Tactical analysis of Arsenal’s win over Manchester City: battles in the center and long balls

TribalFootball tactics expert Connor Holden looks back at Arsenal’s dramatic win over Premier League title-holders Manchester City and shows how both managers’ tactics almost canceled each other out…

In a very cautious game at the Emirates, Arsenal managed to beat Manchester City with a late goal from Gabriel Martinelli – a deflected shot from the edge of the box.

In this tactical summary, we will discuss what the two teams did to nullify the other and why the game played out the way it did.

Arsenal’s narrow defensive form and change in building tactics

Arsenal looked to defend narrowly, bringing the wingers (Gabriel Jesus and Leandro Trossard) inside to block central passes to the Manchester City forwards. This created a tight 4-5-1 with possession, with the main aim of forcing City into the penalty area.

The Gunners were looking to overload the central areas and make it difficult for City to make quick exchanges in the central areas – they wanted the English champions to play the ball in wide areas where Arsenal could use the touchline as an extra defense and push the visitors into less dangerous areas and then put pressure on them.

This was Mikel Arteta’s plan to corner City, setting pressing patterns so that they would go into wide areas where Arsenal could then pressure them to win the ball back without leaving themselves open in central areas. It was a cautious approach to keep things tight while winning the ball back and creating counter-attacks when possible.

Another tactical change Arsenal made was the decision to build a 4-2 structure, keeping their full-backs wide and having a double-pivot midfield, as opposed to their usual 3-2 structure in the build-up with Oleksandr Zinchenko as an inverted full-back.

Again, this was down to Arsenal’s cautious approach to this game and risk management. On the way out of the 3-2, Zinchenko reversed his position and therefore left his left area unattended. This means that when the ball is handed away, there is a large gap in the left-hand lane to attack, which leaves Arsenal in defensive confusion mode.

By building a 4-2, it means that the players are occupying their natural positions on the pitch and, if the ball is turned, they are already in their defensive position, giving more stability to defend in transition.

Manchester City’s central focus is the force of long balls

Despite the space Arsenal were giving City wide areas, Pep Guardiola’s side looked determined to play tight and centrally, with the likes of Phil Foden and Julian Alvarez playing very close to Erling Haaland.

City wanted to play through central areas, using Bernardo Silva, Rico Lewis, and Mateo Kovacic to try and get the ball to the trio of Phil Foden, Erling Haaland, and Julian Alvarez. However, this strategy was not working and City’s main attacking threat became Josko Gvardiol, who overlapped on the left side.

This created a few chances, but as Gvardiol is a center-back who plays as a left-back in Pep’s system, his finishing was not the best on those occasions. Still, City continued to play this way and it wasn’t until the 70th minute that they brought on a direct winger, Jeremy Doku.

The visitors were looking to press high, with Lewis and Kovacic beating Bernardo Silva to block the double pivot of Declan Rice and Jorginho.

Lewis and Kovacic pressed too high, preventing both pivots from receiving the ball and spinning in midfield. Instead, City looked to force Arsenal to go away and win duels that way to regain possession. This defensive strategy worked well throughout the game, but a long ball they couldn’t win at the end nullified all the defensive work when Havertz dropped the ball for Martinelli to shoot at goal.


In short, both teams prepared with narrow and cautious approaches to counter the other. Throughout the game, both teams struggled in attacking plays and maintained their defensive strategies to make life difficult for the other.

The game was decided by a moment, which will benefit Arsenal enormously in the future, showing their ability to win a game that seemed to be fading, the mark of true title winners.