Guardiola’s six midfielders worked a charm

The question today is “what exactly did Pep do to change the game tactically in the second half?”

The long and (rather cliche) joke answer is: Guardiola started the match with Sterling in the false 9, then switched de Bruyne into a false 10, put Sterling in a real 7 and Sane in an actual 11, but when that didn’t work, he moved Silva from his normal false 8 role into a second false 10, put Yaya Toure in as a false 8, kept Fernando in his actual 4 and of course Bravo reprised his role as the false 1.

The short answer is: 6 midfielders.

What Pep wanted to do in the second half was get Kevin on the ball more. So he played Sterling wide right, Sane wide left, and played KdB with Silva as two number 10s backed up by the rather large scuttling crab known as Yaya Toure. Or as he put it himself:

“But in the first half Kevin de Bruyne was a little bit out of the game and that is why in the second half we put the right-footer on the right side and the left-footer on the left side and tried to get four against three in the middle. Always we have ideas, sometimes good and sometimes not. In the second half we played more without a striker, more like two number 10s to play behind Francis Coquelin and Granit Xhaka, to make the movements outside and inside.”

City did dominate the match in that second half, but it was in a way that would probably be all too familiar for a Barcelona fan: they played with six midfielders and no striker. This allowed Guardiola to both stretch Arsenal across the pitch and achieve numerical superiority in the center of the pitch. Statistically, this shows up in the fact that despite having nearly 60% of the possession in the second half, Guardiola’s City dispossessed Arsenal 9 times (to Arsenal’s 7), won 15 tackles (to Arsenal’s 9), and had 8 interceptions (to Arsenal’s 4). They dominated the ball, the space, the time, and won the defensive duels.

I think a couple of stills, both from the goals, help to illustrate this. Here is the shot just before Sane’s offside goal:

Cech passes the ball up the pitch and Xhaka actually fails to control. But notice the spacing of the City midfielders. Even if Xhaka wins that ball and brings it down to feet, he was perfectly surrounded by four City midfielders all ready to do their part to win the ball back.

If Xhaka wins the ball and nods it over Fernando, however, Arsenal have a fast break. So, you can see what the play here was but Arsenal simply didn’t execute.

Interestingly, Fernando passes to Sterling, who drives in to the middle of the pitch. Coquelin, who has the recovery speed of a love-struck teenager, snaps into a tackle and wins the ball, but it falls to Silva. Bellerin switches off (something he did several times on Sane) and Sane drifts in behind him for the goal. Yes, Sane was also an offside. The whole play only takes a few seconds but there were so many calamities in here which I think are caused by City’s numerical superiority in midfield. If they were only playing two in the middle, like Arsenal were, they have a much smaller chance of winning that ball back and going on to score.

The second is what I call “classic Pep”. Here’s the cap:

This is just a brilliant play. Clichy takes the throw in and Kevin notices how much Sane and Sterling are stretching the pitch. This creates so much space for players to run onto and spaces to play the ball. Pep loves these types of situations as well, and drills them into his teams in practice. What he’s doing here is overloading the Bellerin side with the sole intent of passing the ball to Sterling. Kevin makes the pass and Sterling is in.

Some folks complained about Monreal not showing Sterling to the end line but Sterling has never been much with his left foot*. I assume Monreal knew that Sterling was mostly right footed and showed him inside where his shot would be weaker, or (more likely) Monreal was just simply beaten by Sterling’s little stutter step. The final error here is that Koscielny doesn’t arrive fast enough to help out his teammate and Sterling’s shot slips past Cech at the near post. Also, thanks to Silva interfering with the goal from an offside position.

It’s difficult to say that Guardiola’s changes directly impacted the score. As usual with goals, there needs to be a comedy breakdown in several positions before the opening can be made. Structurally, however, the changes did make a difference in the overall game. He was able to wrest control of midfield and to create the types of overloads and openings that he wants his teams to create.


*Sterling has worked very hard in training on finishing with his left foot this season and it has paid off. He is now averaging 1 shot per game with his right foot and 0.9 per game with his left. Last season at Man City he was 1.3 per game right and 0.3 per game left.


  1. Really cannot see how tactical genius can be ascribed to a game decided by two off side goals. City did dominate the game in the second half, but like so often happens, it was a lot of possession with no results.

