It may not be the priority knockout tournament for either team, but Arsenal and Manchester City will be taking the EFL Cup very seriously this weekend. On Sunday, the two sides will collide in the final of the competition, with the victorious outfit claiming the first major piece of silverware on offer to Premier League clubs this season.
Both will have a point to prove going into the match and this will only add to the spectacle. The Gunners have lost three of their last five Premier League matches and made hard work of their mid-week Europa League clash with Ostersunds, while City were humbled by third tier Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup on Monday night.
Arsène Wenger urgently needs to secure positives with his side slipping away from the top four and a Champions League berth looking increasingly reliant on their winning the Europa League. In the opposite dugout, Pep Guardiola has yet to claim a single honour since being appointed Manchester City boss in 2016. There is, therefore, a surprising amount at stake for both men.
Here, Football Whispers breaks down the EFL Cup final from a tactical perspective.
January window prompts Arsenal s
The January window was a busy time for many Premier League clubs, but few conducted business with the same frequency or extravagance that Arsenal managed. In a short timeframe they overhauled their attacking setup, provoking a complete tactical shift from Wenger.
Towards the end of last season, the Gunners sought solace in a back three. The addition of an extra centre-back offered them numerical comfort in the knowledge that, even if they continued to make mistakes, they at least had more cover than before.
With those two attackers joining Mesut Özil, Alexandre Lacazette and Wenger favourite Alex Iwobi, there was simply too much competition for places for Wenger to continue using a 3-4-2-1 shape that only allowed for one striker, two attacking midfielders and, potentially, one attack-minded central midfielder. So, adapting to the circumstances, he has committed himself to a four-man defence in recent weeks.
Unfortunately, familiar problems remain regardless of the chosen system. Arsenal’s most glaring issue is the spacing of their players during build-up of possession – the distances, particularly between the centre-backs and the full-backs, are too great.
This tactical defect reared its ugly head in the mid-week defeat to Ostersunds, leading to the Swedish side’s second goal.
Having had years to deal with this problem it’s highly unlikely that Wenger will solve it before this Sunday, so he will likely continue with a 4-3-3 shape and roughly the same tactics. Without the cup-tied Mkhitaryan and the injured Lacazette, he will probably opt for a front three of Iwobi, Ozil and Aubameyang to try and break down Manchester City.
Man City to mirror Arsenal
After experimenting with a 3-1-4-2 shape early on this term, Guardiola has plumped for a more basic 4-3-3 formation. His decision has been a successful one – almost every team they have faced has found it impossible to get to grips with the system.
The only side to cause serious problems were Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, whose aggressive pressing enabled a rip-roaring 4-3 victory at Anfield back in January. The Reds deployed their usual intense midfield press to great effect, cutting out passes and instigating quick counter-attacks.
They also picked their moments to press high collectively, leading to the memorable sight of Andrew Robertson closing down anything that moved in City’s defensive third.
Fortunately for Guardiola’s side, Arsenal are extremely unlikely to try this. And, even if they do, they are not well-placed to succeed with a high press. Their probable front three includes two players in Aubameyang and Ozil who are not renowned for the intensity of their defensive games, so Wenger’s men may instead sit deep without the ball.
Arsenal are actually quite good at this. Most of their best defensive performances – think Chelsea away last September – have come thanks to an organised deep defensive scheme. So the onus will be on Man City, who should dominate ball possession, to find a way through said defensive scheme.
Guardiola will be hoping Raheem Sterling recovers in time for this weekend’s game so the Englishman can take up his right wing berth in the front three, with Leroy Sané on the opposite flank. These two players could prove integral to the outcome of the match, with their astute inside channel defensive positioning, not to mention their pace and directness in attacking transitions, taking advantage of Arsenal’s aforementioned build-up issues.
If City find it difficult to break down a deep Arsenal defence, Sterling and Sané could come to the rescue in counter-attacks. They will look to cut off the Gunners’ centre-backs passes to their full-backs, before immediately launching a dangerous three v two or three v two situation.
Both teams are set to line up with a 4-3-3 system, but they will interpret the system in their own way. Arsenal will have to go without the ball for long stretches and will look to the pace of their attackers to get in behind Manchester City, while City will look to press and counter-press high up the pitch to exploit Arsenal’s possession problems.