Talking Tactics: How Pep Guardiola Outsmarted His Former Assistant Mikel Arteta

Space in between Arsenal's lines vs Manchester City
Space in between Arsenal's lines vs Manchester City | Neel Shelat/90Min

One of the most anticipated clashes in the new season of the Premier League saw Manchester City host Arsenal at the Etihad Stadium. Mikel Arteta returned to his old hunting ground, but this time he was sitting in the hot seat of the away bench. Although the match that followed was decided by a solitary goal, it certainly didn't disappoint as there were supremely intriguing tactical battles all over the pitch.

Here, we will try to break all of that down in a tactical analysis:

Arsenal's Formation

Mikel Arteta went for his usual system - the 3-4-3 which transitions to a 4-2-1-3 of some sort in attack - but with a few minor tweaks.

Arsenal's lineup vs Manchester City
Arsenal's lineup vs Manchester City | Neel Shelat/90Min

As far as the team selection is concerned, there was nothing too surprising in midfield or defence. Perhaps, if he had more time in training, Thomas Partey would have been selected to start, but that was not the case. In attack, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's inclusion was no surprise, but the fact that Nicolas Pépé replaced Alexandre Lacazette in the side took many aback.

This change in personnel can be explained with the logic that Arteta was trying to exploit City's biggest weakness - the left-back role. Pépé is speedy and a tricky dribbler, traits that make him very hard to defend against one-on-one, particularly when your strength isn't defending. Willian, on the other hand, was somewhat of a false nine - aiming to create space in behind for the pacey Aubameyang and Pépé to run into.

Arsenal's switch in formation when in  possession vs Manchester City
Arsenal's switch in formation when in possession vs Manchester City | Neel Shelat/90Min

When they had the ball, Arsenal made the all-familiar change to a 4-2-1-3 of a sort, as Kieran Tierney moved out to the left-back role, freeing up Bukayo Saka and allowing him to get forward.

They maintained that sort of a shape while pressing too.

Arsenal's formation while pressing vs Manchester City
Arsenal's formation while pressing vs Manchester City | Neel Shelat/90Min

Granit Xhaka moved up in midfield, while Dani Ceballos and Bukayo Saka stayed behind him on either side. The front-three were tasked with pressing the City defence. You can see those changes below:

Arsenal's press vs Manchester City
Arsenal's press vs Manchester City | Neel Shelat/90Min

In defence, they switched formation yet again.

Arsenal's defensive shape vs Manchester City
Arsenal's defensive shape vs Manchester City | Neel Shelat/90Min

The switch to a 5-4-1 wasn't anything new either, as we had seen Arsenal do this in all three matches against Liverpool. Their main goal was to prevent Manchester City from passing their way through the midfield by staying narrow and blocking that off. This meant that they were happy to force their opponents wide and even allow crosses into the box since City's lack of height up front made balls into the box relatively easy to defend.

Arsenal's compact midfield in defence vs Manchester City
Arsenal's compact midfield in defence vs Manchester City | Neel Shelat/90Min

Above, you can clearly see how Arsenal tried to block the centre of the park - with five players in this case. This meant that City would have to go wide.

Arsenal's defensive formation vs Manchester City
Arsenal's defensive formation vs Manchester City | Neel Shelat/90Min

Once City reached the attacking third in a wide position, Arsenal tried to stay as compact and narrow as possible, as you can see above.

There wasn't anything unknown about Mikel Arteta's system, but the way Pep Guardiola countered it was genius.

Manchester City's Left-field System

Looking at the team sheet, it's quite hard to guess what sort of a formation Pep Guardiola was going to deploy, and everyone got it wrong yesterday.

Manchester City's lineup vs Arsenal
Manchester City's lineup vs Arsenal | Neel Shelat/90Min

Guardiola pulled a huge surprise out of his hat, as he went for somewhat of a 3-1-4-2. Kyle Walker, Rúben Dias and Nathan Aké were at the heart of defence, with Rodri sitting in front of them. João Cancelo and Bernardo Silva formed the surprise midfield pairing, while Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden retained width. Raheem Sterling played to the right and slightly behind Sergio Agüero.

While pressing, City switched to a 3-3-4, as the wide players pushed forward too.