    On the second goal, David Silva’s run distracted Cech and Sterling’s ball slid in at the near post. From replays it was clear that Silva was in Cech’s field of vision, he made a play at the ball, clearly trying to get a touch on it, and came within a foot or so of doing so. He was in an off side position, so the play should have been rules off side. A disgraceful refereeing performance.

    So claiming that it was Guardiola’s genius that yielded results is simply wrong. It was the referee who decided this game. Sane was off side, the goal stood.Silva was off side and interfered. The goal was allowed to stand.

    That is not tactical genius,, it is match fixing.

    1. True about the goals, but you also have to ask why the team was completely dominated in the second half.

      Next up: WBA. Let’s, like, literally destroy them! Preferably before the game!

    2. We can debate whether it was tactical genius or not but what’s not up for debate is that we were thoroughly outplayed in the second half – and not for the first time either.

    3. Don’t know if its tactical genius or not, but Xhaka was constantly surrounded when he tried to received the ball, and Arsenal couldn’t play out the back through the middle. And they couldn’t play out the back through the half spaces because neither Gabriel nor Coquelin are incisive passers. They are careful and try to be tidy, but its all sideways for them.

      So press Xhaka because he’s likely to create something if you give him time, give Gabriel and Coquelin all the time in world becuase they won’t do anything with it. Think the game would have been different with Mustafi, or even Mertesacker. Notice how few line breaking passes came out the back.

      1. I agree with everything you’ve said (including the thing about Mustafi and Mertesacker being missed), but that’s why Wenger should have noticed this and done something early in the second half, e.g. put Elneny on as a third centre mid, or put Giroud on and just had us play long to him to skip over the press, or moved our players on the field at the time around a bit (e.g. in the last article there’s a comment that links to a youtube video of Gary Neville explaining what was wrong with our fullbacks’ positioning). He didn’t seem to do anything, until it was too late (subbing the Ox on like-for-like with Iwobi does not count).

        This, even more than being an inveterate spendthrift, is the one characteristic of Wenger’s I can’t defend: his complete inability to be proactive with his subs and in-game changes.

    4. I am always open to blaming the refs, and you are right. The two goals were offside and that is a big deal. It affects the game no end. (I will say though that the first one is marginal and as such not a terrible decision.)

      However. Regardless of how the ref called the game, we played very poorly. We’ve lost a lot of games (and maybe a couple of titles) based on how refs have called the game. But against ManCity the ref was not the major factor. Though obviously two illegal goals helps anyone.

    5. Paul35mm, you sound upset mate. One aspect of possession-play is to look for mistakes, openings or strokes of luck, which city did very well in the second half. Now, would I say Guardiola is a genius? No. That word is used way too often these days. But I would say that he is a tactically astute and knowledgeable manager with the ability to assess the game as it unfolds and alter the setup so as to exploit the weaknesses in his opposition. That’s what Wenger seems unable or unwilling to do.

  2. Basically what’s being highlighted by yourself is that the city manager was pro active as opposed to an arsenal manager who is always,always reactive.sits on his hands for 90 plus mins & watches the disaster unfold.clueless as what to do.nuff said.

  3. Don’t mean it otherwise man but I’ve been reading your blog for the past two years and your coverage of anything Guardiola always borders on reverential. The game was decided by two offside goals. One for us disallowed. Guardiola is a great manager but this really was not the tactical masterclass you make it out to be. Arsenal gifted then the game. Sub par performances all around. Can’t see how Guardiola did that.

    1. I think the truth is somewhere in between: the tactical switch, and all-around tactical setup, definitely helped City (their general game-plan from the start may have been good enough to get them the win anyway), but I don’t think it’s a particularly good example of Guardiola being a genius. Just him being a reasonably astute and proactive modern manager. I love Wenger, and he’s hardly a tactical ignoramus, but he doesn’t give enough in-game instruction to his team to help them handle the clever tweaks of our opponents. This is not the first time.

  4. 6 midfielders should not be a big deal when we play without a target man. We should match up better and be able to have our share of possession.

    The challenge is that 2 of our six (Theo and Coq) can’t dribble and aren’t much good at passing under pressure.

    Elneny is limited, and possibly soft, but he helps keep possession.

