On Sunday afternoon at the Emirates, we were supposed to discover about Arsenal’s new approach under their new Spanish manager Unai Emery.
Instead, we learned about Manchester City’s new approach under their “old” Spanish manager, Pep Guardiola. Arsenal have a fresh manager, but City have fresher ideas, and this match could prove more significant in signalling the away side’s intentions for this season.
A new manager’s first starting XI is considered the template the manager’s future tactical approach. But for Emery, a reactive, pragmatic tactician, his first team selection was designed to cope with the specific threat of Guardiola’s side.
For example, fielding a midfield trio of Granit Xhaka, Matteo Guendouzi and Aaron Ramsey — with the latter pushed forward into his favoured No. 10 position — was about coping three-against-three in the middle. Ramsey is more likely to be fielded deeper, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan or Mesut Ozil handed the No. 10 brief — the Wales international’s more likely partner this season will be Lucas Torreira, only a substitute here.
Fielding Mkhitaryan and Ozil in wider positions on Sunday caused Arsenal problems against the speed of Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy, without offering a counter-attacking threat the other way. A more naturally direct player in a wide position appears necessary, which should mean either Alex Iwobi or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang fielded on the flank. Both Arsene Wenger and Emery have seemingly decided the best approach for fielding Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette together is by putting the former in a wider position, and Aubameyang looked lively when fielded wide-left after Lacazette’s second-half introduction.
There were also other temporary solutions. Ainsley Maitland-Niles wouldn’t have been at left-back if Nacho Monreal or Sead Kolasinac were fit, and Bernd Leno has presumably been signed to become Arsenal’s No. 1 sooner rather than later. In all, perhaps only one of Ozil and Mkhitaryan, plus Hector Bellerin and Arsenal’s centre-back pairing of Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos will be regulars in these roles throughout the coming months.
Arsenal’s overall performance was neatly summarised by Guendouzi, who certainly had the right intentions yet made a string of errors. That was Arsenal: They tried to pass out from the back but consistently conceded possession nervily, they tried to counter-attack but made the wrong decisions, and they tried to press but found themselves bypassed. In truth, it’s difficult to identify one particular area where Arsenal nailed their gameplan.
Instead, the tactical fascination was provided by Guardiola’s City, who yet again demonstrated their structural flexibility with some curious positional arrangements that dragged Arsenal out of shape. The most intriguing player was Mendy, who might prove the most interesting player in the Premier League this season.
Mendy is, on first glance, a classic overlapping left-back with tremendous speed and energy. But there’s more to Mendy’s game: He’s a brilliant deliverer of the ball from wide positions, not always with traditional crosses but with more incisive, intelligent cut-backs.
Guardiola wants his full-backs to overlap more regularly this season. Walker only charged forward sporadically last season, but within the opening 10 minutes at the Emirates he’d received the ball on the overlap three times, causing Maitland-Niles serious problems until the younger’s premature departure through injury. The use of Riyad Mahrez on the right, drifting inside onto his left foot, should work well with Walker’s overlapping — a stark contrast from last year’s approach of wingers remaining high and wide.
But while City made inroads down the right, they scored both their goals from the left, and both were assisted by Mendy — in entirely different ways.
Rather than continually overlapping in the first half, Mendy often drifted inside into a narrow, “inverted full-back” position to drag Ozil inside. At times he effectively became part of a midfield diamond with Fernandinho, Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan, with Aymeric Laporte covering the left-back zone as part of a three-man defence.
Mendy found himself in that position in the build-up to the opening goal, which enabled Sterling to take on Hector Bellerin in a one-against-one battle. He elected to come inside, and then struck a wonderful opener from the edge of the box, with space opening up after Mendy’s “underlapping” run to take Ozil towards the corner flag. But the initial positioning of the two players was fascinating, suggesting that Guardiola believes Mendy has the ability to play inside, a la Fabian Delph or, for a more flattering comparison, David Alaba.
Mendy’s second assist was the classic Mendy assist, the type we witnessed so many times at Monaco — and therefore it was fitting that his former Monaco teammate Silva converted the chance. This incident saw Mendy overlapping Sterling, before sending a clever backwards ball along the ground, rather than simply floating in a cross. Silva’s finish was superb. Two Mendy assists, played from two entirely different zones.