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Breaking Down Arsenal’s Woes vs Tottenham – Tactical Analysis


Yet another Premier League game, yet another defeat. This time it was the North London Derby and Jose Mourinho’s high flying Spurs played host to an out of sorts Arsenal.

The match ended 2-0 to Tottenham, and this report will aim to analyse the key tactics and moments in the match.

Line-ups and formations

Jose Mourinho lined his Spurs side up in a 4-2-3-1. Captain Lloris started, along with a back four of Aurier, Alderweireld, Dier, and Reguilon. Sissoko and Hojbjerg sat in the double pivot, protecting Bergwijn, Lo Celso, Son and Kane in front of them.

Mikel Arteta also lined up Arsenal up in a 4-2-3-1, which changed to a 4-4-2 early in the first half. Leno, Tierney, Gabriel, Holding, and Bellerin were the defensive unit, with Xhaka and Thomas as the double pivot. Saka, Lacazette, Willian, and Aubameyang formed the front four.

Arsenal in possession

In possession, Arsenal built up with minimal difficulty, moving through the thirds with relative ease. It was only when Arsenal got the ball to the middle third that they met Spurs’ midblock, which had altered to a 4-4-2. Arsenal kept a back box of four as they built up from defence. Bellerin and Tierney offered the width high up the pitch, as Thomas and Xhaka moved into the vacated spaces to provide passing options. This helped overcome the Spurs pressure, which was applied by Kane and Lo Celso. This, at times, left a disconnect between the midfield and attack, with Lacazette dropping deep to offer an option in order to solve this issue.

At times it looked as though Arsenal had created two rhombus shapes, at the top end of the pitch with their front four and at the back. Arsenal did this to create width, occupy the correct spaces, maximise diagonal passes, create optimal crossing situations, create 1 v 1s, and open horizontal spaces for crosses in the box.

Arsenal’s biggest problem at the moment is against teams who defend zones, rather than in a man-orientated system. Arteta wants for his players to execute a series of movements, which draw opposition players with them and consequently open space in behind the defensive shape for runners, or 1 v 1 situations. Tottenham were wise to this – they didn’t get drawn out of position and ensured they knew each other’s zone of responsibility.

Arsenal's woes in the North London Derby

This image shows Arsenal’s front four creating a wide rhombus. This stretched the Spurs defensive shape, creating 1 v 1s, diagonal passing lanes, and allowed for effective crossing positions to be taken up

Arsenal's woes in the North London Derby

This second image follows on from the previous. Arsenal create the optimal crossing opportunity for Bellerin after Aubameyang runs both Dier and Alderweireld away. This opens a horizontal space for Lacazette to run into, off the back of Sissoko. This all comes from Arsenal creating their attacking rhombus. This should be used as a reference for what Arteta wants from his crosses. The player and ball arriving in the space at the same time. Unfortunately, Lacazette was a little late this time

Tottenham in possession

This season, Jose Mourinho has innovated the art of defending and counter-attacking. In his 4-2-3-1, he can both retain defensive compactness and maximise the attacking talent he has at his disposal. Against Arsenal, it was noticeable how hard his wingers worked, tracking back to cover the Arsenal full-backs. Furthermore, once Arsenal had progressed into the middle third, Kane and Lo Celso did a great job of preventing the passes into the Arsenal midfielders, utilising their cover shadows. This forced Arsenal to form a back three or four with Xhaka more often than not dropping in. Lacazette would then drop alongside Thomas, to offer another option. Tottenham’s midfield four could protect these passes through the lines and pressurise from behind.

As has been commonplace throughout Jose Mourinho’s managerial career, he likes for his defenders to defend aggressively and win their 1 v 1s. However, this is often exploited with the uses of half-spaces, overloads, and late runs. Against Arsenal, Spurs’ ability to defend these half-spaces was all the more important. This is due to Mikel Arteta seeing positional play as central to his plans and this requires his players to occupy the half-spaces. In previous years, these rotations would cause even the tightest of defences problems, but Mourinho’s new system has found a way to man-mark and prevent any incisions.

As well as letting the full-backs aggressively mark the Arsenal wingers, Jose’s new system allows for the pivot midfielders to defend the half-spaces and allow the two centre-backs to stay close to each other and retain a numerical advantage against the most central Arsenal striker. Spurs could then defend crosses and balls into the box, something they faced a lot of.


Similar to this fixture last season, Spurs looked to exploit Arsenal’s pressing mechanisms. Arsenal’s first thought upon losing the ball is to always counter-press. Tottenham knew that they could regain the ball in their own half and expose the Arsenal defence, through dragging the midfield onto them. This created segregation between the midfield press and the defensive line. This was minimised with the excellent positional reading of Thomas. However, for the second goal, he was walking off the pitch and this space was enhanced. Furthermore, Arsenal’s press was bypassed through the athletic and physical natures of Spurs’ midfielders.

Sissoko and Hojbjerg were instrumental in Spurs playing through the Arsenal press. When Arsenal pressed in a midblock, both Sissoko and Hojbjerg would attract one of Arsenal’s midfield pivot. When either Alderweireld and Dier had the ball, both Sissoko and Hojbjerg would split, dragging their markers wide and opening a central channel for a direct ball through the lines for one of Tottenham’s wingers who had come narrow, or for Kane. Upon receiving, they could turn and play forward.

The goals

The first goal saw Kane receive in midfield, turn and find a pass to Son. As Son comes forward, Holding comes out to meet him. Bellerin comes back to help defend and Arsenal have bodies on the inside. Reguilon makes a crucial overlap for Son and this is what makes the goal. Both Holding and Bellerin see the overlap and drop with it. This gives Son a half yard to come inside and strike at goal. The goal was still masterfully struck and was an amazing finish.

For the second goal, more aggression in the press would have prevented the ball through from Aurier to Lo Celso. After that, Arsenal were always in trouble. Thomas’ injury and decision to walk off the pitch left Arsenal with a massive gap between the high engaged midfield and the defence. This allowed the space for Lo Celso to receive and for Spurs to have a 4 v 2.

Arsenal's woes in the North London Derby

As you can see from this image, Holding and Bellerin drop with the overlap of Reguilon. This affords Son more space to come inside and curl a shot into the far corner of the goal. But credit must still go to Son for a world-class strike


In another frustrating game, Arsenal came up against the most typical Jose Mourinho team of all. With only 30%  possession, and 67% pass accuracy out of their 288 passes, Mourinho well and truly took advantage of his clinical strikers. Arsenal, despite having 70% possession, only mustered 2 shots on target and 11 total shots. Tottenham ended the game with an expected goals of 0.39, while Arsenal had 0.60.

Arsenal never looked to have given up as they continued to chip away at the Tottenham defence. The crossing game did present some opportunities for Arsenal, but it just doesn’t seem to have clicked. There is still a long way to go, but time is most definetly running out.

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