Post Match Review
Arsenal left searching for answers following ugly Tottenham defeat
If Sunday’s shocking loss to Southampton put a damper on the excitement surrounding Arsenal and their recently ended 22-match unbeaten run, a second consecutive loss, this time to hated rivals Tottenham, ensured fan spirit would dip to its lowest ebb since August. The Spurs left little in doubt with the 2-0 victory, atoning for their loss in the first North London Derby of the season and handing Unai Emery his first loss in a domestic cup competition since he was Sevilla manager in 2016. Tottenham now stand just 2 matches away from their first silverware since 2008, and Unai Emery and his Arsenal squad must return to the drawing board in search of answers before an increasingly important encounter with Burnley this weekend.
Poch takes round two
Following Arsenal’s convincing 4-2 victory in the first North London Derby of the season, it would have been fair to question some of Mauricio Pochettino’s tactical decisions during the match. After an evenly matched first half that saw the teams separated only by a debatable Tottenham goal, Unai Emery thoroughly bested his counterpart with his adjustments in the second half. Tottenham had no answer for the Gunners once Emery switched to a back three with his two strikers supported by Aaron Ramsey in attack, and the Gunners ran away with the match.
This time around, however, Pochettino was ready for whatever Emery tried, and Tottenham managed to coast to the 2-0 victory with little resistance. After watching the Arsenal defence struggle with the direct play of Ralph Hasenhuttl’s Southampton, Tottenham followed suit with lots of diagonal balls into the channels on either side of the Arsenal centre-backs. Whether it was Heung-Min Son or Harry Kane leading the line, the Gunners never really looked comfortable at the back with two natural midfielders in Granit Xhaka and Ainsley Maitland-Niles both slotted into the defence as a result of the recent injury crisis that has forced Emery to search for creative solutions.
Nothing demonstrated the piecemeal nature of the Arsenal defence more than Spurs’ second goal, when Dele Alli effortlessly broke the offside trap to run onto a Harry Kane pass before chipping a helpless Petr Cech to put the score out of reach. Tottenham looked the more dangerous and motivated team for much of the match, and it is the ease in which they handled the Gunners in their own stadium that will have Emery most concerned.
As is the way with bitter rivalries in football, no Tottenham player is well liked by Arsenal supporters. However, Heung-Min Son looks destined to eclipse all of his Lilywhite teammates as the most hated man at the Emirates Stadium following yet another strong performance for his side in a North London Derby. With pace and energy to burn and a knack for making the most out of contact with defenders, Son has been a nuisance for the Gunners, drawing a penalty in the first meeting of the season and scoring the first goal of the match on Wednesday.
Before making way for Erik Lamela with 20 minutes to play, Son’s tireless work leading the line for Tottenham caused one headache after another for the Arsenal defence. Completing 92% of his passes from 25 touches, his stats don’t jump off the page, but he pestered the Arsenal defence when Arsenal had the ball and stretched the back-three out of shape with his tricky, diagonal runs. He seems to relish the heightened atmosphere of a North London Derby, and he is one player that Arsenal seldom have a consistent answer for in their own tactical plan. Harry Kane might be the more lauded striker across world football, and Dele Alli the more polarising figure, but Heung-Min-Min Son just might be one of the Gunners’ least favourite players to play against in the entire Premier League.
When Unai Emery was hired as Arsenal head coach in the spring, much was made of his match-specific tactical approach, which in many ways, provided sharp contrast to the methods of his predecessor Arsene Wenger. Thus far in his tenure, Emery has shown a consistent willingness to make changes quickly if something isn’t working, whether it be through substitution or a change of formation. This tendency has only been exacerbated by injuries to key players throughout the squad, but it has also yielded its fair share of positive results; Arsenal are one of the best performing second-half teams in the league this season.
This week, however, we have begun to see some of the downsides to this constant tinkering with the squad, and Emery has made some genuinely head-scratching decisions in pursuit of a better defensive balance. Perhaps his most perplexing decision of all is his recent preference for using Granit Xhaka as cover at centre-back while Shkodran Mustafi, Dinos Mavropanos, and Ron Holding are all out recovering from injuries. As an intelligent player with excellent pass distribution ability, Xhaka obviously possesses some of the qualities Emery favours in his central defenders, but his limited pace and lack of true aerial ability have clearly hindered his transition into a temporary defender. One only has to watch the second Tottenham goal again to see the danger of playing a high line with him in defence, and the lack of communication at the back betrayed the unfamiliarity between players.
