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Talking Tactics: Disecting Arsenal’s North London Derby win

“And once again, all things were right in the world,” was the general consensus in the footballing community as Arsenal came good and beat Tottenham 1-0 at The Emirates on this past Sunday. A tactically astute performance from Arsenal grinded out a very nervy win over our North London rivals, and put to rest the common notion that Tottenham have surpassed Arsenal on the pitch. And as we are so apt to say, North London is ours.

Our apologies for the lateness of his article but with all the excitement of the day yesterday, the focus was understandable elsewhere.

“And once again, all things were right in the world,” was the general consensus in the footballing community as Arsenal came good and beat Tottenham 1-0 at The Emirates on this past Sunday. A tactically astute performance from Arsenal grinded out a very nervy win over our North London rivals, and put to rest the common notion that Tottenham have surpassed Arsenal on the pitch. And as we are so apt to say, North London is ours.

The nerves were high, the stakes were bigger even at this early part of the season. Tottenham were coming in with their shiny new toys and were the talk of the press and the world coming off a summer of completely changing the complexion of their squad. Arsenal on the other hand hadn’t done anything significant with the exception of Mathieu Flamini coming in a few days prior to the Derby.

But there was a general feeling, a quietly confident belief that Arsene might once again prove that he is not the tactical dunce many claim him to be. The hope was he was still willy enough to overcome what is probably the strongest and deepest Tottenham side he has yet to face. And while Tottenham surely had the talent, they had neither the experience or familiarity of a North London Derby to possibly do anything significant in London – and that goes for their managers as well as their players.

Arsene on the other hand took a page out of the book of those teams that had always allowed Arsenal to have possession without Arsenal getting a win. In a nutshell, Arsene Wenger sacrificied the Arsenal way of possession-based football, to falsely give Villas-Boas’ Tottenham domination, in which they never had total control of  and allowed Arsenal to hit Spurs and their high line effectively and often on the counter.

Arsenal, lined up in their preferred 4-2-3-1, in order to play a fast-paced game of counter-attacking football, rather than our typical possession filled game. On any other day, even with a narrow win, every Arsenal fan globally would have criticised, but gaining a win over our local rivals, Tottenham, this one was allowed to slip by.

A deployed XI of Szczesny; Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Wilshere (subbed for Flamini early on), Ramsey; Walcott, Rosicky, Cazorla; Giroud — in a 4-2-3-1 gave Arsenal the variation to play a list of styles in and out of possession. Wilshere, not yet having hit form, went off with an “illness” (serious rumour was he had to crap – I kid you not)  and replaced by Flamini – and to our surprise, it worked out better.

Without Eriksen in the squad, and Spurs fielding a midfield-trio of Paulinho, Dembele and Capoue, the visitors lacked any creative spark.  Also with Townsend and Chadli on the wings, neither are particularly blessed with technical ability, AVB looked set to simply attempt to overload Arsenal with physicality. Arsene countered by establishing Arsenal to sit deep and press hard for interceptions and counter on the break – proving the route to our goal and in the end a victory.

Arsenal’s more technically astute midfield were much more in tune with each other and the difference in teams was evidence in the linking play coming from the back to the front. Arsenal’s passes took advtange of the spaces provided to them by Tottenham. Arsenal were able to do what Tottenham’s previous two opponents couldn’t and exploited the gaps in the field that Tottenham were creating.  Whereas Arsenal were crisp and quick with their pressing, passing and transition play, Tottenham were lethargic and labored.

Tottenham without their creative presence played into Arsenal’s hands by keeping things wide. And while both Jenkinson and Gibbs had to make adjustments early on, the repeatedly forced the likes of Chadli and Townsend inside, where support took away opportunities to pass and create chances and made the Tottenham wingers try and take long distance shots. The defending enmasse by Arsenal left the box clear that Szczesny had good sight of almost every shot that came in from out wide.

It was the resoluteness, experience and speed that Arsenal would create their goal and many chances. With Tottenham making one of their few runs through the middle, Mertesacker’s big foot knocked the ball away from an oncoming Chadli who had come in from wide. The  resulting tackle led to Santi Cazorla who was back deep to assist in defending picking up the ball and getting a pass to Ramsey who found Rosicky out wide to the right.

