A journey through an Arsenal dream

Ahmed Walid
7 min readJan 2, 2022

During certain stages of sleep, a succession of images, ideas, emotions and sensations occur in the mind without any control over them. That, is a dream.

Dreams can be enjoyable. Something that you have always fantasized about, sitting deep inside your subconscious. Or a random incomprehensible dream. They can also be, nightmares.

For Arsenal, Manchester City have been a nightmare over the last couple of seasons. In the last 12 meetings prior to Saturday’s game, City have beaten Arsenal 11 times. The only other result was Arsenal’s triumph in the 2020 FA Cup semi final. Going into this weekend’s game, Arsenal feared another nightmare but it was everything other than that.

From the kick-off, Arsenal’s approach out of possession was clear. A big chunk of Gabriel Martinelli’s task without the ball was to mark Joao Cancelo, but it wasn’t his only task….

….The Brazilian at times moved up to face Ruben Dias, leaving Cancelo behind him for Granit Xhaka to pick up the Portuguese player. That meant that Thomas Partey had to translate horizontally to mark Bernardo Silva.

This way, once the ball reaches Riyad Mahrez near the touchline his near progressive passes are blocked. Martin Odegaard marking Rodri, Xhaka on Cancelo, and Partey on Bernardo Silva.

As a result, City has to reset the attack. Martinelli again moves up to press Dias, leaving Cancelo for Xhaka. One step behind is Partey, whose role now is to move across the pitch to pick up Bernardo Silva.

A wall pass between Dias and Cancelo tries to give City an outlet, but because of Partey’s initial movement he is near Bernardo Silva….

…..and manages to recover the ball for Arsenal, neutralizing City’s attack.

Arsenal’s pressing shape was flexible, it adapted to City’s build up. A line of four with two ahead was needed when Cancelo was wide and City’s first line of build up was stretched….

…..but seconds after when City moved to a 3–2 build up with Cancelo moving inside the pitch, Martinelli moved inside as well to form a trio alongside Xhaka and Partey. In all of the above snippets, Arsenal were nullifying City’s right side and adapting to the different movements, that left Kevin De Bruyne free multiple times on the near side of the pitch. As mad as it sounds, it was a risk worth taking.

The idea is that with the diagonal passing angles from City’s right side to De Bruyne closed down, the solution for City is to go back one line then reach the Belgian with a floating pass. This allows Arsenal’s midfield, Partey in particular, to move horizontally and keep tabs on De Bruyne.

Here, with Partey closing down. De Bruyne had no time to control the ball and had to head it towards Raheem Sterling where Takehiro Tomiyasu had the upper hand throughout the game. Arsenal again managed to regain possession from a City build up. Another thing to note here is Martinelli’s initial positioning inside the pitch, this positioning not only keeps Cancelo out of the equation but it also always both Partey and Xhaka to move horizontally without leaving a gap in midfield.

Another example here from a goal kick situation shows a free De Bruyne with Xhaka moving all the way up to press Rodri. Ederson’s near passing options are taken out…..

…..as well as the far ones on the same side of the pitch. As explained before, Partey moves horizontally to mark Bernardo Silva while Martinelli continues his task of marking Cancelo. This left Ederson with the option of finding a further target down the same side or playing a floater across the field to the free De Bruyne. Considering the pressure from Arsenal and Ederson having the ball on his marginally weaker right foot, this pass made sense from the keeper’s perspective.

It was intercepted though by Kieran Tierney and once again Arsenal regained possession. However, Arsenal had a plan for De Bruyne when Partey was on the opposite side of the field. Either Ben White or Tomiyasu moved up the pitch to be in a good position to rush towards De Bruyne, in case a floater was played into the Belgian. Here, Tomiyasu is higher than Sterling up the field and he might have pressed De Bruyne in case the floater was played in the first place.

The most important aspect about Arsenal’s performance out of possession in the first half was that they understood their roles and were alert when they needed to switch markers. Here, with Cancelo wide Martinelli is wide as well and as high as Odegaard and Saka….

….then once City reset the build up and Cancelo moves inside with City’s shape more like a 3–2–3–2, Arsenal’s players take a different approach. Instead of moving inside with Cancelo to the center of the pitch, Martinelli keeps his slightly inside position to mark Bernardo Silva — who is behind the scoreboard here — and it’s Xhaka who picks up Cancelo while signaling for White to mark Gabriel Jesus who’s dropping behind Arsenal’s midfield.

When Cancelo receives the ball, his progressive options are closed down, and it’s interesting that Tomiyasu decides to mark De Bruyne instead of Sterling. This makes sense because for City to reach Sterling out wide, they have to reset and move the ball horizontally first….

….and once they do that. Arsenal’s marking resets as well. White goes back next to Gabriel, Partey picks up De Bruyne, Odegaard continues marking Rodri….

….and it’s Tomiyasu who changes markers to take Sterling. After playing the ball towards Sterling, a trio of Arsenal players pounce and the ball goes out for an Arsenal throw-in.

In the first half, Arsenal totally shut down City and Pep Guardiola’s side only two major attempts came from a set piece and a second phase of a set piece. None of which were on target.

In possession, Arsenal searched for direct balls into Martinelli and Saka. Aaron Ramsdale’s long passes towards the wide men was clear from the beginning of the half, and one of those passes resulted in Odegaard’s penalty call. While other direct passes to Martinelli were the source of Arsenal’s threat in the first half.

The goal Arsenal scored also came from a quick attack where Tierney found Saka, but the attack itself originated from breaking up a City possession.

Similar to the examples above, Xhaka and Partey were focusing on City’s right side and leaving De Bruyne for the defensive line or picking him up when City reset the ball. Here, Rodri managed to find a free passing lane into Bernardo Silva…..

….but before Bernardo Silva receives the ball, White moves up his head and sees a free De Bruyne….

….so he doesn’t drop deeper with the defensive line…..

…..rather waits till De Bruyne receives the ball, then pounces to intercept it…

…..recovering the ball for Arsenal and starting the attack that led to Saka’s goal.

The second half incidents brought City back into the game with the score level and a man up. Despite that, they couldn’t penetrate Arsenal’s block. The Gunners dropped into a 5–3–1 with Xhaka joining White and Rob Holding in the last line of defence. Only a run from Rodri into the box in the dying minutes denied Arsenal any points from this game. One was unlucky, three would have been deserved.

The thing about dreams, is that eventually we have to wake up and live our normal lives. But without dreams, there’s nothing to look forward to. Arsenal have got something to look forward to.

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