Manchester City last season played the majority of their season in a 4-4-2 formation with two of Dzeko/Negredo/Aguero up top, sometimes even deviating into a 4-4-1-1 formation when Aguero was fit for the beginning of the season. Under Roberto Mancini, City also experimented at times with a 4-2-3-1 formation with Aguero playing as one of the three attacking midfielders. This time around, Aguero played up top against an Arsenal side that has lined up in their customary 4-1-4-1 formation with Mathieu Flamini as the holding midfielder:
It was an interesting contrast of styles, especially considering that Man City had a makeshift midfield with Frank Lampard and Fernandinho playing as the two holding midfielders. Fernandinho was cynical with his tackles, but also was at times brilliant, looking the part of one of the best midfielders in the EPL. Silva and Aguero interchanged positions on a number of occasions, with Aguero drifting out on either flank and Silva playing as the #10.
In previous years Arsenal have been known for sticking with a tried and true 4-2-3-1 formation but have changed that to a 4-1-4-1 this season, almost doubling down on the lack of a powerful defensive midfielder. It’s left Mesut Ozil as a LW, a stop gap solution for Arsenal’s pseudo counter attacks because he brings finesse dribbling abilities. I’m not a fan of narratives based on hypothetical’s, trying to tie in a player’s performance with how they supposedly feel on the inside, so I won’t do that. But there’s something off-putting about seeing Ozil as a permanent LW who on occasion drifts back to his #10 position.
The teams played to a 2-2 draw, ultimately leaving us with more questions than answers.
It wouldn’t be a summer transfer window without Arsenal fans hyping up a summer signing to be the next best thing since sliced bread, highlighted by this. Let’s get this out of the way quickly, there is no way on god’s green earth that Danny Welbeck will approach the type of statistical profile that Robert Lewandowski has achieved and I’ll happily eat crow if otherwise.
But there was something intriguing to watch with Welbeck as the lone striker against the Manchester City CB’s. There was a clear emphasis for the first 20-25 minutes of playing through Welbeck, and it coincidentally was when Arsenal played some of their best football. Welbeck fitted in seamlessly in place of Olivier Giroud, hitting the post on a lovely chip shot from Silva’s horrible back pass. His acceleration in comparison to the Frenchman was obvious in the way he could make multiple runs one after another:
Welbeck for years has played in a number of positions, having been placed on the left wing for the majority of his final two seasons with Manchester United. There’s been data done on Welbeck’s profile as a forward, with the main complaint of him not being a high volume shooter even when he’s played as a forward. So it was encouraging to see that Welbeck shot five times and hit the target twice. On a team where he won’t have to deal with defensive responsibilities as much, maybe his shooting numbers will jump to a rate that will see his career jump to another level.
Arsenal’s Defensive Imbalance
In comparison to most matches, Manchester City were very much relying on the counter attack from the wings without Fernando and Yaya Toure. Aguero and Navas were immense in this, particularly Navas in the first half who dominated the right hand side versus Nacho Monreal. It was a clear compensation for the lack of spine in the midfield for City, and it still gave Arsenal troubles.
It’s been talked about ad nauseam with Arsenal, the lack of balance with their starting XI and the amount of work that is put on the shoulders of the central defensive midfielder in front of the back four, so we won’t regurgitate it here. And now with Debuchy’s ankle injury taking out their best RB, they’ll be even more questions to ask about Arsenal’s defense. Mathieu Flamini looked over worked as the only holding midfielder, a sight we’ve come used to seeing when Mikel Arteta has played in that position. Mertesacker is most vulnerable against the likes of Aguero and Silva who drift around and not allow him to get set and man to man mark. Even Debuchy had his problems when Milner was played out wide in the first half.
Free Roaming Alexis Sanchez
It took three EPL games (I say EPL because Sanchez did play very well in the second leg versus Besiktas), but we finally got to see Alexis Sanchez play in a free roaming role and it was beautiful to watch. If the 4-1-4-1 has stifled Ozil, it’s been great to Sanchez when he’s not been designated as the lone striker (admittedly, this did happen versus Everton three weeks ago). He was drawing fouls on City defenders, volleyed home a beautiful goal in the second half and on the whole looked like the Alexis Sanchez that plays brilliantly for the Chilean National team.
Jack Wilshere vs. City Midfield
He’s gotten a lot of shtick from fans who love them some Arsenal Schadenfreude, but Jack Wilshere once again produced a solid performance in the box to box variety. I’ve had my doubts on Jack Wilshere, particularly with him turning into some sort of positional tweener between a CM/CAM but he had his way with the City midfield. Lampard looked like he was a step behind the action, which made the decision to start him there a bit puzzling. Arsenal pride themselves on pressuring in the midfield and creating one-two’s to create a pseudo counter attack, and Wilshere was strong in that department.
He’s still 22 years old but considering that he’s been playing top flight football for numerous seasons, perhaps the body clock for Wilshere will end faster for him than the normal age curve would dictate. So while yes he’s young, that’s not as much an excuse on his stagnant development as it may appear to be
Man City were the more pragmatic side of the two, and it ultimately got them a decent result away from home. The 4-2-3-1 shape introduced by Manuel Pellegrini suited their counter attacking game plan and troubled Arsenal. Arsenal still haven’t produced a win against a top 5 side since their victory versus Liverpool in November of last season, and while that’s still hasn’t changed, there’s some positives to take away.
Then again, that’s a phrase that’s aptly described Arsenal for the last decade.