Arsenal and Manchester City clash in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley this Sunday with both managers under pressure to win something for their clubs but Arsene Wenger is one at the moment needing to win this silverware to regain some kind of footballing trust for the upcoming season.
In their previous respective games in the league, City were comfortable in a win over Southampton with their talismanic skipper Vincent Kompany back leading the back-line for them. Meanwhile, a low on confidence Arsenal were made to work hard for a win against Middlesbrough at the Riverside.
The spotlight prior to kickoff on Monday was attracted by Wenger when Frenchman for the first in a decade or so changed his team’s shape and played 3 at the back accompanied by two central midfielders and the front three very close to each other.
Arsenal rode their luck a bit in that game just because they left loads of spaces down the sides whenever wingbacks moved forward to support the attack. It is a general consensus that Wenger won’t be repeating this shape against City just because they don’t need three central defenders to stop likes of Aguero, Silva, de Bruyne and Sane.
However, let us a look at the formation that was adopted by the Arsenal manager this past Monday and why he shouldn’t even consider it once they get out to play against Manchester City:-
We all know, if a team is playing 3 at the back, they need a proven defensive midfielder who can act as a fourth centre-back time and time again when they are caught higher up the pitch. But, in contrary, if we look at the Arsenal squad, no one is suited to do that kind of a job. This is the reason why they struggled even against Middlesbrough in situations when wingbacks or wide centre-backs needed help.
None of Coquelin/Xhaka/Ramsey is fit to do that kind of a ‘dirty’ job like Kante/Matic does at Chelsea or Wanyama/Dembele did for Tottenham when they played with 3 at the back.
Let us now look the spaces a defensive midfielder needs to cover playing this system and why it will be easy for a team like Manchester City to counter on Arsenal playing this system:-
As we see in the above image, once the wingbacks go forward and if the attack breaks with them caught out higher up, it is up to the wide centre-backs to fill up that position and for this specific situation, a defensive midfielder should come back and take dummy positions to either cover up for the wingback or the wide centre-back.
But, in Arsenal’s case, there is no one of this quality and skill to do that job for 90 minutes on a regular basis. Xhaka was touted as one of those dirty job midfielders but the Swiss has been dirty in terms of accumulating red cards rather than getting the job done in midfield and protecting his back-line.
Now, let’s finally see how City can exploit spaces easily on the counter:-
We can see in the above image the different ways via light blue arrows through which Manchester City can counter-attack against this formation especially with no recognised defensive midfielder in the helm for Arsenal.
Consider a situation of an Arsenal attack breaking down, the pace of Sane will force Gabriel or any wide centre-back to follow him which will, in turn, leave spaces centrally for likes of Aguero, Silva to make runs and worry Koscielny. Even if Holding comes up and support, de Bruyne then on the right will be free as a bird unless any one of the midfielders comes back and support the backline with authority and purpose. It will be perfectly designed to play on the counter for a team like City who relies on pace and precision in the final third.
By the above tactical explanations, we can easily infer that the Arsenal manager will revert back to his tested 4231 and not even think of 3 at the back once. The other case in point especially against City is that Guardiola’s men are not physically strong in the front line so there is a general concurrence of not needing three central defenders to nullify the threats of so-called silky, one touch footballers.