Manchester City's formation while pressing vs Arsenal
Manchester City's formation while pressing vs Arsenal | Neel Shelat/90Min
Manchester City pressing vs Arsenal
Manchester City pressing vs Arsenal | Neel Shelat/90Min

You can evidently see the changes above, as Mahrez and Foden have pushed forward to join Agüero and Sterling.

When their press was broken, City had to quickly regroup and move to a defensive shape.

Manchester City's defensive formation vs Arsenal
Manchester City's defensive formation vs Arsenal | Neel Shelat/90Min

They did so by switching to a 3-5-2, as the wingers dropped back to help out in the defensive effort.

Mancehster City's defensive formation vs Arsenal
Mancehster City's defensive formation vs Arsenal | Neel Shelat/90Min

This is perhaps what explains Pep Guardiola's interesting team selection. João Cancelo's job was to basically stick with Bukayo Saka (Arsenal's third man on their left wing) and prevent him from doing damage, while Kyle Walker was tasked with keeping Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang quiet. He was deployed at centre-back so that he would never push forward and get caught out.

Those two natural right-backs were indeed City's key players in defence, as any lapses of concentration on their part would undoubtedly be punished. Both of them did a good job, but Cancelo had one big lapse which gave Arsenal a huge chance to equalise.

João Cancelo trying to clear the ball vs Arsenal
João Cancelo trying to clear the ball vs Arsenal | Neel Shelat/90Min

The Portuguese international made a bit of a mess in defence. He went to clear the ball, but was met by Kieran Tierney and failed to do so. This left him far away from Bukayo Saka, who nearly caused a lot of damage.

Bukayo Saka running onto a through pass vs Manchester City
Bukayo Saka running onto a through pass vs Manchester City | Neel Shealt/90Min

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was able to slip a pass to Saka, who was on the blindside of Rodri and miles away from Cancelo. The young Englishman had a great chance to score, but Ederson's brilliance denied him.

In truth, City defended very well and deservedly came away with a clean sheet, while Arsenal failed to make their biggest chance count.

The Deciding Goal

The only goal of the match came in the 23rd minute - perhaps a time when Arteta and Arsenal were trying to understand Pep Guardiola's system.

David Luiz pushing up vs Manchester City
David Luiz pushing up vs Manchester City | Neel Shelat/90Min

So, the two main centre-backs - David Luiz and Gabriel were asked to stay tight to Raheem Sterling and Sergio Agüero respectively. Above, you can see how far forward Luiz has gone to support his side's press and stick with Sterling.

Gabriel pushing up vs Manchester City
Gabriel pushing up vs Manchester City | Neel Shelat/90Min

Next, Gabriel went up to stay with Agüero, but City were calm once again and recycled possession. At this point, David Luiz is still getting back to his position, so Arsenal's centre-back line is extremely high.

Space in between Arsenal's lines vs Manchester City
Space in between Arsenal's lines vs Manchester City | Neel Shelat/90Min

While David Luiz managed to get back into the defensive line, Gabriel has stayed forward, leaving Dani Ceballos to fill in for him. The rest of the midfield (Xhaka and Saka) have pushed forward in an attempt to press, but that has left an acre of space between the lines. Dias looks to use that by sending a pass forward to Mahrez, who took it down brilliantly.

Sergio Agüero in space vs Arsenal
Sergio Agüero in space vs Arsenal | Neel Shelat/90MIn

Gabriel then furiously tracked back to cover the space, but he left Agüero all alone with no one around him. Mahrez played a perfect pass through to him, and then Arsenal were in trouble.

Phil Foden running through on goal vs Arsenal
Phil Foden running through on goal vs Arsenal | Neel Shelat/90Min

City found themselves in a three-on-three situation, which Agüero looked to exploit by sending Foden through on goal. The Englishman only managed to draw a save out of Bernd Leno, but there was more to follow.

Raheem Sterling scoring vs Arsenal
Raheem Sterling scoring vs Arsenal | Neel Shelat/90Min

The ball broke for Raheem Sterling, who was in line with Dani Ceballos. However, since Xhaka and Saka had pushed up to press, they were nowhere near the Manchester City captain, who had a half-open goal to aim at. He found the back of the net, and that's what decided the match.

Conclusion

This was easily one of the most tactically interesting matches of the season, as two managers who knew each other very well squared off. Pep Guardiola's left-field system took Arsenal aback at the start, and perhaps that's where the match was decided.

A great match and win for Manchester City, but there were some positive signs too.