Last November 18th, Mauricio Pochettino and Tottenham Hotspur were outclassed by an Arsene Wenger tactical masterclass. The gunners defeated Spurs by a 2-0 score, with goals from Mustafi and Alexis Sanchez. The game was dominated by the home side, mostly because of three tactical aspects:
- Arsenal’s 4-man high press assigned to Spurs 3 center backs and deepest midfielder Moussa Dembele. ARS prevented TOT from creating numerical superiority in their buildup, preventing them from constructing a clean play from the back.
- Tottenham’s erroneos approach to transition directly and cross from deep had them suffer in chance creation.
- Arsenal’s chance creation strategy was simple yet unstoppable for Spurs. They worked their possession until finding an opportunity to find a through pass between Vertonghen and Davies, TOT’s left center-back and left wing-back.
On February 10th, the game was heavily conditioned by Arsenal’s new additions Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang. Without Alexis, Wenger was forced to adjust to a totally different approach, an occurrence that highly contributed to Tottenham’s domination through most of the match.
The match ended 1-0, with a towering header by Harry Kane, however, ESDF merely addresses final results without breaking down what happened on the field. Let’s get to business. First, this is how both teams aligned:
Compared to their 5-3-2 formation in the first North London Derby of the 2017/2018 campaign, Tottenham commenced with a 4-2-3-1. It’s safe to say, however, that their constant rotations had them regularly vary between formations and structures during the match. Based on given match situations, Pochettino adjusted with up to 4 different formations, which will be further illustrated throughout the article. On the other hand, Arsenal aligned a 4-5-1, with Elneny being the biggest innovation in Wenger’s starting eleven. The Egyptian guarded Xhaka and Wilshere’s back, who played as central midfielders, mostly operating in the central axis and half spaces. Simultaneously, his job was also to guard the face of Arsenal’s back four.
Arsenal’s 4-5-1 Mid-block
Wenger’s planned a 4-5-1 mid-block, as described above. Elneny placed himself in between both lines, with Xhaka and Wilshere getting compact in defence. Their objective was to trap Spurs towards the wing by strategic presses from their wide midfielders (Mkhitaryan mostly). Upon getting Spurs to circulate the ball towards their ‘trap area’, they would create overloads and trap TOT, attempting to block any possible passing options either forward or horizontally.
As the image shows, Monreal, Xhaka and Mkhitaryan have Trippier where they want him, all while containing their 4-5-1 structure.
Tottenham’s 4-2-3-1 Mid-block
Although Tottenham’s mid-block strategy varied significantly throughout the match, their initial structure was a 4-2-3-1 mid-block.
Eric Dier provided a strong defensive presence in midfield. Although the Englishman is having an irregular season, Dier had a brilliant game defensively. His role and performance will be further analysed later in the article, under the section Anchorman Eric Dier. Besides him was Moussa Dembele, perhaps the best performer on the pitch. Moussa constantly resisted multi-directional presses from Arsenal’s midfield and forwards. He successfully attracted rivals with dribbles, constantly overcoming them and laying off to unmarked teammates. Most importantly, he was the player responsible for connecting the defense with the midfield and the forwards. Alongside Eriksen, most of Spurs ball circulation was conducted between them. Contrary to what the image shows, however, Dier was on the right and Moussa was on the left.
Tottenham’s 4-2-2-2 Variation
As mentioned in the Lineups section, Spurs constantly varied their mid-block strategy during the match depending on different scenarios. A fairly common structure for the home side was a 4-2-2-2 shape, with Son and Eriksen acting as “wide midfielders.”
The double line of four was not as compact as in a regular 4-4-2, however Son and Eriksen had the defensive duties of marking the half-space, to prevent Arsenal overloads on the wings and screen any possible diagonal pass onto the edge of the box.
Curiously, Eriksen had to commit to more defensive sacrifices in the first half than he is used to, however he still managed to flourish in possession.
Arsenal’s Direct Approach
Wenger vowed for a direct possession strategy to break Tottenham’s high defensive line. With players suited for the approach, this strategy did not seem that bad. The idea was to have Ozil feed Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan into the space.
Below is an example of Spurs crossing the ball following a short pass from a corner.
As the image shows, both Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan sit on the edge of the box as Eriksen is about to cross the ball.
As soon as the ball is about to be cleared, both attackers are ready to make forwards runs to catch Tottenham on the break. As the ball is cleared, the rebound falls to Mesut Ozil. Their perfect scenario to counterattack.
Both attackers would then have the chance to run at Trippier, a relatively slow defender.
However, in the end the pass by the German playmaker was misplaced, and Arsenal missed a golden opportunity.
This approach was fairly constant throughout the whole match. Not only did they attempt a direct approach via counter attacks, but also during situations with a congested midfield.
