Arsenal’s Derby Redemption
In a game which Tottenham Hotspur bid to do the double over Arsenal, Mikel Arteta had to find a way to beat his adversary – Jose Mourinho.
Goals from Ødegaard and Lacazette, cancelled out Lamela’s fine Rabona opener. The latter went on to have an interesting game, getting sent off in the 76th minute, after two yellow cards. For the majority of the game, Arsenal had control and came out deserved winners.
This match report will look to analyse the key strategies and tactics in the match.
Arsenal’s lined-up in a 4-2-3-1. Leno started, with Tierney, Gabriel, Luiz and Cedric in the back four. Xhaka and Thomas were the double pivot, with Smith Rowe, Ødegaard and Saka, behind Lacazette. Aubamyang was absent from the starting eleven, due to disciplinary (lateness) issues.
Mourinho lined Spurs up in his favoured 4-2-3-1 as well. Lloris, Reguilon, Alderweireld, Sanchez and Doherty, formed the defensive unite. Hojbjerg and Ndombele were the base behind Son, Lucas and Bale. Kane was typically passed fit, despite a reported injury scare and led the line.
Arteta wanted to dominate the ball and use this as means of controlling Spurs. Mourinho too, wanted control of the game, just in a different way. Much like in the reverse fixture, he looked to counter attack and control Arsenal through where Spurs allowed Arsenal to have possession. Mourinho focused a lot on protecting the central areas, hoping the Arsenal fullbacks would receive deeper. This would have nullified Arsenal’s threat and attacking capabilities. Alas, this did not come to fusion and Arsenal could create structures and overloads to ensure their fullbacks could receive high and create dangerous situations.
The 5 Channels
As Arteta said, Arsenal play with two number ten’s. We commonly see this more with the ‘loose eight’s’ position, but given the dynamics of Arteta’s team, he prefers when in possession, to position Smith Rowe in the left half-space and Ødegaard in the right. This allows both players to come inside onto their favoured stronger foot. Furthermore, It allows the fullbacks to advance, whilst Arsenal create central superiority, which aids their defence in the transition. Having well positioned players ready for the defensive transition, is key against a Mourinho team. An example is the reverse fixture, when Thomas was absent and Spurs exploited the space he would have been in and scored.
Arsenal were magnificent at moving possession across all five channels. This allowed them to exploit the spaces behind the Spurs wingers, who half-heartedly tracked back. This was particularly obvious behind Bale, down Arsenal’s left and was amplified, when Arsenal built-up from the back and could attract Spurs slightly up the pitch. In the press, Bale sat in a balanced position, between Tierney and Gabriel. This meant that his job was to block the passes from Gabriel to Tierney. However also meant he sat higher, as he applied pressure. Consequently, this left space behind him which could be exploited.
As mentioned, time and time again, Arsenal got in between the Spurs midfield and defensive lines and created 1v1’s against Doherty. Arsenal could then either cross, or find a pass in behind the Spurs defence. At Wolves, Doherty excelled at wingback and this is due to the extra protection afforded by the additional centre back, who can cover in behind. In a back four, you don’t have this. Spurs remedy was for the midfielders, primarily Hojbjerg to track the runs in these spaces, but because they were tracking a player, they got caught when Arsenal played fast and interchanged positions. Moreover, play was switched, Arsenal could dissect the midfield line diagonally, catching Spurs cold. Hojbjerg and Ndombele ended up responsible for lots of space and got overloaded.
Arsenal attacked 41% down the left and 42% down the right. Arsenal’s success down the left, was typified by Smith Rowe’s game high 4 key passes and 0.36 expected assists. Smith Rowe’s game contribution was further enhanced by his expected goals build-up of 0.40, bettered only by Tierney (who attempted 7 open play crosses), Thomas and Ødegaard (0.47, 0.49 and 0.64 respective). Again, Ødegaard’s impact on the game, from the right half-space, is shown in his game high 37 final third touches
It was noticeable how quiet Harry Kane was kept, by Arsenal’s two centre backs. Both were aggressive on the Tottenham man, especially when he dropped deeper. This complemented Arsenal’s play throughout the game. They pressed high, with aggression and ensured Spurs had little time and space on the ball to play forward.
Arsenal pressed so well, that in the first half, Spurs couldn’t get out, and their usual ball to Kane, for him to hold up, was rushed, which allowed Arsenal to read exactly where it was going to go. Again, Arsenal’s use of the five channels aided this. They could quickly cover the pitch and get to their man, forcing them into mistakes or passes, which Arsenal could pick off.
As mentioned, Bale wasn’t all that attentive in his press. This allowed Arsenal to build-up, get Luiz free on the ball, and for him to switch play behind Bale, to Tierney who was 1v1, with Doherty. This tactic seemed so deliberate, that your shocked Mourinho didn’t predict it, or address it in the match. Arsenal’s build-up with a back three afforded Luiz time on the ball, as Arsenal worked around Spurs’ two strikers, who were more focused on stopping passes into Xhaka and Thomas. This in fact made them actively allow Luiz the ball out wide, thus aiding Arsenal’s game plan. Luiz ended the match attempting 9 final third entry passes and 3 progressive passes.
Aside from the aforementioned players for Arsenal, I though Cedric and Partey both had standout games. Thomas Partey was instrumental in breaking up play, recovering the ball and ensuring Arsenal’s press had cover and depth. Partey who was slightly more reserved, yet hugely influential in possession, perfectly complemented Xhaka, winning aerial duels, making interceptions and protecting the two centre backs really well. His distribution of possession was too, really good. Of his 62 passes, he completed 82.9% and played 6 progressive passes. He also made 2 key passes. Defensively, Thomas made 6 defensive actions, 3 tackles, 1 interception and 7 ball recoveries, 6 of which were high up the pitch.
Cedric made 8 ball recoveries, 2 of which were high up the pitch. He also made 2 tackles and 1 interception. In possession, Cedric made 4 progressive passes, 1 completed pass into the box and 5 open play cross attempts.
In summary, Arsenal bossed the derby. In a time when you’re not really sure, which Arsenal will turn up and how many times they will shoot themselves in the foot, it was a privilege to watch a team, which was tactically excellent and mentally primed for a fight. It must also be noted, that it was especially good to see the Arsenal players not overreacting and get drawn into stupid tackles and heated arguments. Unlike Eric Lamela.
This game really demonstrated how well Arteta has done to accommodate Smith Rowe and Ødegaard, without compromising eithers game. Furthermore, another Arteta acquisition of Thomas, showed the destroying attributes, which have rarely been seen in an Arsenal midfield for some time. The control, progression of possession, and creation of chances, were all aspects of the game which stood out. Of course, much will be made of Aubameyang’s discipline charge, but from a management point of view, it’s great to see a manager who is willing to live and die by his beliefs, values and rules. This is the only way to build a culture, that represents what you (the manager) wants.
Long may this fine form last. Hopefully Arsenal can make a late push up the table and breath down on those ahead. Bring on Olympiacos, on Thursday!