    Wonder if Lucas is technically more sound than Theo, provides a target, and doesn’t sacrifice too much pace. Haven’t seen enough of him to do more than speculate.

  5. We had two threats to worry about. Manc’s attacking threat and their furious high press. I was more scared of their high press, so l desired that Elneny be fielded in place of Coquelin. I expected that we would defend deep, which entails more of closing the passing lanes than tackling (Coquelin’s forte). We used Coquelin and got undone by the fact that we couldn’t escape their high press. An extra ball playing CMfder would have helped. Our perfect 3 for escaping their high press, all fit, would have been Elneny, Santi and Rambo. Doubtful if Wenger would have seen it that way if all were fit. I suspect he underrated Manc’s high press.

  6. This is one of the best right up on that match I have ever read. It was obvious that Man city over crowded the midfield and dominated the space. But my surprise is why was it difficult for Wenger to see this and bring Oliver on early enough and instruct the keeper and defenders to lunch the ball forward. Wenger failure to react early enough has caused us many points.

  7. Oh please….dominated by two off-side goals to one. Give credit where it is due, ….they won a lucky game helped by the ref.and we playing an unlikely game.
    The players need to rise to the occasion.

    1. It’s one thing if we had played well and lost. Then it’s perfectly justifiable to blame the ref but the scoreline doesn’t misrepresent the match even if the goals they scored were “lucky”.

      1. I think of ‘lucky’ as a forward taking a shot that ricochets off a defender and goes into the top corner. The goals were illegal and shouldn’t have counted. I don’t think because we didn’t play well we lose the right to be upset about those decisions.

          1. But did we lose because we played poorly, or because City were given 2 goals which should not have counted?

            I can’t be upset with arsenal for not scoring 3 goals away to City in order to cancel out the 2 unlawful goals city were given.

  8. I wanted to comment on yesterday’s blog but it was so damned depressing that I couldn’t bring myself to write anything.

    Another good write-up today and once again highlights how we were undone by tactical superiority in an important away game.

    It’s gotten tiresome reading/writing about our same old deficiencies over and over again. F-king fix it Wenger. If you can’t do it, move aside and let someone else take a crack at it.

  9. Ugh.. one more thing I need to get off my chest:

    At a rudimentary level, football is a pass and move game. Most tactical substitutions are made to facilitate the passing and movement of players. It gives you more control over mid-field and usually as a result, the match. Once you have the right tactics, it’s then up to the players to execute them. What’s the use of blaming players like Ozil and Xhaka if the manager can’t get his tactics right?

    It was obvious to most people who watched the game that we were outnumbered in mid-field against City – but it still shouldn’t have been such a one-sided half. When we had the ball, City pressed us. When they had the ball, we sat back and invited pressure instead of pressing back. In Sanchez, we have a player who is great as pressing the opposition. Why didn’t we play to his strengths? It’s soul-crushing to see him press the opposition only to look back and see none of his team-mates are pressing with him.

    I have completely given up on trying to understand Wenger’s tactics in these big away matches. Tbh, he never was a big tactical guy (though when he does get it right, it’s pretty amazing) but what’s different now from 15 years ago is that he no longer has the advantage in the transfer market that he used to so we don’t have a team full of world-class players who can take charge in a game where the season is on the line. I actually think he has become a better manager, tactically speaking. Over the last few seasons, he has shown more flexibility and practicality to his tactics than I have ever seen from him in the past – but adjusting tactics on the fly and outwitting some of these new breed of managers isn’t something he seems capable of doing. Sure we have our now-annual good game at home vs. one of the big teams but to do so in a regular basis and prepping the team to come out with the right mentality seems to be out of his reach.

    1. I think that’s a fair assessment of how things seem from the outside, but I still wonder if his failure to address tactical issues in big games is down to an inability or more an unwillingness (or, somewhere in between: that he’s got the ability but he’s habituated not to). Of course instantly seeing everything that’s going on and having the courage to make risky changes quickly, knowing they could backfire, is a difficult skill and it’s ok if Wenger isn’t the greatest at it; I think he more than makes up for that weakness with a lot of other strengths.
      BUT we’re not talking about outwitting the cleverest tactical moves in this case, just doing the basics. Like we’ve said, everyone watching with a moderate level of intelligence and understanding of the game could see that we were succumbing to their press and getting overrun in midfield. Let’s consider some facts about Wenger:

      1. He’s been an elite manager for decades, literally longer than every one of his immediate peers in England.
      2. By all accounts he has a higher IQ than the great majority of his football managers.
      3. He is incredibly hard working and a complete football obsessive, spending his every waking moment on the game, hating to lose, and driven to win and win well.
      4. His knowledge of the game is legendary.
      5. He gets paid a huge amount of money (even in comparison to his peers) to make Arsenal the best football team they can be.
      6. Having finally spent some decent money, for the first time in years he has the squad capable of competing against any team in the league.

