Kevin De Bruyne has explained the tactical master plan that allowed Manchester City to brush aside Arsenal’s challenge and take control of the Premier League title race.
The City midfielder produced an impressive display at the Etihad, scoring twice and also registering an assist, as Pep Guardiola’s side dismantled Arsenal’s defense in a 4-1 rout.
City defender John Stones said after the game that “his team didn’t play the football we usually do” and De Bruyne detailed the precise instructions that led him and Erling Haaland to destroy the Arsenal backline.
Long balls cause chaos
City’s opening goal, scored by De Bruyne, resulted from a long ball from Stones to Haaland in the first few minutes of the game. Haaland was able to control the high pass and then released De Bruyne, who charged through Arsenal’s midfield.
In an interview with NBC Sports, De Bruyne explained that City had worked in training to play these long-range passes from deep, as a way to nullify Arsenal’s attacking pressure in the City half.
“The way Arsenal press the opposition is outstanding,” said De Bruyne. “It’s class. Honestly, he’s really, really good and it’s almost impossible to play from behind, especially when it’s a goal kick, which is like a set piece.
“We knew we had to play longer today and we did a few things in training. I tried to be a little deep and then I tried to run from Erling when he kept the ball. We got that a few times and in the first half we created some chances this way. It was important to set the tone.”
A change in the shape of the midfield
For much of Guardiola’s career, he has worked with a 4-3-3 formation in which one player in possession sits at the bottom of midfield, between two higher playing players (or “eights”).
Against Arsenal, however, City’s lineup was more of a 4-2-3-1, with Ilkay Gundogan in a deeper role alongside defensive midfielder Rodri. This, De Bruyne said, was also a consequence of Arsenal’s man-to-man pressure, and allowed Belgium to play with more freedom in attack.
When Granit Xhaka pushed forward to the left of Arsenal’s midfield, De Bruyne tried to exploit the space behind him. And when Thomas Partey tried to push up the field in a central area, De Bruyne was injured in the area he left.
“Usually we play with two eights but him [Guardiola] wanting a bit more control because of the way to Arsenal press,” said De Bruyne. “So Gundo would be like a double six, and I had to choose the moments, depending on who pushed out of Xhaka and Partey. If Partey was pushing, I would try to get on his back and vice versa.”
This created a two-versus-two situation in attack for City. De Bruyne and Haaland, against Arsenal centre-backs Rob Holding and Gabriel Magalhaes.
“It was difficult for Holding and Gabriel,” said De Bruyne. “‘Do I need to go with Kevin or are we waiting for Erling?’ I could find the moments in the first half. I was a bit freer.”
Between them, De Bruyne and Haaland took a total of 10 shots during the evening. Within the first half alone, both players could score hat-tricks.
In the break of play in the first half, De Bruyne and Haaland were seen having a short conversation. “I was saying [to Haaland], if I fall deep and Holding is coming with me, try to be on my back because Gabriel needs to float all the way and that is difficult. That’s what we wanted to take advantage of.”
Wide men sacrifice themselves for the team
There were times when it looked like City’s entire attack was down to two men, Haaland and De Bruyne. In comparison, their wings – Jack Grealish and Bernardo Silva – were largely ineffective in the final third.
This was all part of the City’s strategy, however. With Arsenal playing a man-to-man system, City’s holding midfielders and wingers often gained possession with their back-to-backs, and with an Arsenal defender close to them. It meant they couldn’t do much damage themselves, but their position was vital to De Bruyne’s forward runs.
Guardiola’s plan, De Bruyne said, was for the wide players to create gaps in midfield keeping their width and drawing pressure from Arsenal’s defenders.
“It’s difficult sometimes when you’re a winger or a midfielder and you’re playing man against man,” said the City midfielder. “When you get the ball there’s always someone on your back. For me today, when Erling had the ball I could run forward. It’s more dangerous if you have players running forward.
“When you have players on your back it’s a dominant role for them [the wingers] but it is so important. The wider they are, the more spaces there are in the middle.”