Sunday’s 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium between Manchester City and Arsenal made interesting viewing for a number of reasons. City are formidable at home, unbeaten since a defeat by Everton as far back as December 2010, whilst this was the toughest test for Arsène Wenger’s improved and resurgent team. As is inevitable with Roberto Mancini at the moment, there was plenty to look at from a tactical point of view. Indeed, the game was an interesting battle in this regards, with interesting selection choices and adjustments throughout which altered the pattern of the game.
On twitter (not always the best place to judge, I admit) there was plenty of chatter and bemusement regarding the decision to select Aaron Ramsey on the right, as opposed to the other more naturally attacking options available to Wenger. However, as I alluded to in my previous column, although Arsenal’s shape is a variation of a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 it is heavily slanted with the left-side as the most attacking. The onus is on the right-sided player to contribute more defensively, operating in a deeper-lying and often more central area, meaning a ‘midfield-type’ in Wenger’s words is more suitable. Thus the choice was always going to be between Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain for the role – even without his contractual issues, Theo Walcott will only be an impact sub whilst Arsenal persist with this left-sided focus.
The chart below highlights the passes received by Ramsey in the first half when Arsenal were most dominant, which were predominantly in the middle third of the pitch and indicated his licence to roam and join the midfield collective centrally. Arsenal’s best bit of play resulted in Ramsey drifting into a central position and exchanging passes with Santi Cazorla before releasing Gervinho with a perfectly weighted through ball, although the Ivorian’s control let him down and the chance was wasted.
Mancini is clearly attempting to introduce a tactical fluidity to his side this year, to enable them to take varying approaches against different teams. In the long run this will most likely be of great benefit, however it is causing some short term niggles. Scott Sinclair was brought in, probably anticipating that Carl Jenkinson would be Arsenal’s weak link, and City reverted to a variant of 4-4-2 with David Silva tucked in on the other side. However Jenkinson continued with his impressive performances meaning Sinclair had no effect on the game, whilst Silva was also on the periphery. The player influence charts for the first half explain Arsenal’s dominance, as with the two City wide men on the edge of the game and Ramsey tucking in, it was effectively a battle of four against two. The intricate passing proved too much for Yaya Toure and Javi Garcia and, despite going into the interval a goal down, Arsenal were undoubtedly the better team.
Although it was Mancini’s tactical setup which hindered the team in the first half, the advantage of his tinkering is that the system can be changed if things are not working. The half-time substitution of Jack Rodwell for Sinclair was in response to Arsenal’s dominance in the central area of the pitch. Subsequently, City had their best period of the game, subduing Arsenal and gaining a foothold in midfield. The player influence chart for the second half shows City had a much more balanced shape in the second half, with Rodwell tucking in to form a midfield three at times and Silva allowed to roam to effect the game in more advanced areas. Although it may have appeared as though Rodwell had little influence on the game to the naked eye – he only attempted 15 passes in the second half, compared to Ramsey for example with 39 – he was introduced to perform a tactical duty and did so.
It was not until Wenger made two changes in the 72nd minute, bringing on Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud, that Arsenal began to exert their influence on the game once again. Mancini’s tactical adjustment had neutered Arsenal up until that point, but the change in attacking focus gave City something new to think about. Giroud has received some overly harsh criticism already, which is particularly unfair given that he is a young player trying to adapt to a new league. However his presence as an attacking pivot is very useful and combined with his clever movement, he allowed Arsenal to advance further up the pitch and cause City some new problems. Furthermore, with Theo Walcott occupying Gael Clichy and David Silva unwilling to track back, Jenkinson was afforded further space to attack into and offered another outlet in the final 20 minutes. Arsenal’s pressure told and they finished the game as the stronger of the two sides, equalising in the process before Gervinho wasted another great chance at the death.
For all the tactical nuances, the game proved to be a tight affair with set pieces required to provide the breakthrough at both ends. However there were plenty of positives to take from an Arsenal point of view, whilst Manchester City can and will undoubtedly improve.