      Does it really make sense that Wenger would be completely incapable of “doing tactics” during a game? Does it make sense that he would be so easily outwitted by a tactic that we, football-watching amateurs, noticed while watching the game on our TV’s?

      1. I personally think willingness and ability goes hand in hand i.e. if you have the ability to do something, you would be willing to do it as well. By the same token, if you have the willingness to do something but not the ability, then you will work on that deficiency till you do have it. Isn’t that how it usually works? However I am willing (heh!) to concede that maybe it’s not so black and white on the pitch though you would have to convince me.

        Most rational people will agree that Wenger is a very intelligent man. He is probably smart enough to know what his strengths and weaknesses are. The fact that he is so unwilling to tweak his tactics mid-game tells me he isn’t comfortable doing that. Why? Other than ability, I can’t really think of any other reasons.

        But look, I would be okay with having a less tactical manager if he actually was making up for that by being great at other things on the pitch but the thing that bothers me more than tactics is our mental preparation for these games. We came out looking lackadaisical vs. Tottenham at home and did the same at Old Trafford. Last Sunday we came out with more energy but we didn’t show any willingness to take the fight to City. Instead we just kept dropping back and inviting pressure. The lack of mental fortitude for these games has been a pattern now for almost a decade. The players changed during that time but the mentality prevailed. I don’t see how anyone can say that’s not on Wenger. He is been the one constant through it all.

        The margins in these games are thin and when two teams are more or less equally matched, the game can be won or lost in the head. When things don’t go our way, our heads drop and you can tell from our players’ body language that they have given up on the game. It’s one thing to come down from a goal down against a sh8 team like Stoke but we keep habitually failing to prove our mettle in the big games. Maybe what we need now is a no-nonsense manager who will bark orders from the sideline and demand more from his players.

        It seems to me Wenger needs to have all the right personnel in place to play the football he wants to play and get the result we all want. However, the team is constantly in re-building mode. Our much vaunted mid-field where we are supposedly spoilt for choices doesn’t really seem to be that effective after all. So maybe the solution is to have a manager who doesn’t need all the pieces perfectly in place.

      2. Of course not.

        So then the question is why did he make the choices he made? What trade off was he making? Was it because we’d gotten joy on the break and he wanted to maintain our ability to counter? As you write if Xhaka heads it over Fernando then we’re away to the races. Or is it a manifestation of his philosophy that players have to figure it out for themselves on the pitch lest they become too locked in to a particular tactical model, which begs the question, are we doing a good job ‘figuring it out on the pitch’?

        Which is why I hate the football media, because rather than ask substantive questions in the post-game newser their questions are either overly generalized or worse inflammatory to fuel their stupid controversies.

  10. I repeatedly point out the goals were offside and didn’t one use the word genius. Guardiola’s set up dominated Arsenal.

  11. It’s all so simple to me. Pardon if my eyes are jaundiced.
    1) Guardiola only played his old Barcelona game. Pas, pass, pass, compress the opposition, and whenever the ball is lost, hunt in packs to recover the ball immediately. It’s genius but it’s old.
    2) Wenger underrated their high press and also lacked the right personnel to beat it. Coq is poor in pass and show. Xhaka needs space and time and so is poor in tiny spaces. Ozil strength is derive from his ability to drift into spaces which Manc made sure we’re not there. Walcot hasn’t got close control and was there for the counter. Iwobi stayed too wide out and deep. The net effect was that we couldn’t transit from our defensive block into attack. We couldn’t beat their press.
    3) Our undoing (not the score line but our poor performance) was in their high press not in their attaching. If we had the right personnel in that our defensive block to help beat the press the pattern of the match would have been very different, For example Elneny and Santi in place of Coquelin and Xhaka would have made a world of difference. As a matter of fact the game opened up as soon as Coquelin was withdrawn and even more when Elneny joined.

