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The Regista - Man City vs Arsenal tactical review: Pep & Arteta locked horns in top tier chess masterclass's tactics expert Connor Holden reviews Arsenal's 0-0 draw at Manchester City and insists the clash between Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta was one of the great strategic battles of the season.

In a game that many neutral fan's have labelled a “snooze fest", I instead witnessed a top tier chess match between two elite coaches, both challenging for the title. And the two most important pieces on this 105m by 68m chess board were Josko Gvardiol and Mateo Kovacic for Pep Guardiola's plan.


Manchester City started in their usual 4-2-3-1 “on paper" formation, which many presumed would set up with Rodri and Manuel Akanji sometimes stepping into defensive midfield (something Pep often uses) and Kovacic having a hybrid role between midfield and the more advanced half space on the left at times.

But this is what we saw instead…


Kovacic as a primary left centre-back progressor. City still made their central 3-2 base, but configured differently.

Gvardiol (circled yellow) pushed up from LCB, to almost play as the left midfielder, pinning Arsenal's fullback and giving Bukayo Saka an extremely hard task.

Akanji started the game doing the same job on the right hand side, seeing Bernardo Silva drop alongside Rodri from the right, forming the pivot in front of the three (Kovacic, Nathan Ake and Ruben Dias).

This configuration was put in place by Guardiola to disrupt the function of Arsenal's high press (which has made them the best out of possession team in the Premier League this campaign).

By moving Kovacic into the backline, and therefore pushing Gvardiol forward on the left, it meant City had their best ball carrier (at least on the pitch) playing deeper.

Therefore if Arsenal went to push man for man, Kovacic had the required quality and guile to glide past his man and drive City forward. This nullified Arsenal's ability to go man for man in a high press, with many of their pressing triggers not being met (poor first touch, facing his own goal etc).

Arteta then adapted and sat off more (what Pep essentially wanted) not triggering the press high up, but instead going into their mid block.

This allowed Gvardiol to pin Saka back (looking like a right wing-back at times) and sustain pressure in the attacking third. Due to Saka being pinned back, and the same on the other side with Gabriel Jesus and Akanji, this allowed City to not only sustain pressure for their attacks, but also cancel out the wide threat on the break of Saka and Gabriel Jesus.


On the few occasions Declan Rice did win the ball back, his out ball was central through Kai Havertz and Martin Odegaard, but due to the spacing between those two central outlets, and the wide men (who are pinned back) they were unable to make up the ground and offer a threat out wide on the break.


Guardiola did this by design, not coincidence. He wanted to control large periods of the game, nullify Arsenal's out of possession weapons and stop their counter threats.


Now that I've spoken about the positives Guardiola's approach offered, let's look at the main negative, which was the personnel left in 1v1 wide isolations.

Often due to this set up, it would be Gvardiol who found himself in space out wide to attack the byline and/or cross into the box.

This obviously isn't the optimal choice, you would much rather have a two way 1v1 specialist out there, to mix things up, beat his man and create high percentage chances from these isolations, however City had taken the approach to stop Arsenal's high press, pin them back and have more control over all aspects of the game, so this was what they had to give up.

However later in the game, Pep of course knew this was a weakness of his set up, and he did respond with substitutions of Jack Grealish and Jerermy Doku in the 61st minute.


This changed the dynamic, Gvardiol shifting to a LCB role in possession, and allowing Grealish to take up that wide left position, with Rico Lewis shifting from right back into midfield alongside Rodri in possession to let Doku occupy the wide right space.

This now meant when City shifted the ball into these 1v1 wide isolations, they had 1v1 specialists who could beat their man, attack the box and create chances.

On a few occasions Doku got 1v1 and managed to create a half chance, wriggling free and pulling a cross into the box, however City wasn't able to capitalise on any of these, largely due to the excellent box defending from Arsenal.

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About the author

Connor Holden


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