Arsenal Look To Remain Top of the League as Tottenham Visit
Mikel Arteta’s league leaders welcome Tottenham to the Emirates on Saturday, and with last season’s away-day debacle still fresh in many fan’s minds, how far have Arsenal come since then?
Arsenal are off to a flying start to the Premier League season, accumulating maximum points from 6 out of their first 7 games, and producing an encouraging display in their sole defeat at Old Trafford. Galvanized by a sense of optimism trickling through the fan base and echoing throughout the grounds, the youngest team in the league sit top of the table going into a month of non-stop football.
Two Big 6 clashes with symbolic significance welcome Arsenal into what promises to be a hectic pre-World Cup period. First, a clash of styles against a hard-nosed but seemingly uninspiring Spurs. The following week, a Liverpool side that are flirting with the (very) early signs of their prosperous cycle coming to an end. A cycle Arsenal hope to be in the (very) early days of emulating.
Drawing any sort of conclusions on this season’s fate in the early days of October may be premature, but the messages that these games will carry could reverberate around the football world, for better or for worse. Are Arsenal the real deal? Or is it much ado about nothing for a juvenile side who fell at the first big hurdle…again?
The messages carried by Arsenal’s collapse in the late stages of the 2021/2022 season certainly echoed far and wide, and reinforced a narrative that is all too familiar and scarring for Arsenal fans. Before the final whistle was even blown at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, pundits were dancing on the graves of The Gunner’s Top 4 hopes, labelling Arteta and his men “naïve” and “ill-disciplined”. While the occasion certainly got the better of Arsenal on the day, the team is almost unrecognizable since then in both personnel and tactical proficiency.
Hampered by a late-season injury crisis, Arsenal started the game with Cedric, Holding and Elneny – all clear understudies – in key positions. For a team that aims to build play through ball-playing defenders and a press-resistant single pivot, not having their first-choice players in the defensive third of the pitch was always going to be a daunting task. Furthermore, Arsenal like to create overloads in attacking areas and control possession high up the pitch, even if that means leaving their defenders isolated in defensive transitions. With neither Cedric nor Holding particularly suited to defending in a high line or in 1 v 1 situations, Tottenham tormented Arsenal by attacking the space behind the right-side of their defense. Holding was sent off for two yellow cards after just 33 minutes.
For much of the 2021/2022 season, Arsenal were an improving side that showed consistency in style and performance. A record amount was spent the previous summer on upgrading key positions in the first XI, but when elements of the first team were unavailable, the cracks showed and Arsenal were unable to sustain their form deep into the season. Not only has the club added crucial depth to the side and raised the level of their floor, but major incomings have also vastly raised their ceiling. Arsenal can be more aggressive and effective in the implementation of their principles of play when everyone is fit, but also sustain those principles at a high level despite absences peppered throughout the team.
Arsenal tend to attack in a 2-3-5 shape, that features their right-back and left-back inverting to form a midfield 3 with the single pivot, usually Thomas Partey. This ambitious tactical evolution is made possible thanks to the on-ball prowess and positional awareness of their full-backs. Benjamin White and Oleksandr Zinchenko are perfectly suited to those roles, which also involves creating a shield of 3 in front of the back 2 to prevent transitions. On the ball, White made the second most passes of anyone on the pitch in Arsenal’s last outing against Brentford, behind only Thomas Partey. He made the most attacking third passes with 24, and ranked second in chances created with 2, tied with Gabriel Martinelli. Off the ball, he was also crucial in stopping counter attacks and limited Brentford to just 43 attacking third touches, the least they’ve had all season.
Enabling Arsenal to suffocate teams in the attacking third of pitch starts with having defenders able to handle transitions, and being able to defend in a high line. The full-backs tactically inverting allows for more control in possession and a first line of defense when the ball is lost, but the center backs must be comfortable defending their channels, often in isolation. Arsenal’s recruitment in that position in recent years has allowed the team to play such a front-footed style. Saliba has been a revelation in defending the right channel in transition, combining his speed, physicality, and an assuredness beyond his years to win duels and recover possession. Gabriel is equally capable of defending in space. In Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Brentford, Gabriel and Saliba ranked first and second in ball recoveries respectively. The Stats Zone graphics below show how none of their recoveries actually took place in their penalty area, but rather higher up the pitch when defending transitions.
Scouting Our Opponents
Spurs are looking at some good form in their Premier League campaign so far, being unbeaten in their first seven games, only dropping points against Chelsea and West Ham. This is due to a very solid defensive formation, as well as some solid aerial presence, especially on set pieces, in which they are leading – on par with the Gunners.
Setting up in Conte’s favorite 343 formation, Tottenham look to lock down their own defensive third while springing several spaces open with hard running. Especially the two wingers and wide backs are important, looking to overload wide areas or, because of the offensive nature of Perisic and Sessegnon, allow Conte to let the widebacks invert and get into shooting positions.