With Emery continuing to try different formations and player combinations, almost on a match to match basis, some fans are beginning to wonder if his constant experimentation is having an adverse effect on some players. As was the case with Claudio Ranieri before his Leicester City miracle title triumph, it sometimes appears as though Emery doesn’t quite trust his players to perform on a consistent basis, and the constant changes can prevent players from developing consistency and building on their prior performances. It remains to be seen how this approach might change once players begin to return from their injuries and he once again has a full squad from which to make his selections. But at the moment, it is becoming increasingly clear that he has not yet figured out which formation and players give this team the most consistent chance of winning.
A question of creativity
It is no secret that Unai Emery has been desperate to fix his leaky defence all season long, but it appears as though the attack is beginning to suffer in the pursuit. On Wednesday, the Gunners struggled to provide consistent service to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in front of goal, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan providing the most creative impetus until being forced off at half-time with an ankle injury. Alex Iwobi has made strides this season, but he has yet to ride to the level of a consistent creative influence on matches. While he may be the best dribbler in the team, his passing can be a bit wayward at times and few opponents genuinely respect him as a goal threat. The result of late has been loads of recycled possession amongst the back six or seven players in the team and a few moments of penetration down the flanks, but a dearth of creativity through the central areas to link the midfield to attack.
Naturally, any question about a lack of creativity in this Arsenal side would seem to have a ready-made answer in Mesut Ozil, but the situation surrounding the German playmaker has only yielded further uncertainty. Unai Emery is widely stated to be dissatisfied with Ozil’s willingness to contribute defensively, but leaving him out of the side has not yielded the expected improvement to the Gunners’ defensive play. Individual mistakes and poor communication continue to hamstring the Arsenal defence in Ozil’s absence, but the attack has also experienced similar inconsistency of late, leaving both sides of the ball wanting for more quality.
Following Unai Emery’s decision to leave Ozil out of the team on Wednesday for “tactical reasons,” and his reluctance to stand behind his mercurial creator in the post-match press conference, the sentiment that Ozil could be on his way out of the club is only gathering steam. However, given the recent struggles to create chances consistently and a worsening injury crisis forcing Emery to get creative when constructing his matchday squads, Ozil could yet be given an opportunity to prove his worth to his new manager during this hectic festive period. If not, it may be time to start considering what an Arsenal squad might look like post-Mesut Ozil.
Ceding the moral high ground
Following the first North London Derby of the season three weeks ago, one despicable act threatened to derail the positive headlines and festive atmosphere surrounding the Gunners’ triumphant win when photographs emerged of a Tottenham supporter throwing a banana skin at Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang while the Gabonese striker celebrated a goal. As a gesture with a history of racial undertones (despite the fan in question insisting there was no such intent), Arsenal supporters were understandably enraged with the fan, and Tottenham responded properly by issuing a long-term stadium ban to the offender. Coming on the heels of an incident involving a Chelsea fan racially abusing Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, the banana garnered plenty of attention in the press, and Arsenal supporters were quick to call out their rival’s fans for the indiscretion.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for an Arsenal supporter respond in kind, obliterating any chance the fans had of claiming any sort of moral superiority over their rivals. This time, the projectile fired from the stands actually struck Tottenham’s Dele Alli square in the head, and the incident was captured on the live TV broadcast. This sort of behaviour is despicable and has no place in football, full stop. Rivalries are made great by the heightened intensity in the stands and the support behind the teams, but endangering the players’ safety on the pitch is not support; it is criminal. It begins to take on a more sinister shape when the hatred extends beyond the badge on a player’s chest and becomes something far more personal. Despite all the progress the sport has made in recent years in safety, inclusiveness and fan experience, these sort of incidents are still far too frequent. Hardly what one would expect from fans of a club that prides itself on its class and its values.