I’ve said it prior to the last fixture against City, I’ll say it once again and it will always apply as long as they are able to spend freely: Manchester City are probably the most unpredictable team in the league simply due to the staff at their disposal. When you can have the individual talent that they do, tactics barely seem to matter.
So much so that Roberto Mancini has opted for a rather odd 3 man backline in an attempt to actually contribute something to this team. Since City are a tactical anomaly at times we’re going to head to some of the brilliant data provided by Ravi.
The most important of which is: City had a season low 53 successful passes in the final third in the game at Emirates (season average : 135). Even at the game in Etihad, City only managed 105 successful passes.
Over the last few meetings between the teams Arsenal have dominated possession – which is why Arsenal have allowed the least touches of the ball by the opposition in the final third – regardless of the final outcome of the match. And between Cazorla and Arteta, both of whom have pass completion rates of over 90%, that could be even more prominent this Sunday. The best way to defend City is to keep the ball away from them.
As a result, City haven’t had much of a chance to threaten the Arsenal defence whether at the Emirates or at the Etihad in recent years. The goals have eventually come out of counter attacks which should be easier to stop this time around with a more defensive set up.
We could expect either City’s regular 4-4-1-1 formation or the more experimental 3-5-2. Although considering that Arsenal are more likely to be in control of the game Mancini might have to stick with the former, pushing his wingers back to defend. The way Arsenal are set up, a 3-5-2 would be easy to exploit in any case.
City are a very explosive team. They can be passing the ball squarely one moment and suddenly spring a pass in behind the defence the next. In that sense, both teams are very similar so it will come down to who takes their chances. In the three matches last season, including the two that they won, City had a grand total of 8 shots on goal while Arsenal had 18 yet they were able to score 2 to our 1. Fortunately, this time around we have more players who can get into goal scoring positions so the likelihood of all those shots on target being converted is a lot higher.
City also scored the most goals from corners last season so those battles will be another interesting aspect of this match. Their ability to bother the opposition from corners really stood out against QPR where Robert Green, unsurprisingly, failed to clear the relatively predictable delivery by David Silva on multiple occasions. It led to a goal, during which Yaya Toure, like so many other times, happily cleaned up the mess left in the goalkeeper’s wake. Fortunately, our defending at the near post has been solid so far which is where we face the biggest threat.
They’ve scored the most goals from outside the box last season as well, which means unlike the previous four matches, we really need to see more pressure in the final third.
Carlos Tevez and Yaya Toure are the obvious dangermen for City. Tevez is the complete package, able to singlehandedly drive an entire attack with his pace, power and skill. When off the ball he tends to patrol the edge of the box before exploding in behind the defence, mostly likely to get on the end of a David Silva pass.
Yaya offers much of the same in attack. His powerful runs from deep can cause a lot of problems and it’s exactly that that catches defenders off guard as they aren’t set up to track the extra man. Here’s where I would’ve been a bit worried about Song in the side but Arteta is far more responsible in his role and should hopefully be able to keep Toure at bay.
It’s definitely a battle of team vs individual here and either can win it. Like so many past meetings between the two, this could well be decided by a single goal.
While the Manchester derby was hardly going to live up to the gargantuan expectations that had been built up by the media in terms of quality, it was still an intriguing game.
Firstly Manchester United made some interesting decisions; Phil Jones came in for Rafael at right back and Park Ji-Sung played in midfield alongside Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes, with the champions going with a 4-3-3. Wayne Rooney played up front on his own – which most United fans maintain is his best position – flanked by Ryan Giggs and Nani.
One of the things that stood out was how close Phil Jones played to United’s centre backs in the right back position when United were defending. Partly this was probably natural on Jones’ part, as he’s primarily a central player, but it also meant that there were few gaps between him and the right centre back, meaning the likes of Samir Nasri and David Silva struggled to thread balls in between them for Aguero. Another effect of Jones’ narrow positioning was that it forced City wide, and with Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero not offering much in the air, not to mention United having a lot of players back to defend the crosses, this helped United limit the clear-cut chances afforded to their opponents.
Still, Alex Ferguson’s men couldn’t keep City out, conceding from a corner on the stroke of half time. Vincent Kompany got the goal, easily losing Chris Smalling to power home a header from Silva’s in-swinging corner. Kompany, along with the other centre back Joleon Lescott, is City’s main aerial threat (Yaya Toure is also tall but heading doesn’t seem to be his strong point) so you’d argue that United should have planned better with how to stop Kompany from getting on the end of corners. Ultimately though, it was Smalling’s lack of focus & experience that saw him dragged to the ball, leaving Kompany free to emphatically head home what turned out to be the winner.