    In summary, I would not term the match as a Guardiola’s genius because he only showed up with the old which unfortunately Wenger did not respond rightly to, partly because of lack of right personnel.

    1. Santi wasn’t available — nor was Aguero to Guardiola — so what’s the point of factoring him into the argument?

      It wasn’t just a question of tactics and personnel. It was a question of composure. We completely lost ours, with players consistently passing the ball to the opposition.

      And let’s not be churlish with Pep. He compensated brilliantly for the absence of a striker (and Gundogan, one of his best players). It’s kind of shocking that for all of City’s resources, Aguero’s replacements are Kelechi Iheanacho and Nolito.

      He had enough for us, though.

  12. Claud, poor tactical set up and wrong personnel would easily undermine composure. They pressed us so hard and so successfully that we lost our composure. Absolutely no contradiction.

  13. If Wenger allows his players tactical leeway, at what point can you blame the players for not recognizing unbalances and seeking to help out? E.g., instead of leaving Gabriel to work through two players and attempt a medium range pass, couldn’t Walcott have recognized the need to be an outlet superceded the need to get forward into an offside position?

    1. Building on that theme, if the players aren’t recognizing and adjusting, then what’s the plan? Let them fail and take their lumps? Where is the Captain during all of this? Either Wenger or Koz should be calling the players together to discuss the breakdowns and adjusting during injury stoppages and the like.

      Again, I think these are pointed questions that Wenger should answer so that fans aren’t left flailing and saying things like ‘Wenger doesn’t do tactics’.

  14. Accepting that Wenger’s philosophy accommodates allowing players tactical leeway, that allowance must exist within a larger tactical framework. It is that framework that the coach by the side lines should be altering if needs be. This alteration can be done in different ways, important in the list being the alteration of personnels either by change of positions or substitutions.

    I must say that I could not understand the 1st substitution of Ox for Iwobi as I saw that our problem was not with our attack, but with our inability to get out of our defensive area because we couldn’t escape their press. The 2nd substitution made better sense to me as first of all Coquelin ( a poor pass and show player) was removed and secondly Giroud who could hold up the ball for our players to resume their offensive shape was introduce making our long balls more viable. Our game improved dramatically from then on and got even better with the introduction of Elneny ( pass and show player) for injured Oxlade.

    A possession stat of 39% should be unacceptable considering that after all said and done, we are a passing team.

    1. I agree with those saying Wenger botched this one, in the second half at least. It seemed like in the first few minutes of the first half, City were able to use the overload Tim talked about to get in behind, but Arsenal responded by dropping Coq/Xhaka closer to the defensive line and those gaps disappeared. It did heap more pressure on us though and prevented us pressing them much. However, at least we had a lead at that point so it seemed OK.

      Taking Iwobi out worsened the problem. Iwobi drops into midfield to form triangles and combinations, just what you need to beat a press. He also has better vision than the Ox to see a pass for play developing. Ox does give you more of a direct outlet, but we already had Walcott and Sanchez to do that. Unless Iwobi was just totally gassed, we needed him out there because there is no direct replacement for him. He’s become quietly indispensable.

      Putting Giroud in worsened the problem too. He does offer a focal point for building play, but our problem was getting out and he was not going to drop deep enough to help with that. Lumping it forward to him made it a 50/50 between him and Otamendi (and played to Otamendi’s comfort zone) with the resulting knockdowns becoming 50/50s themselves that we were not quick or combative enough to win. His play is also now completely out of sync with how Arsenal builds quick, vertical attacks, and you saw passes played into him that he had no chance of reaching. Giroud has become a very niche player. I would’ve liked to see Lucas Perez instead.

      To me the reason they blew us away, more than just the subtle shift in positioning of their midfielders, was simply that they upped their intensity considerably and we could not quite match them. Players like Toure, not really known for work ethic, put in a real shift. They needed this game to maintain any relevance in the title race, they had to have it, and they played like it. That said, I don’t think this is a great Man City team and I do think Arsenal, on a better day, can at least match them or beat them. That observation makes this defeat harder to swallow.

