrow 4-4-2 shape, going against nearly all the indications he showed in pre-season. In those friendly games, Guendouzi was the standout player due to the way he dropped between the two centre-backs to collect the ball and spread. Here, against Manchester City, that duty was shared with Granit Xhaka, and Arsenal struggled to find fluency. Indeed, before the season started, Emery himself seemed to intimate that to play with “three in the midfield” was the best shape to allow Arsenal to progress the ball properly. Against City, attempts to build from the back were clunky, with the full-backs often marked, and the attacking midfielders unable to recieve the ball between the lines. Instead, it relied heavily on Xhaka and Guendouzi to drop in mostly to the sides of the centre-backs, but no one to play it to. Below is where it initially didn’t work…

..and when Arsenal got it right.

Manchester City’s shape was a joy to behold. The amorphous approach caused Arsenal no end of problems.

And then switching off for the goal.

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