Common mistakes doom Arsenal against Spurs – Derby Tactical Breakdown
The first North London Derby for Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, since the departures of Unai Emery and Mauricio Pochettinho respectively, saw Arsenal visit the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for the first time.
Arsenal were looking for their fourth win in their last five, whilst Spurs were searching for a kickstart to end their season, winning just two of their last five games.
Mikel Arteta once again lined Arsenal up in a 3-4-3 formation. He chose to replace Bukayo Saka with Nicolas Pepe, who was making his first appearance since the birth of his son. Due to Eddie Nketiah’s dismissal against Leicester, Arsenal were afforded little options up front and retained Alexandre Lacazette’s services as the central striker.
Jose Mourinho opted to line his Tottenham team up in a 4-4-2. He chose to deploy Moussa Sissoko on the right, moving from his usual central berth. He also reintroduced Lucas Moura on the left. His two central midfielders were Giovani Lo Celso and Harry Winks while Toby Alderweireld and Davinson Sanchez formed the heart of the Tottenham defence.
Akin to Wolves during Arsenal’s build-up, Tottenham put great emphasis on preventing passes through to Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka. Tottenham looked to Kane and Son to use their cover shadows to block any passing potential. On the occasions Arsenal did find Ceballos and Xhaka, the two Spurs midfielders were tasked with contesting the man on the ball. The Tottenham centre-backs then had to aggressively step up and pressurise the Arsenal forwards. This allowed Tottenham to condense the space between the lines effectively. Should a Spurs midfielder get beaten and the Arsenal player on the ball had time, then the Spurs defence would drop with the forward runs of the Arsenal players.
Arsenal opted to press Tottenham with their narrow front three blocking the passes into midfield. The press from Arsenal was relatively high and played into Tottenham’s game plan. Spurs tried to coax Arsenal onto them before playing long, towards Kane and Son. When Arsenal pressed, Tierney and Bellerin would either press the full-backs or wingers. Once Spurs had attracted the Arsenal wing-backs deep, either one or both midfielders would drop, attracting Xhaka and Ceballos. Spurs would then go long. This created a 4 v 4 or 4 v 3, with Sissoko and Lucas supporting Kane and Son more centrally. This favoured Spurs in attack and the narrow wingers would aim to pick up any second balls.
A feature of Arsenal’s play in recent weeks has been their build-up play in the wide positions. Arsenal look to create rhombuses and diamonds in order to facilitate numerical superiority out wide, and create ideal passing angles, to progress moves. The end goal of the move is to find a final pass to an attacker or retain possession. It has been common for one of the wide central defenders to come forward with the ball and become the base of the overload out wide. These wide attacks were very prevalent down Arsenal’s right, where Arsenal undoubtedly targeted Ben Davies and looked to utilise Pepe’s skill and pace.
Jose Mourinho aimed to neutralise this by ensuring his team created a favourable 4 v 3 and made the wing a strong side. He tasked his wide striker that side, with pressurising the Arsenal wide centre-back when on the ball. The central midfielder was instructed to follow any underlapping runs, whilst the full-back aggressively marked the Arsenal wing-back. The Spurs’ winger was then the free man, who could help double mark, cut back passes, and ensure any avenue for a pass inside into midfield was blocked. This helped prevent a switch in play. Arsenal did get success out wide, however, it required a lot of individual skill to beat a man, rather than free-flowing passing moves.
This image shows Winks tracking Pepe’s forward underlapping run. Davies aggressively gets tight to Bellerin and Son contests Mustafi. Lucas is then the free player who can help double mark the ball carrier and maintain balance. You can also see the Spurs defence dropping and shuffling over to cover the space behind the aggressive Davies. This helped Spurs create defensive balance and deal with any Arsenal players, should they beat their man.
Strikers dropping deep
Both Arsenal and Tottenham had their strikers drop deep to get on the ball. Lacazette quite often dropped the deepest, to link the midfield and attack. On these occasions, Aubameyang would move centrally from the right, and Pepe would look to create and angle for a pass in a pocket of space. For Tottenham, commonly it was Son who would drop. This would then be the trigger for Kane to diagonally run beyond Arsenal’s defensive shape. Kane actually got a chance from one of these runs. He made a diagonal burst when Lucas had the ball on the left, running between Luiz and Kolasinac. This is a common Kane attempt at losing his marker. Kane loves the curved run, pulling defenders into uncomfortable positions, before striking at goal.
Both of the first half goals derived from mistakes. Aurier’s initial poor header from Ceballos’ switch and then follow-up poor touch, allowed the strong tackle from Xhaka. This duel saw the ball break loose for Lacazette, who beautifully put the ball into the top corner. Plaudits must go to Lacazette for the finish, but also to Xhaka who smartly moves across Aurier as he returns to his feet. This prevents the Ivorian from getting a recovery tackle in, before the shot is taken.
Moments later, Tottenham capitalise on a lapse of concentration from Kolasinac. A common feature of Arteta’s Arsenal is always having a free player to receive a back pass, if a pass forward is not available. This is to avoid aimless passes into the channels and encourage the retention of possession. As David Luiz passes the ball to Kolasinac, he proceeds to offer an angle for the back pass. Because Kolasinac is a left-footed and checks back inside onto his weaker right foot. The angle offered by Luiz, whilst normally perfectly fine, is a little too tight, for a player who is unfamiliar with passing on his right. Son’s angle of pressing is perfect and he expertly tucks away the ball, making Arsenal pay for Kolasinac’s mistake.
Mustafi seemed to revert to a previous iteration of himself, becoming rash and going to ground far too easily. It was again a mistake which saw Kane sprint beyond the Arsenal back three and have the shot at the superb Martinez, which led to the corner. The corner itself was a culmination of Alderweireld wanting it more and an excellent delivery from Lo Celso, exploiting Arsenal’s semi-zonal marking.
Potential Tweaks Arteta Could of Made
I’m surprised Arteta didn’t change during the game and add an extra body in midfield. An additional player centrally, who could use his atheism to beat a Spurs marker, would have helped Arsenal open up space a lot easier. A perfect player would have been Joe Willock. Spurs central midfielders, Harry Winks and Lo Celso were booked for large portions of the second half. The last thing they could have wanted would have been a strong, ball-carrying player going at them. As well as this, another body in midfield would help Arsenal in the build-up phase.
In conclusion, Arsenal were good for large parts of the game but rarely tested Hugo Lloris. All 4 on target shots (including the goal), had an expected goals of 0.28. From Tottenham’s 9 shots on target, they had an expected goals of 1.16 – Spurs showed more menace with their shots. Jose Mourinho’s match plan and tactics worked a treat: Spurs regularly exposed Arsenal’s defence, with long balls and deterred Arsenal’s use of the width. Once again, Ceballos showed why Arsenal need to make his move permeant, orchestrating the ball in the Gunners midfield and showed to be a natural partner for an impressive Granit Xhaka. Aside from Lacazette’s “worldly” goal, he performed well, coming deep for the ball and linking well with the midfield.
There will be encouragement for Arteta from this game, however, Mourinho is the first manager Arteta has come up against, who has devised a specific game plan which has stifled Arsenal’s different nuances. During the game, Arteta made few match-changing alterations, but this is understandable, given the lack of strength on the bench.