Perhaps the most notable aspect of Arsenal’s gritty 1-0 victory over Manchester City this weekend was just how few clear-cut chances there were in the game. The two sides combined for just three shots on target, and the cumulative expected goals value of the 16 shots in total was just 0.87. That is the lowest figure in a Premier League game featuring Arsenal or Man City in over three years.
City had just four shots overall in this match – the fewest attempts a Pep Guardiola side has had in a top-flight game since April 2010 with Barcelona against Espanyol (also four). Erling Haaland did not have a single shot.
So, despite the wealth of attacking firepower on display, how did Arsenal restrict Manchester City to so few attempts?
Saliba Dominates His Duel With Haaland
What might have happened last season had William Saliba not been lost to a season-ending injury in March?
His absence coincided with an absolute derailment of Arsenal’s title ambitions, and no game highlighted his loss more than the reverse fixture of this game last season at the Etihad.
Haaland was matched up against Rob Holding that evening and had a field day. The big Norwegian bullied his opponent all night long, on the ground and in the air, and was able to hold up the ball with ease to bring teammates into play. When he did turn and explode in behind, Holding simply did not have the pace to keep up.
On Sunday, it was a different story. The athletic and combative Saliba won all four of his duels in the contest and matched Haaland physically all game. City’s number nine won just three of the seven duels he contested.
Haaland was involved in the game, sure, and we all know he doesn’t need to see a lot of the ball to be dangerous, but his actions were mainly focused in unthreatening areas from an Arsenal point of view.
It was testament to how well Saliba and fellow centre-back Gabriel Magalhães marshalled Haaland that he did not manage a single shot at goal. It’s only the second time that he has failed to take a shot across his two seasons in England.
Arsenal Defended Well Down the Sides
As Manchester City’s average position map below shows, although they had wide attackers on their teamsheet, Phil Foden and Julian Alvarez played narrow and stayed close to Haaland. Doing so allowed Arsenal to remain compact and congest the central areas of the pitch, with the defensive midfield pairing of Declan Rice and Jorginho sitting in front of the back four.
This left space down the flanks for City to attack, but in Josko Gvardiol and Kyle Walker, Guardiola had defensively excellent defenders who aren’t exactly the most effective attacking full-backs. Full-back isn’t even Gvardiol’s best position.
What that meant is that when Walker and Gvardiol got into space in the final third, their natural inclination was to turn back and play conservatively. Just look at Gvardiol’s passes in Arsenal’s half – almost all of them are backwards or sideways.
And when they did attempt to play forwards, they were inaccurate. Walker completed just 50% of his passes in the final third and Gvardiol an incredibly low 33%. Both are comfortably the lowest in their respective seasons so far. They contributed to City’s general bluntness in attack, with Guardiola’s side finishing the game with 65.9% passing accuracy in Arsenal’s third – their lowest in a Premier League game this season.
But even when Guardiola brought on Jérémy Doku to give City some attacking potency down the flanks, Arsenal defended him excellently.
Doku squared up Oleksandr Zinchenko shortly after coming on and the situation below looks like a nightmare for the Arsenal left-back given Doku’s explosive dribbling qualities…
But Zinchenko tracked him excellently, stepping in to make a crucial tackle…
After Arteta brought Takehiro Tomiyasu on to replace Zinchenko – presumably preferring the Japanese defender’s chances against Doku – the Belgian switched flanks to take on Ben White.
But Arsenal’s right-back also did well.
In the example below, Doku picks the ball up on the left flank and tries to burst into the space behind White…
But the Englishman shows great athleticism to keep up and slides in to make a crucial block.
City’s lack of ambition in wide areas meant Arsenal didn’t have to do a lot of defending down the flanks, but when they were called upon, they did very well indeed.
Arteta’s Subs Prove Pivotal
All of Arteta’s four substitutes were involved in the winning goal. From Thomas Partey’s long ball, Tomiyasu’s header down to Kai Havertz and the German’s lay-off to Gabriel Martinelli, it looked like Arteta had pulled off a genius move. But surely that was no more than a happy coincidence.
What was not a coincidence, though, was the way Arteta reacted to Guardiola’s changes. The introduction of Doku – initially on the right-wing – saw Arteta react with a defensive full-back change, bringing Tomiyasu on for Zinchenko to shut down the Belgian. That forced Doku to change wings and we’ve seen above that White did enough to cover.
By contrast, outside of the impact Doku made, Guardiola’s substitutions of John Stones and Matheus Nunes did little to change the dynamic of the game.
City (and Arsenal) Were Content to Nullify Themselves
For all the sparkling football these two sides have given us in recent seasons, this encounter felt like it was plucked from the mid-2000s. It was a very physical game, punctuated more by agricultural moments – big tackles and fouls – rather than moments of quality on the ball. It was a game that seemed like a “must-not lose” match, and right up until the winner that’s the way both sides appeared content to play.
Arteta and Guardiola set up defensively, with the Arsenal boss picking Jorginho to sit beside Rice and Guardiola deploying Bernardo Silva beside Kovacic, with Rico Lewis in midfield as well.
With Silva, Kovacic and Lewis in midfield, Guardiola was clearly looking to defend with the ball, rather than rely on the steel that Rodri provides out of possession. But without the incision of Rodri and De Bruyne, City lacked penetration and were all too often stuck passing in front of Arsenal’s defence. With Arsenal missing Bukayo Saka and, for the first half, Martinelli this was never going to be a game full of chances.
And when you have a game like that, sometimes one small moment can be enough to swing a game.
Our Opta match centre below delivers you all the Arsenal vs Manchester City stats from Sunday’s game at the Emirates Stadium.
The match centre includes team and player stats, expected goals data, passing networks, an Opta chalkboard and more. It gives you everything you need to do your own post-match.