Spurs still struiggling to get back were not tracking back with the transition and as they did get back their CB tandem of Dawson and Vertonghen failed to effectively pick up the threat posed by Theo Walcott. Additionally Danny Rose failed to stay wide and was tucked in close to the CBs more intent on watching Rosicky with the ball then picking up Walcott. Both mistakes allowed Theo to get behind the Spurs misaligned defensive wall and as soon as he noticed that Rose was tucked in too deep Walcott came slightly wide to get a pass from Rosicky and with Vertonghen also not rotating down to defend the Englishman, Theo had all the space in the world to expoit the Spurs 18 yard box. His attack and the subsequent run by Giroud resulted in a beautifully timed cross and shot and the only goal of the match – a delightful side-footed shot that beat Lloris on the near post.

Giroud bears special mention in this match. Not likely to be many’s man of the match he has shown in the early season that he is up for the challenge of improving over last season. In this specific match he not only was a constant offensive threat but his defensive work has to be applauded. One of the biggest criticisms of Giroud last year was his speed. Giroud looks to have shed some weight this season and if it’s possible for GQ Giroud to look leaner and fitter he does. This has allowed him to pick up his work rate.

Coacing forwards you always tell them they are the first defender, we lose the ball you need to be the first one to try and win it back. And he did. He was winning tackles stripping the ball away and winning aerial duels. Beating Dawson in the air is no small feat. And Giroud did it 7 out of 9 times. Excellent stuff from the frenchman who’s feet alot rides on this season.

Overall the stats would say that Spurs were the dominant team but it would hide the truth of the matter. The never really threatened until Wenger decided to close down the match with 6 at the back. Who says Arsene won’t go defensive. With Arsenal sensing that Spurs would throw everything forward, offensive players were taken off for Monreal and Sagna. Monreal’s presense though was actually felt more offensively as 2 minutes into his time he missed a sitter that would’ve put the match beyond all doubt.

Arsenal sensing the coming Spurs push allowed the visitors to come. The filled the box and won aerial duel after aerial duel. For all of Tottenham’s size and strength they couldn’t get the ball past Arsenal. We all used to complain when Fergie or Chelsea did this to us. When Arsenal would chase a match against the bigger teams and they would shut things down. We applauded that. It’s why Arsenal deserve credit for a well deserved win.

In the end Tottenham rarely posed a significant threat except on two or three occasions and the narrative is that the team is likely taking time to gell. But their problems are broader than that and in fact it played perfectly into Arsenal’s plan.  There was more of a fear factor to Spurs last season with the form of Gareth Bale and the speed the likes of Lennon and Defoe brought to the Emirates. Early in the fixture at the Emirates last season it showed they used the speed effectively There was none of that this fixture. All play was slow and without purpose.

Spurs didn’t have the passing effectiveness and with Arsenal’s pressing game it was the hosts who found themselves transitioning quickly and swiftly creating real chance after real chance. Additionally, for all the talk of Spurs going out and getting a bona-fide striker, Soldado was quiet for the day. Without proper service from a true number 10 the Arsenal back line bascially made him inconsequential. It says something that Jermain Defoe’s addition changed the overall dynamic but still without a true creative force nothing really materialized.

Additionally, there is something that can’t be figured out about Villas Boas version of the high-line in his back 4. It was his downfall at Chelsea (in addition to the huge egos at the club)  however he has his back 4 setting up there are always large gaps for teams to take advatange of it was there in the first two games of the season with both opponents unable to take advatnage of. But with Arsenal adept at slick passing, it was Theo Walcott who was behind the line a lot on Sunday on the receiving end of pin point through balls from Santi Cazorla that forced Hugo Lloris to be more of a defender than I am sure he would’ve liked to be. Arsenal were very unlucky to not be ahead in this match 3-0 before the Spurs seriously mounted any sustained pressure.

Arsene Wenger is right to point out that for the most part this Arsenal squad is a team that has only lost once since March – to Spurs of all teams. Their familiarty with the system and roles they function in played a big part in being able to overcome Tottenham. It will also likely carry them through the season. It is a sound foundation to move forward with and with all the news from yesterday, adding a world class player like Mesut Özil to this crew is only going to make the system work that much better.

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