Pep Guardiola’s Team Selection Costs Manchester City in Defeat to Arsenal

Pep Guardiola’s team selection cost Manchester City a trip to the FA Cup final. City were without a solid defensive presence in midfield when they took the field against Arsenal on Saturday. The Citizens have played well this season with Ilkay Gundogan on the field. But, in games when he is asked to hold up the defence, they pay the price for his overexertion.

Pep Guardiola’s Team Selection Costs Manchester City

The Opening Moments

Manchester City started their FA Cup semifinal against Arsenal on the front foot with about as much pressure as they could put on. They were pressing Arsenal, forcing turnovers and creating the type of chances you would expect. But that all went away once Arsenal found their footing.

The goal that got them there was well worked. A quick driving run by Hector Bellerin and strong cross by Nicolas Pepe to find Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at the back post. To his credit, Aubameyang had it all to do and put in a gorgeous side-footed finish. However, City’s mistake was allowing that space to exist in the first place.

Pep Guardiola’s Team Selection

Pep Guardiola set his team out with Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin De Bruyne covering the space in front of his defence. And once again, it proved to be the wrong task for the pair of excellent passing midfielders.

While they have great ball awareness and know-how to place the ball into space, they struggle with defensive spacial awareness. Arsenal went right by an up-pressing Gundogan on their first-half goal. And De Bruyne is not the right man to cover that space once Gundogan presses up.

But that isn’t the only reason Arsenal held a 1-0 halftime lead. To their credit, Arsenal really stopped City from being able to find Gundogan in their passing sequences. The players in that central defensive midfield role have been averaging over 100 passes per game since City beat Liverpool. And at halftime, Gundogan had 32; the plan from Arsenal was clear and well-executed.

A Second Half Response

As the second half began it was easy to expect a response from City, and there was one. They came out of the gates hammering Arsenal harder than they did in the first half. Raheem Sterling missed a golden De Bruyne cutback, Riyad Mahrez forced a fantastic reaction save from Emiliano Martinez, and David Silva missed a  chance from another De Bruyne cross.

But, as the half wore on, it became clearer and clearer how this game was going to go. City were unable to finish their chances, and even the good efforts were denied by miraculous saves or blocks. It became an endless barrage of crosses without a target and mistakes defending the counter.

Like Benjamin Mendy inexplicably standing a yard behind the rest of his defence, playing Aubameyang onside. And once he’s played in one on one, he doesn’t miss the back of the net to double the Gunners lead.

Same City Mistakes

If City fans are asking themselves how they got into this mess, there are really two easy answers. The first is team selection. Ilkay Gundogan is a great defensive midfielder in a double-pivot and can play in a single pivot at times. But there are plenty of teams in the Premier League and beyond that can expose the weakness that Gundogan has defensively.

And the second is in execution. City love getting to the byline at all times but when they aren’t at their sharpest it can almost be their weakness. This was proved by some poor passing and an top draw performance from David Luiz. The Brazilian was rightly blamed when City beat Arsenal at the Etihad, and will rightly get the plaudits for his outstanding performance at Wembley.

Going forward, they have to make one of two choices. Either change the way they want to attack or remove the players who have a tendency to waste the chances that they get on goal. One is much easier than the other obviously but there is a good chance that the next two seasons could bring a bit of both.

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