December 18, 2011
David Silva scored the winner in a match that should have produced more goals.
Roberto Mancini left out Edin Dzeko, which seems to be standard for big Premier League games. Gael Clichy was suspended so Pablo Zabaleta moved to the left with Micah Richards starting at right-back. Samir Nasri started in midfield over James Milner.
Arsene Wenger was short of full-backs and named an unchanged side from the XI which beat Everton 1-0 last weekend.
This was end-to-end and exciting – neither side ever had control of the game.
Both sides pressed heavily early on – City started in a similar fashion to they did in the defeat at Stamford Bridge last Monday, and Arsenal closed down well in midfield. There were various consequences of the pressing: lots of interceptions, a few fouls that had Phil Dowd reaching for his yellow card, and plenty of space in behind.
City were better at exploiting that space in the first half. Zabaleta got forward well to cross into the space behind Arsenal’s defence for Sergio Aguero for possibly the best chance of the first half – Aguero and Mario Balotelli both looked to spin into that space in central zones.
Arsenal’s approach was different, because their pace was on the flanks. City’s full-backs stayed quite conservative, though, which meant few opportunities for the wingers to speed towards goal. Gervinho played deeper and was good with his short passing but wasteful in the final third, whilst Walcott was much quieter. Robin van Persie played up against Kolo Toure rather than Vincent Kompany, which meant he was to the left of centre. This meant that:
(a) van Persie was in a better position to combine with Gervinho. Those two linked five times in the opening hour (ie before Walcott went off) whereas Walcott and van Persie didn’t link up once – a surprise since they usually enjoy a very good relationship.
(b) Kompany was more often than not the covering defender, and therefore it was difficult for Walcott to find space in behind as he was up against two defenders.
Aguero played high up which meant Arsenal often had 3 v 2 in midfield. When Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry looked to close down Alex Song and Mikel Arteta, Ramsey found himself in space but wasn’t really suited to the frantic end-to-end game, often picking up the ball with lots of space to motor into. He is better when he gets the ball into feet, and doesn’t look entirely comfortable in such an advanced role.
City had two midfielders coming into the centre – David Silva drifted across the pitch between the lines, whilst Nasri played a little deeper and sometimes acted as a third central midfielder. Those two weren’t as productive on the ball as you might expect, and them coming inside probably suited Arsenal’s makeshift back four, comprised of four centre-backs.
Equally, Arsenal weren’t as fluent as usual when they had possession, because neither of their full-backs was comfortable on the ball and capable of stretching the play to provide overlaps. In fact, with both sets of full-backs contributing little to the game in the attacking phase of play, the game was quite narrow overall.
Arsenal were forced to completely reshuffle their defence after Johan Djourou went off injured and was replaced by Ignasi Miquel, but they could have done more to stop the goal. A ball was played in behind their defence in a wide-left position, and Alex Song let Balotelli onto his stronger foot far too easily to get a shot in – Silva turned home the rebound.
City didn’t control the game very well when they were ahead. They continued to push for a second which was good for the neutral, but it was surprising Mancini didn’t introduce James Milner and Nigel de Jong sooner to give some balance and patience to their play in midfield. The game remained open, and both sides could have profited from that, but Mancini surely would have wanted a more ‘boring’ game after going ahead in the 53rd minute.
They still have a problem with giving the ball away too cheaply when Joe Hart is distributing – as shown below, they only really retain the ball when Richards can move high up on the right.
Arsenal fought back well and could have snatched an equaliser, but the two attacking substitutes (Marouane Chamakh and Andrei Arshavin) contributed next to nothing, and it’s difficult to understand why Yossi Benayoun remained on the bench – he would have loved the space between the lines. Thomas Vermaelen was a bigger threat than Chamakh or Arshavin with a couple of good long-range efforts.
This was a great game for the neutrals. So many of the matches between big Premier League clubs have been this season – we’ve had an 8-2, a 1-6, a 4-0, a 1-5, a 3-5 – and this could have been another high-scoring game.
But this should be praised only in terms of entertainment value. In tactical terms, teams may be ‘going for it’ more, but none of the big Premier League sides are good at controlling games. Ball retention is often poor, players aren’t capable of switching from an attacking mentality to a more conservative one, managers rarely use changes to slow the game down and protect what they have, and various clubs could do with another intelligent central midfielder to bring a degree of control.
This, in part, explains why English clubs have performed so poorly in Europe this season – they’re far too open, and seem to have regressed to style of play more fitting of English football ten years ago, albeit with more technical quality. That caveat means matches like this will be regarded as a positive, but had either side played like this against Barcelona or Real Madrid, they would have been soundly beaten. A good advert for the Premier League? Maybe, but not a good advert for English clubs on a broader level.