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How Man City and Arsenal can progress into the Champions League semi-finals

By Alex Keble 15 Apr 2024
Man City-Arsenal

Alex Keble looks back on the quarter-final first legs and previews tonight’s ties

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Supporters of Arsenal and Manchester City nervously await a huge night of UEFA Champions League football on Wednesday. 

So does half of the Premier League.

An extra Champions League place will be awarded to the two countries whose clubs perform best in this year’s European competitions, and as it stands Germany and England are neck-and-neck in the race for the second spot.

If English clubs finish second, then fifth place will secure Champions League football and, depending on who wins the FA Cup, seventh will be enough for Europa League and eighth will become a Europa Conference League spot.

So, it isn’t just Arsenal fans who want Mikel Arteta’s side to beat Bayern Munich. It isn’t even just Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur fans, vying for fourth, who want that result (however hard that is for the latter to stomach).

Anyone with a hope of European football could do with that extra space, meaning every single Premier League club down to AFC Bournemouth in 13th place. 

Here’s what Arsenal and Man City did right and wrong in their first legs, and what they will need to do differently to give us an all-English semi-final – and make 13 Premier League teams happy.

Man City: What happened in the first leg...

Despite the 3-3 scoreline, Man City and Real Madrid played out a fairly cautious game last Tuesday, when stunning individual goals created a false picture of an open game - the Expected Goals (xG) score was 0.8-0.7 in City’s favour.

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That’s six goals from a combined 1.5 xG, a remarkably unusual situation that explains why the match felt a little chaotic – without actually being hugely entertaining.

The tactical pattern was easy enough to follow. Real decided to play almost entirely on the counter-attack, funnelling their breaks down the left, while City hogged possession but refused to commit, deliberately playing in a cagey and cautious manner as Pep Guardiola likes to do in away knockout ties.

The home side, in a narrow 4-4-2, blocked the middle of the pitch when conceding possession and territory to Man City, happily letting the visitors have the ball for long periods.

Real 442

From this low position, they could lure City forward and pounce on the counter through Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo, who both leaned out to the left.

It worked for long periods of the match. Real scored twice following a transition, while Guardiola's side faced 25 progressive carries, more than in any match this season, and also their joint-second most take-ons, with 21.

For their part, City didn’t want to commit too many forward and therefore get caught on the break. 

They played a conservative system and aimed for slow control, hence selecting four centre-backs plus Jack Grealish and Bernardo Silva, who slow the game down with their touches, and Mateo Kovacic, to add passing rotation in midfield.

This is typical of Guardiola in tough away matches, but especially so at the Santiago Bernabeu, where his side drew 1-1 in last year’s semi-final before winning the home leg 4-0.

“It’s the Bernabeu, my friend,” he said to the British media after the match. “You are from England. You do not understand what it means to play in the Bernabeu.”

…and what they need to change on this week

In many respects Man City simply need to keep going and play their natural game. 

The tactical setup will be identical from both teams, the only difference being that City will have more urgency in possession and will be less prone to giving the ball away, which was a problem in the first leg.

Rodri was surprisingly sloppy but, rested in the 5-1 win against Luton Town, will be able to lead by example again.

Away from the cauldron of the Bernabeu, Man City should be able to shield against the Vinicius-led counters, although Guardiola will want to clamp down on that side more effectively on Wednesday.

He will also want more from Erling Haaland, anonymous last week but more likely to be present as City show greater adventurousness in front of their own fans.

Finally, Guardiola will presumably find a place for Kevin De Bruyne in midfield, perhaps ahead of Kovacic. That means an increased attacking threat and Man City at their slick and composed best.

Arsenal: What happened in the first leg…

The game at Emirates Stadium was defined by Bayern Munich being given licence to let go of their Bundesliga woes and pretend to be someone else.

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Bayern are never allowed to play on the counter-attack domestically, but at Arsenal they held 41 per cent possession, their second-lowest share of the season, as Leroy Sane, Jamal Musiala, and Serge Gnabry burst forward on the break.

Both Bayern goals were scored this way. The first was from a swift break after a mix-up between David Raya and Gabriel that allowed Leon Goretzka to feed Gnabry to score. 

The second followed a brilliant run by Sane after he had turned Jakub Kiwior, thus breaking an otherwise-solid Arsenal man-to-man press, resulting in William Saliba conceding a penalty.

From this position, as illustrated below, you would think Kiwior and Arsenal had things under control.

Bayern 2nd goal

In short, Bayern countered sharply whereas Arsenal, inexperienced in this competition, buckled slightly under the pressure.

“We gave them things that you have to earn,” Arteta said afterwards. “Against these kinds of players, this opposition, especially when they have space, you know they can punish. We let them run in on a few occasions. That’s something in the return leg that we have to do much better.”

Going the other way, Arsenal were impressive in how they overloaded Bayern’s left. Ben White was deployed high on the right with Bukayo Saka playing just infield and Martin Odegaard, unusually, coming deep on that same side to dictate the play.

It was play from the trio on the right that led to Arsenal’s first goal, with Odegaard and White heavily involved. Their interplay also conjured White’s superb chance to make it 2-0, which might have changed the whole narrative of the tie.

… and what they need to change on this week

It’s easier said than done, but Arsenal’s defence needs to play with greater confidence in the second leg. They cannot afford the same sort of jitters.

However, shutting down Sane and Gnabry might be as simple as swapping out Kiwior, who was at fault for both goals, for Oleksandr Zinchenko.

Zinchenko came on for the second half last week, moving into central midfield to help give Arsenal a shield against opposition breaks. Sure enough, they were far more secure, with White dropping to form part of a back three.

Zinchenko touch map

The added benefit of this would be an extra holding midfielder to play around Harry Kane, who dropped off the front line expertly at Emirates Stadium.

And there’s more good news for Arsenal. Bayern simply won’t be able to deploy a counter-attacking system at the Allianz Arena, which means the tactical pattern flipping on its head.

Arsenal, then, can expect to be more secure than they were against Bayern or Villa over the last week, defending smaller spaces and closer to their own goal.

They will also have more transitional opportunities themselves, and Arteta will need to devise a plan to exploit Bayern’s season-long problems coping with opposition counters.

In other words, on home soil Bayern are more likely to be the brittle, formless side we have seen in the Bundesliga. 

Perhaps the pace of Gabriel Martinelli can exploit the issues with Joshua Kimmich at right-back, although on current form Leandro Trossard is more likely to start.

Either way, Arsenal may actually prefer their status as underdogs in Munich, just as Bayern did last week.

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