As the image shows, Arsenal go for a through pass to Aubameyang over and behind Spurs high defensive line.
The statement that this approach was conducted for the whole match is reflected by both plays adopting similar intentions while occurring at totally different times, one in the 6th minute and the other in the 81st, and under totally different scenarios.
Spurs Common Structure in Possession
Although their mid-block and low-block strategy ranged greatly throughout the match, their shape and positioning in possession was fairly constant. Most of the plays had the same players performing the same tasks around the same area.
This structure involved both central midfielders to be in line with each other when the ball was on the right side. When the ball was switched towards the left, Dembele adopted a more advanced role, linking up with Son, Davies, and Kane. Most of their attacks and possessions took place through the left wing, so Dembele’s role was of vast importance. Son was responsible for providing pace, width, and directness down the flank. Eriksen usually positioned himself either in the right half space or in the central axis. His role was to create chances and ease fluidity in possession with combination plays, passes in between the lines and crosses from the flanks or half spaces. Dele Alli and Kane played nearly at the same height, as both had similar roles of getting into scoring situations following crosses and looking for spaces to exploit with intelligent runs.
Their average positioning, according to WhoScored, is of great similarity with the positioning of the players in the picture above. It shows Son’s wide and advanced positioning, while also confirming Tottenham’s stronger presence down the left than on the right, whereas Trippier played a more reserved role and Eriksen tucked inside.
Tottenham’s Possession Approaches
Tottenham had two basic strategies to follow both as possession approaches and as chance creation strategies.
Direct Transitions Through the Left Wing
Firstly, they attempted to transition directly through the left flank, taking advantage of numerous factors:
- Bellerin’s advanced positioning left vacated space to exploit on the break.
- Son’s wide shape to isolate him with defenders and take advantage of his good dribbling abilities. The South Korean completed the most dribbles for his side, a total of 4. (WhoScored)
- Dele Alli’s brilliant ability to interpret and attack space in any area of the pitch.
Pochettino’s strategy was successful in creating chances for Spurs and catching Arsenal on the break.
In this example, the ball is about to fall to Vertonghen.
As the image shows, Bellerin is way out of position as he performed a penetrative run and was not passed to. This makes it easier for Spurs to exploit Arsenal’s vacated right flank.
As the pass is about to reach Kane, he pivots and plays Alli into the space.
Now Alli has loads of space to run at, and Tottenham have every Arsenal player running back to catch them on the break.
Crossing from the Half-Space
Tottenham’s second chance creation strategy/possession approach was to get their best crossers, usually their fullbacks and Eriksen or Son, into clean crossing situations from the half space.
Pochettino’s fullbacks always had this strategy in mind. Their placement was strategic to provide constant crossing threats from the half space. These two examples are a sign of this chance creation strategy.
In this example, Spurs have used the strategy explained under the previous section to transition through the left flank via Son. As the South Korean realizes he has no central options, he delays his time on the ball, waiting for teammates to support the play. Look at how Trippier is near the half space, unmarked, as he asks for the ball while entering the box.
As Son has gained a few seconds on the ball, Trippier realizes he is no longer a scoring situation. So he starts drifting out wide, into the half-space, to provide a crossing option. Trippier is the player at the far right of the picture.
Upon Son’s successfully gaining of valuable seconds, Dele Alli arrives at the edge of the box.
The Englishman had spotted Trippier unmarked, and played the ball towards the right wing-back.
Meanwhile, Arsenal structured a compact block in the central axis, with 9 outfield players forming their low-block.
As expected, Trippier receives the ball unmarked, inside the half-space, in an ideal situation to whip a cross in.
Tottenham’s only goal of the match also resulted from this chance creation strategy.
Here we can see Spurs in possession inside the central axis. As he did regularly throughout the match, Moussa notices the vacant space left by Arsenal in the left half-space. He therefore asks for the ball with the objective of playing Davies into the exploitable space.
He takes an oriented first touch with the furthest foot from the ball, towards where he is gonna play. Davies then starts his run into the half-space.
As the pass occurs, Davies can now get into a comfortable position to cross from the desired area.
Again, Spurs manage to successfully place their full-backs unmarked in the half-space.
This is how the play turned out:
As shown, Kane is ready for the cross as soon as the ball is about to leave Davies’ foot, and successfully wins the header against Koscielny.
Consequently of their chance creation approach, Trippier (2) and Eriksen (4) ranked 3rd and 1st respectively in most key passes for Spurs during the match. Most of these passes were via crosses. In fact, 28 out of 34 total crosses for the home side came from Trippier, Eriksen, Son, and Davies, arguably Spurs best crossers.
This picture by Squawka highlights all 28 of those crosses:
As the image shows, most crosses come from either inside or around the half-space, with the left side producing a higher volume of crosses.
