Tottenham came into this North London Derby on a relative high, boasting a 3-1 over European champions Real Madrid and a surprisingly tight 1-0 win over Crystal Palace before the international break. Mauricio Pochettino has clearly found his stride with this young side and with a front three of Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen, and Delle Alli could reasonably outscore most opponents.
Arsenal, however, came off a 1-3 loss to Manchester City in a performance that is emblematic of their season: breathtaking at times, mostly frustrating, with a hint of arrogance. With the North London Derby being at the Emirates, where Arsenal have won five straight, there were high expectations for Arsenal to claim a crucial win to keep within earshot of the Champions League.
Arsenal: Cech; Monreal, Mustafi, Koscielny; Kolasinac, Xhaka, Ramsey, Bellerin; Sanchez, Lacazette (Coquelin), Ozil (Iwobi)
Tottenham: Lloris; Sanchez, Dier, Vertonghen; Davies, Dembele (Winks), Sissoko, Trippier; Alli (Son), Kane (Llorente), Eriksen
Arsenal’s Team Press
Wenger set his team up to deny easy ball progression by Tottenham’s centre backs by playing position-oriented press. As the ball moved along Spurs back line, Arsenal shifted their pressing reference to force them to play the ball long. Typically, Spurs prefer to build through the middle, preferably through the 6 space, as it provides different angles for aggressive vertical passing. That Pochettino did not deploy Harry Winks in the middle was surprising; he is both calm on the ball and an emerging visionary passer. By playing Sissoko, a natural right winger, in the middle, Dembele became increasingly isolated and easily shadow-marked by the ball-side defender.
Even when Dembele was able to receive the ball in the centre, he was immediately suffocated by Arsenal’s midfield. At times, he was able to escape the pressure and establish greater progression in the final third. While they enjoyed central access throughout the game, attacking opportunities were limited due to Arsenal’s stable low block that made passes beyond the lines increasingly difficult. Most of Tottenham’s dangerous efforts occurred outside the box because Arsenal did not allow Spurs to get behind them.
Arsenal Exploit Spurs High Line
If there is anything as a sure bet when it comes to this Spurs side, it’s that they press aggressively as a whole. Like most of their matches this season, Tottenham looked to prevent easy penetration into the centre. When Arsenal was early in their buildup, Tottenham pressed from a 5-1-2-2 with Sissoko pushing slightly higher on Eriksen’s right. By adopting a narrow pressing strategy, Spurs were looking to force Arsenal’s first phase buildup down the flanks where they could use a touchline press to either win possession or force Arsenal backward.
Arsenal, through tactical design, avoided much of Tottenham’s pressing actions by being more vertical in their possession play. Most of their dangerous attacking actions occurred through 1) vertical ground passes into Ozil and Sanchez in the half-spaces, and 2) direct passes over Spurs flat back five.
In the former, Ozil and Sanchez would make a quick movement in the half-space to force Tottenham to readjust their defensive positioning. With quick one-two’s and third-man runs, Arsenal was able to burst forward at Spurs last defensive line. Other times, they switched play across the pitch to take advantage of the space along the flanks.
Later on, Arsenal identified the weak point in Tottenham’s defence: their high and flat back line. They took advantage of the space that Tottenham was leaving in behind by playing passes over-the-top that they were too slow to recover from. Bellerin and Lacazette’s movement behind their defensive line caused considerable problems as they forced Tottenham to be reactive in their defensive pressing. As the game wore on, Arsenal ruthlessly exploited their right side by overloading in possession and having a clear option through Spur’s lines.
The German Wundershow
Rumours abounded this past summer that Shkodran Mustafi, the £35 million German heat-seeking missile, was off to Inter Milan. He had endured a so-so first season in North London since joining in 2016; some promising performances were riddled with his frustrating penchant to practice for the slip and slide world championship. He is a player of obvious quality (you don’t start for the German National Team if you’re poor) but had seemed to fail to convince Wenger that he is the long-term option in the centre of defence.
He isn’t the only German that makes Arsenal fans want to rip whatever hair they have left off. Ozil is a player of immense quality while at the same time mildly irritating. He has shown what he is capable of and why Wenger was so willing to spend big bucks to bring him over from Real Madrid in 2013. That he is able to conduct Arsenal attacking movements like an orchestra is in no question. On his best days, he makes opposing defenders look like Sunday football defenders who’d been drinking one too many pints. What is maddening about Ozil is that he has the qualities but lacks the aggression, vigour, and Messi-like ability to take a game by the scruff of the neck and pull Arsenal to new heights.
It’s possible that their unerring brilliance against Tottenham is a sign that this team is finally clicking, or it could be another false dawn. When Arsenal play with real aggression and swagger, there aren’t many teams that can keep up. If Ozil and Mustafi can light the fire, brighter days may yet be ahead.