In defense, Spurs look to press very high, utilising the running power of their front 3 to put pressure on defense and force a turnover or a long ball. Usually the midfield two press up, trying to deny easy short passes into central areas. Wide backs look to stay cautiously back, as to avoid wingers running into the wide spaces, letting the front players take the bulk of the pressing. Should play continue, Tottenham fall into a 541 low block formation, shutting down both wide and central areas by simply not press the defenders in possession. While being effective at keeping the ball out of the box, this type of defensive formation is also immensely anti-football.
In offense, Conte has had an easy time setting Tottenham up to fit his style, as they’ve already been schooled in transitional football. From their defensive 541, they usually look to use the wingers as triggers, setting them in running duels down the flanks, with 2-3 players moving into the box. A usual pattern was Harry Kane starting centrally, but moving towards the far post, when possible, looking to loose his defender. In fact, most of Spurs strength sit in the aerial ability, winning 54% of their 239 aerial duels so far, putting them fourth on winning percentages of aerial duels and fifth in total number of aerial duels won.
When attacking Tottenham, Arsenal should look to utilize Tottenham’s tendency to close down wide areas late. While they do crowd these areas, they are slow to move across, as well as being slow to get back in transitional play. If Arsenal can manage to catch Spurs in their initial high press, the Gunners could be able to abuse the space in behind to stretch the slightly flat footed defense off guard. That being said, Spurs do work hard defensively, so there should be an emphasis in taking the chances when they show themselves.
When defending Tottenham, Arteta must put an emphasis on finding their defensive positioning ASAP, with further instructions to be aware of wide back areas on crossing opportunities. Spurs have created most of their goals and chance creation on crossing, this season, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t continue that against Arsenal. While the Gunners should be able to catch Spurs during the build up phase, the main concern when the wingers get possession should be to contain their ability to cross the ball, instead of retaining possession.
With crucial returns from injury and key upgrades across the pitch, Arsenal are able to sustain attacks much more effectively. Gabriel Jesus adds creativity, chance creation, movement and finishing that the team lacked from their number 9 for most of last season, and the team structure allows for attacking midfielders to operate with more freedom higher up the pitch. According to WhoScored, 34% of Arsenal’s touches this season have come in the attacking third of the pitch, with 43% of touches in the middle third. Only 23% of Arsenal’s touches have come in their own third. As a matter of comparison, Tottenham have 35% of their touches in their own third, 42% in the middle third, and only 23% in the attacking third. Arsenal have the second most attacking third touches in the league, behind only Manchester City. Tottenham rank 12th.
This field-tilt superiority will make for a fascinating encounter on Saturday, with one team expected to control possession and territory, and the other likely to be content feeding off counter attacks and transitions. Tottenham’s strengths still lie in their transitions and attacking the spaces that left Arsenal reeling back in May. The context is entirely different though, and The Gunners have more appropriate tools at their disposal this time around. If Arsenal can show the same off-the-ball control in the North London Derby as they did in West London last time out, they could be in line for another special afternoon at The Emirates.
What the Manager Says (courtesy Arsenal.com)
The mentality doesn’t change. We have to go game by game, we need to look to get better and improve in many areas and be humble, but at the same time really ambitious. That’s the way forward for us to achieve what we want.
I think you have to feel attached and a belonging to the club and when you have that feeling, and then you understand the history of the derbies, how both teams were historically created, and what has happened over the years, then that makes it very special. I think it’s a very special city, it’s a really special country, very passionate fans and it’s a great atmosphere to play in.
Arsenal Record vs Opponent (League only)
60M 22W 15L 23D
Goals Scored (Season Average)
Arsenal (home): 2.67
Tottenham (away): 1.67
Goals Conceded (Season Average)
Arsenal (home): 21.33
Tottenham (away): 1.00
xG per Match (via footystats.org)
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Assistants: Eddie Smart, Nick Greenhalagh
Fourth official: Josh Smith
VAR: John Brooks
Assistant VAR: Matthew Wilkes
Match Facts (courtesy BBC.co.uk)
- Tottenham have won only two of their past 37 league fixtures away to Arsenal (D14, L21), with those victories coming in 1993 and 2010.
- Only one of the 23 most recent top-flight meetings has been won by the away side – Arsenal’s 1-0 victory at White Hart Lane in March 2014.
- Arsenal have scored in 23 consecutive home league games against Spurs since a 0-0 draw at Highbury in November 1998.
- Arsenal have earned six successive Premier League home wins, including three this season.
- However, they have gone eight top-flight matches without a clean sheet at Emirates Stadium since March’s 2-0 victory versus Leicester.
- Only one of their 17 Premier League goals this season has been scored right-footed.
- Mikel Arteta is unbeaten in all seven of his North London derbies at the Emirates Stadium in league and cup, both as a player (W3, D2) and manager (two wins).
- Gabriel Jesus is unbeaten in all 50 Premier League matches in which he has scored, winning 47 of those fixtures.
- However, the Brazilian has netted only once in nine league appearances versus Spurs