Both Arsenal’s through ball strategy and Spurs crossing strategy are resembled by WhoScored’s Pass Type infographic:
As the information indicates, Arsenal completed 6 times more through balls than Spurs, while the home side crossed nearly three times as much as the ‘gunners.’
So to conclude the explanation of Spurs chance creation strategies, they basically either vowed to transition directly through the left or placed their best crossers in or around the half-space to cross the ball.
Spurs 4-3-3 Variation to Start the Second Half
To commence the second 45 minutes, Spurs occasionally shifted to a 4-3-3 in possession. Alli acted more as a striker, while Son played higher up the pitch.
Although this image shows 2 central midfielders and one central attacking one, the triangle adopted the shape of that of a defensive midfielder playing behind two wider central midfielders. In other words, they emulated Barcelona’s traditional midfield triangle, with Eriksen on the right and Dembele on the left.
Arsenal Shift to a 4-2-3-1
After subbing Lacazette and Iwobi in for Mkhitaryan and Elneny, Arsenal abandoned their 4-5-1 shape with a deep defensive central midfielder. Instead, they adopted a 4-2-3-1 shape, with Aubameyang on the left, Ozil and Iwobi alternating between right and central attacking midfielders, and Lacazette as the sole striker.
Arsenal’s midfield was less strict with their marking, as they focused more on their on-the-ball movements than their off-the-ball ones.
The change, overall, did not suit Arsenal at all, as they struggled to create chances and eased Spurs capabilities of doing so.
Tottenham Switch to a 4-4-2 with Lamela
Erik Lamela was subbed on for Heung-Min Son in the 70th minute. This caused Spurs to shift, for a final time, their mid-block strategy to a double line of 4.
Pochettino moved Eriksen to the left and gave him a more strict role, while placing Lamela as a classical right midfielder in a 4-4-2. The system was mostly zonal, with Dembele adopting the most man-oriented marking style. Dier, on the other hand, remained within his zonal responsibilities during the whole match. This factor was key to Spurs success in defense.
Anchorman Eric Dier
Besides from guarding the back four from any penetrative pass originating in between Tottenham’s midfield and defense, Eric Dier was key to Tottenham’s counter-pressing in the middle of the pitch. Always one step ahead of the opposition, his tackles and interceptions were outstanding. According to WhoScored, Dier ranked first in total tackles (3), aerial duels won (5) and interceptions (3) and second in clearances (4) within his teammates. His zonal marking was remarkable, providing a defensive presence in midfield, and covering for Dembele, who occasionally roamed through the field.
Quality of Chances Created
Clearly, Tottenham deserved the win over Arsenal. For being more organized defensively, for conceding less quality chances, and for creating more quality chances for themselves. As INFOGol’s xG model shows, Spurs surpassed their rivals by a score of 2.95 to 0.48.
This means that while Spurs were close to creating enough chances to average around 3 goals, Arsenal merely created chances to score half of one. To some extent, WhoScored’s shot types illustration supports this by providing a comparison of both sides shots from inside or outside the box.
While Spurs managed to shoot 72% of their shots from inside the box, Arsenal only managed 33% from inside the box, or 1 out of every 3 shots. While this doesn’t necessarily have a direct relationship to the quality of chances created, it certainly influences Spurs higher xG over the ‘gunners.’
Tottenham’s most significant scoring opportunities were created in the second half. While the first 45 minutes showed a more compact Arsenal side, the second half saw the away team chronically collapse in defense. As this xG chart by INFOGol shows, most of Spurs chances were created in the second half.
All shots, represented by a given probability of a shot positioning/scoring ratio, is shown in this design. The larger a circle is, the bigger the probability of scoring from that given shot. As all large circles show, Spurs created quite a lot of high-quality chances. Out of all the high quality chances they created, only the blue circle occurred in the first half. According to Understat.com, who gave Spurs a total of 2.65 xG compared to INFOGol’s 2.95, Spurs only managed to create .61 xG in the first half, compared to 2.04 xG in the second. This shows the increased amount of opportunities enjoyed by the home side during the second half.
In conclusion, contrary to their first meeting at the Emirates Stadium earlier this campaign, Spurs dominated Arsenal both defensively and offensively. Defensively, they were able to contain Arsenal’s capacity of creating chances, limiting Mesut Ozil’s thinking time on the ball. They ranged their mid-block strategy often during the match, a sign of Pochettino’s brilliant responsiveness to adapt to different match scenarios. Most importantly, Arsenal never found a way to restrict Tottenham from conducting their possession and chance creation strategies. Overall, the win was more than fair for Spurs. In fact, the result seemed a bit short, as Spurs could’ve easily knocked down more than a couple past Petr Cech.