To sum up the first half, Man United did well to limit the chances City had; other than Kompany’s header, the Blues registered one shot on target in the first half from a decent position near the penalty spot. There were three off target efforts, including a wayward, rushed volley from Aguero from a tight angle. City’s other three attempts were blocked before breaching the six-yard area in front of Joe Hart.
City managing to break through during the first half despite United’s relatively good organisation in forcing them wide showed a good variety in their play, because while they were stopped from threading balls through they still managed to score from a set piece. Still, it highlighted a short-coming in their attack – neither Aguero or Tevez are particularly good in the air, shown by how City struggled when forced to cross the ball into the box; most of the crosses were low ones, which were mostly cut out easily.
Many teams have tall target men such as Peter Crouch at Stoke, but at City the technical demands are much higher, and they can’t simply sign a tall player who’s good in the air – there must be a good amount of skill there too. Firstly they tried for this type of player in Emmanuel Adebayor, but he failed to make the long-term impact they were hoping for. Edin Dzeko was a similar signing, but after a good start to the season finds himself struggling to get into the team. With Fernando Llorente making noise in Spain and Europe for Athletic Bilbao, it may be that City consider replacing Dzeko with the Spaniard.
In the second half, the game was much more end-to-end. City lived mainly off of counter attacks which eventually led to spells of tentative dominance in United’s half – Yaya Toure’s power was vital in starting off these counters. While City, as stated earlier, had few clear cut chances in the first half, they had more in the second half as United, pushing for an equaliser, left less players back and focussed less on defensive organisation and more on breaching City’s defence.
Vincent Kompany was man of the match, and he was excellent in defence alongside Joleon Lescott, with United also feeding off scraps up front. They had no answer to City’s defensive compactness, which was excellent especially as they managed to transition from resolute defending to free-flowing attack seamlessly. United had few runs in behind the defence, who as it were were playing close to Joe Hart, and first Barry then de Jong tracked Rooney whenever he dropped deep. That left the midfield battle as 2 v 2, but Scholes and Carrick couldn’t take advantage of this new numerical equality; perhaps not quite energetic enough to do so.
Another thing which was worth nothing was the similarity of United’s wide players – Young, Valencia and Nani are all good players (although Valencia is the only one who has been consistent this season) but they’re all mainly speed & trickery based. Valencia is a good team player, but none of them are particularly renowned for their passing or playmaking skills. With Scholes and Carrick sitting relatively deep, United had no playmaker in advanced areas, which limited them when it came to breaking City down and unlocking the stubborn blue walls of defence.
United’s 4-3-3 was set up largely to contain, as they would have taken a draw while a loss would have been disastrous to them. However, with Scholes and Carrick their sitting midfielders, they had no naturally defensive holding midfielder to protect the defence properly a la Gareth Barry. While Scholes and Carrick do well at keeping possession against the likes of QPR at home, they were somewhat overrun by City and didn’t offer enough offensively between them.
In the end City’s discipline defensively having gone 1-0 up was commendable, and they were fully content to hold onto their lead – they knew fully well that they could frustrate United due to a lack of creativity against a stubborn, well-organised defence, and that’s how it panned out.
If the way in which Arsenal won the ball for the winner typified their vibrant performance, the way in which the goal came perhaps didn’t. While there were few players closing Mikel Arteta down, it was from roughly 25 yards out and wasn’t exactly a clear-cut chance. On the other hand, the chances that the home side had created were all good opportunities – Robin van Persie’s header which was cleared off the line by Thomas Vermaelen (shades of Fabregas denied by Bendtner vs Liverpool in the Champions League), his other header which hit the post, Theo Walcott’s effort which was tipped onto the woodwork by compatriot Joe Hart, and then the chances that subsequently fell to Vermaelen and then Yossi Benayoun, who both contrived to miss. And then, of course, the miss by Aaron Ramsey in the dying embers of the game.
Samir Nasri lined up on the opposing side, and it’s been said by some that Arsenal lack the technical quality they benefitted from last season after the sales of Nasri and Fabregas. This may be somewhat true, but Arsene Wenger has adjusted the game plan for Arsenal to suit his new-look squad – the new style has been of great help to the midfield trio of Alex Song, Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta in particular.
Emphasis remains on possession, but there’s more of a directness to Arsenal which explains the quality of the chances they created. Some teams do set up to prevent them from carving out those chances, which sees them revert to the intricate passing moves at times.
