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Tactical Preview: Manchester City and Arsenal’s potential title-decider

Just one point separates the top three teams in the English Premier League as we head into the last ten matchday.

The top two sides – Arsenal and Liverpool – are only split by goal difference, while defending champions Manchester City are hot on their heels.

As we return from the international break this weekend, two of the top three will face off in a potential title decider.

This will be the last direct head-to-head match between any of the contenders in the league this season, so most projections suggest that the result will have a huge impact on who the favourites for the title will be.

Matches between Man City and Arsenal have arguably been the Premier League’s most intriguing tactical match-ups since Mikel Arteta took charge of the Gunners, but never have the stakes been higher. So, there are a few crucial details to keep an eye out for.

Arsenal’s world-beating press and defence

Man City have been one of the world’s most dominant teams for several years now, thanks in no small part to their incredible possession play but also their super solid pressing out of possession.

The latter aspect often tends to get overlooked, but Pep Guardiola’s former assistant clearly seems to recognise its importance.

Arsenal have evolved into the world’s best pressing team this season, mixing serious intense with incredible control so as to rarely be exposed at the back.

Generally adopting a 4-4-2 structure with Martin Ødegaard joining the striker to lead the press, the Gunners do a fantastic job of setting up traps to win the ball high up the pitch and quickly get it into dangerous shooting areas.

(Image credit: Opta Analyst)

At the same time, they also have the best defensive record in the league in terms of goals conceded and xG conceded, so they are extremely solid in all aspects without the ball.

Their strength at the back is largely down to the presence of exceedingly strong individual defenders such as William Saliba and Declan Rice, who also contribute to their team’s rest defence and make them incredibly resistant to counter-attacks.

If the old adage ‘attack wins you games, defence wins you titles’ is true, then the title is Arsenal’s to lose. No team has managed to shut Man City out in 2024, but Arsenal did so in the reverse fixture and will believe they can repeat the trick.

Manchester City’s shaky back line

While Arsenal’s defensive work has gone a notch up this season, perhaps the most concerning fact for Man City is that theirs has gone the other way.

Guardiola’s obsession with controlling games led to his team having the best defensive record in the league no matter what, but that is no longer the case.

They have still conceded the fewest shots in the division, but the trouble is they are conceding pretty presentable chances as opposed to Arsenal, who are ensuring that they do not give away anything more than speculative shots.

(Image credit: Fbref)

This is mainly a product of their resistance to counter-attacks slightly weakening. Man City are only the sixth-best team in the league this season when it comes to limiting chance quality conceded from counterattacks.

This may be a product of their constant tinkering at the back. Between inverting full-backs and getting centre-backs to step into midfield, Guardiola has several ways to create his desired shapes in possession, but he has been forced to mix things up a lot this term due to injuries.

Kyle Walker and Joško Gvardiol have been the clear first-choice full-backs. However, both of them are susceptible to getting turned and dribbled past.

Walker is the weaker of the two when it comes to that, although he does have an incredible turn of speed to make up for it. Either way, though, teams have now realised that it is possible to get at City by targeting the flanks in transition.

Worse yet for them, both Walker and John Stones are doubts for this fixture having gone off injured on international duty.

If half of their first-choice backline does not start at the Etihad Stadium, Arsenal’s attackers will be even more encouraged to try and cause serious damage to Man City’s title hopes.

Should City be more direct?

As always, Man City have been the slowest and most intricate team in the Premier League this season as far as their possession sequences are concerned.

(Image credit: Opta Analyst)

However, with the arrival of Erling Braut Haaland last season, they added another dimension to their attacking threat – directness.

The Norwegian striker’s presence up top can single-handedly break defensive lines by getting in behind them, while Kevin De Bruyne can put the ball on a plate for him from almost anywhere on the pitch. This simple connection alone significantly strengthened their Champions League chances last season.

Especially if they are without Stones, Man City may want to consider adopting a more direct approach against Arsenal rather than trying to play out against their clever press.

Of course, the defending champions have the player quality to take the Gunners on if they wish, but directness is probably a better approach against Arsenal’s press.

Porto made this quite clear for the world to see in their Champions League Round of 16 second leg. They split their centre-backs fairly wide around their goalkeeper to make it hard for Arsenal’s front two to close down all angles and then happily played long balls forward.

In this way, the Portuguese side ensured they did not concede any dangerous high turnovers while also consistently managing to get at Arsenal’s defence.

Of course, they did not score, but then again they did not have players of the calibre of De Bruyne and Haaland. If City’s star attackers are clinical, they could catch their opponents by surprise with such an approach.

Stats courtesy Twenty First Group, Opta Analyst, Opta via Fbref and FotMob, and Soccerment.

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