Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur met yesterday with plenty at stake for both sides. Arsenal, with home advantage, could have risen to the top of the Premier League table with a win and put their bitter rivals five points off the Champions League places.
Spurs meanwhile were in wretched form, losing two of the last six matches in all competition and drawing the other four. They were still unbeaten in the Premier League but plenty of questions had to be answered after a dismal performance in the 1 – 0 ‘home’ defeat to Bayer Leverkusen.
It was as major surprise to see Spurs line-up with a formation they rarely use. With only three days to refresh their memory between the two games, the manner and confidence with the team played was admirable.
Dier, Wimmer and Vertonghen had plenty of time on the ball and when Arsenal attacked were able to nullify the pace of Walcott, Iwobi and Sanchez with the two wide players picked up by Rose and Walker as the wing backs dropped into defence, effectively creating a 5 – 3 – 2 formation.
However, it more a 1 – 4 – 3 – 2 with the spare centre back – usually Dier – dropping into a sweeper role and providing cover to colleagues.
It caught Arsenal out as Theo Walcott freely admitted. The added bonus for Mauricio Pochettino was the mental impact on the Gunners wide men with Rose and Walker’s attacking energies putting them on the back foot for a while.
With Santi Cazorla, Arsenal lined up with Francis Coquelin and Granit Xhaka in the centre. At Sunderland and in Sofia against Ludogorets, Egyptian international Mohammed Elneny had prompted many Arsenal attacks with his smooth passing game.
This time, Arsenal were expected to make the running. Without Cazorla’s dribbling from the middle, the central pairing were swamped by numbers. Rose and Walker pushed up to squeeze Arsenal on the flanks whilst Eriksen pushed into the centre to make it 3 v 2 in Tottenham’s favour.
This graphic from WhoScored.com underlines the numerical advantage Tottenham enjoyed in the centre of the pitch.
Whilst Spurs had the numbers, they were more intent on using them to stifle Arsenal and didn’t launch many attacks from this position. Most of their breaks were from Rose and Son on the left and Walker on the right.
Arsenal weren’t able to play through the lines as they are used to doing with Spurs almost adopting an almost man-for-man making role, with the exception of Eriksen.
Having a player comfortable dribbling in the centre alongside the defensive midfielder gives Arsenal the extra option in the centre. It’s underlined by the fact that Mesut Özil’s two dribbles was the best of any of the Gunners, followed by Hector Bellerin.
Right now, Arsène Wenger must be wishing that he had Jack Wilshere at this moment in time.
The Chilean has mesmerised defences this season, proving an effective central striker and a different proposition to Olivier Giroud.
With three centre backs, Spurs were able to compensate for his pace with cover from the spare defender. With Alexis spending more time on the left, he encountered Kyle Walker as often as Vertonghen.
With Mesut Özil in a rich vein of scoring form, his advanced role didn’t cause the Tottenham defence enough problems or offer enough of a goal threat on this occasion.
Arsène Wenger will be concerned by the performance in this respect. At half-time against Chelsea, they led 3 – 0 and Antonio Conte switched to 3 – 4 – 3 to limit any further damage. Middlesbrough also adopted the tactic during the recent goalless draw at the Emirates.
Add in this match, that’s one goal in 215 minutes and suggests this might be as much Arsenal’s nemesis as the 4 – 5 – 1 which has been adopted frequently by opponents.
The England international gave Spurs an attacking presence they have been missing in recent weeks. Kane had the highest number of shots in the game – 3 – despite being substituted in the 73rd minute.
Replaced by Vincent Janssen, the substitute managed 2 shots but no real threat to the Arsenal goal. Spurs biggest problem is scoring from open play. They haven’t done so in the past six games and need to rediscover their ability to do so.
Kane’s return eases the pressure on Janssen, giving him the chance to acclimatise to the English game away from the spotlight. Being a substitute, his introduction is one of hope rather than leaving the field having failed.
In the Premier League, only Leicester City have scored against Tottenham. From open play, the defence is well-marshalled and organised although it seems to come at the expense of some attacking verve.
However, once again they succumbed to a set piece. Özil swung his free kick in and Wimmer under pressure, headed into his own net. Forget the claims of offside; Arsenal had equally strong claims for a penalty with all the holding going on, had the goal been ruled out.
Tottenham held a high line on the edge of their area and in these situations, are always retreating at pace. It’s a flaw with their set-up and will haunt them all the while they adopt this tactic. As long as they maintain the strong defence from open play, they will be fine. Once that record goes, they will be in trouble.