      1. Usually Arsene would not drop his midfielders so deep, figuring that the risk we expose ourselves to is not greater than our ability to score on other teams given the talent in forward positions. Against City, that wasn’t necessarily true. Guardiola started with 4 quick, mobile forwards who all carried a goal threat and fielded a goalscoring midfielder behind them in Toure. Wenger opted not to keep it an open competition, though it would’ve made for a fascinating contest and probably ended up as another tennis score. I wonder if he has regrets about that, since vertical play and going for the jugular off the press has been this team’s greatest strength. Against both Everton and City, we abandoned that in favor of sitting in a deep block and were punished for it.

  15. Doc, I like your brand. Me too, would have preferred Perez to Gioud when that substitution was made and Sanchez dropped deeper to help beat the press. As I have always said, Perez is Vardy MK2. With Perez, all we would have needed do was beat their press and a fully fledged counter was on.

  16. Doc/Pony, I had the same idea watching Giroud come on that maybe Lucas would have been a better option. Which begs a question I have as Danny returns to full training. With Lucas and Danny available, has Giroud become a player that doesn’t gel with our style of play this season? Will he be happy as a super-sub long term?

    1. Giroud’s game comes to the fore in one of two ways: either he becomes the focal point, winning headers and flick ons for onrushing wingers in transition, or bumping passes off of midfielders and occupying center backs in the middle, thus allowing creative players space in front of the D. He can be very effective when used in the right way, such as against opponents defending in a deep block as a target for crosses, or if deployed as the main striker alongside streakers like Walcott in a counter attacking setup. What he doesn’t do well is press the ball high or run the channels, so he is the inverse Alexis in many ways, although both players are creative. Yes I think there is certainly room for Giroud as an impact substitute, but for some reason Wenger has been throwing him on even in situations that do not play to his strengths. I suspect there is an element of appeasement going on, as Wenger is having to balance the egos of players like Ramsey and Giroud who are used to being first choice and may not want to stick around to play their current roles. It would be better for the team if they did, so I can see why Wenger would want to appease them, but it’s hurting the team in the short term.

  17. Longstr, for whatever reasons Perez doesn’t seem to be Wenger’s cup of tea. So that still gives Giroud a chance, albeit as a sub, because Sanchez is now the obvious first choice.

    With ball playing Welbeck back to form, I believe Giroud would be pushed further down the list. Obviously our playing style this term is based on plenty of movement and that’s not Giroud. It’s beginning to look more and more like something, sooner or later, would give.

  18. Reading the comments about combinations (and with Welbeck coming back), it’s clear that our surfeit of average players is one of our problems.

    Leaving aside our peerless False 9 Sanchez, we have Welbeck, Giroud and Perez and someone is going to be crushingly disappointed. In an ideal world we’d have one of the them, plus a world class, traditional 9 — a Costa, a younger Ibra or even a Cavani with his shooting boots on.

    In midfield we’d have one of Wilshere, Coquelin and Elneny, plus someone who combined all the attributes of stopping and distribution, such as Vidal.

    So we start off with certain skillets lacking, and look to a bench that also lacks that skill set. Agree about Perez. He should be getting more game time.

    As for Wenger’s substitutions, which Doc referenced, we can predict them in advance, can’t we? It is always Giroud on 69 minutes — almost irrespective of what the game demands. I want to know what he’s got against half time or 55th minute subs.

    1. You can never have too many strikers! What’s more, they all offer something different. That should be one of our great strengths in the run-in. Which of our rivals has better depth at the position?

    2. Just theorizing on the substitutions issue. (With the assumption that Wenger isn’t stupid and has his reasons for this). What are the possible benefits/causes.

      Players feel trusted, and entrusted with responsibility to do the right things on the pitch, even after a half time team talk. Maybe it helps them with confidence.

      The subs feel more mentally prepared to come on at a ‘scheduled’ time.

      Statistically. subs at certain times are more effective/bring more intensity.

      That’s all I could come up with right now. Maybe there’s a few more we can think of. Just to be clear, I do wish we’d make more varied substitutions at times. But like I said. Wenger has to have his reasons for it, and I don’t believe he’s tactically naive or inept.

  19. Agreed. Arsene is nothing if not predictable with his substitutions. Not sure why Lucas is not getting minutes. He seems to know how to find the back of the net and he can play across the line. I’d love to see Alexis, Danny and Lucas in a high press. Lot of energy there.

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