Manchester City managed to frustrate them at times, which saw an increased emphasis on crosses. Arsenal seem to have improved this as the plan B though – instead of hitting high, hopeful balls into the box, the likes of Bacary Sagna and Theo Walcott fire low balls into the box for Robin van Persie and co. to predate on.
Speaking of Sagna, it was interesting to note the space he had down the right hand side, in the second half in particular. City had quite a narrow line-up with no truly natural wide player – Mario Balotelli was on the left for them, and either drifted inside or refused to track back. This gave Sagna room to roam, and the pace of Theo Walcott meant that Gael Clichy was pinned back in order to stop Walcott getting in behind him – even if the England winger didn’t manage to get past the full-back a whole lot.
As many have already said, the battle was mainly won in midfield though. The trio of Gareth Barry, James Milner and David Pizarro were overrun by Song, Arteta and Rosicky – the former’s ball-shielding talents came to the fore in particular, even if the Cameroonian frustrated by giving the ball away cheaply a few times. Rosicky didn’t have the best game creativity wise – although he did make one “key pass”, he still didn’t quite seem to be on his game, although perhaps recent performances have raised standards.
Mikel Arteta completed a magnificent 94% of his passes, which is pretty usual for the Spaniard in fairness. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, the way he won the ball by snapping at Pizarro was typical of his performance and him as a player for Arsenal – a midfield dynamo, who presses intensely and is excellent at winning the ball back.
Going back to Arsenal on the whole, it was a typical home performance, full of intensity and fast passing. There was a lot of patient switching of the ball from left to right and vice versa, which was Arsenal’s way of stretching the opposition defence and waiting for space to open up. The selection of Yossi Benayoun was important, and gave Arsene Wenger’s side variety and more of the energy which helped them to all three points.
And so, the Invincibles are completely and utterly gone.
Gael Clichy has left the club after eight years of service and joined Manchester City. If you wish to watch his first interview at his new club, you can have a look at their website. We can only speculate as to the fee, but most suggest it’s in the region of £7 million, and for a player of his quality, that really is a steal. He may have had his bad moments, but without doubt, he is a top quality player. He makes mistakes, but all players do. He got barely any support in defence – Arshavin and Nasri were never interested in defending, and while Alex Song gave Bacary Sagna added protection on the right, Jack Wilshere was a little less defensively disciplined, leaving Clichy exposed at times.
I’ll miss him, he was a top servant, and he never gave up. What I’ll remember most about him are his lung-busting runs down the left, and the superb interceptions when he nipped in past the opposition player to steal the player. I remember against Barcelona, in the first leg of the recent tie, Clichy was facing up to Pedro, and somebody in front of me yelled “Don’t dive in!”, but Clichy did, and still won the ball. It was also him that set up van Persie’s goal to put us on our way to the victory in that leg.
Many still blame Clichy for our collapse against Birmingham in 2007/08. The penalty was an absolutely perfect tackle, he toed the ball away from Parnaby (yes, I remember who it was, I still hold a grudge) and was nowhere near touching the player, yet he went down, and the referee pointed to the spot, for whatever reason. That was not Clichy’s fault – if the referee had not made the wrong decision, we would have been praising Clichy for making a crucial tackle.
It’s important to note that he’s only 25. He seemed to struggle mentally after the Birmingham game, and never fully recovered his form, although that may have been the formation change. He’s still nowhere near his peak, that will come in three years or so. I’m of the belief that he’ll thrive at City – they defend as a team, and maintain defensive discipline, unlike us. We could take a leaf out of their book in that respect.
He worked his socks off all over the pitch, covering every inch of grass. I for one, am sad to see him go, and I pray that we bring in a decent replacement. There must be someone Wenger could pluck from France or Italy like he did with Sagna? Matt Statto recently suggested Pablo Armero from Udinese, and I think we could do far worse than to have a look at him. I certainly don’t think Gibbs is the answer, not yet anyway – positionally he was awful last season, and cost us quite a bit with his lackadaisical play. Many times you’d find him in the left midfield position, having given the ball away, and struggling to get back. He’s far too indisciplined to be a starter for us yet.
Armand Traore and Pedro Botelho are certainly not the answer either – Traore was average at Juventus, nothing more, while Pedro Botelho is a Gareth Bale-type player; an adventurous left-sided player who can play in defence or midfield, but is far more suited to playing in midfield.
So goodbye, Gael Clichy. Some may not have appreciated you, but in years to come, I’m sure they’ll realise you were a pretty good player.
Oh, and score loads of own goals.