Understanding how Arsenal Dismantled Spurs in the North London Derby

Match Analysis
Edgar Faroh

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Edgar Faroh

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Introduction

After nearly 2 weeks of international break, club football fans were eager for Premier League action to resume. One of the biggest matches in English football took place last week, on November 18th, at the Emirates Stadium. Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs visited the Emirates Stadium to face off Arsene Wenger and his army of ‘gunners’. Spurs won at home against Palace before the break, while Arsenal lost to Manchester City by a score of 3-1. If interested, I wrote an article analyzing that match. It gives a great illustration of how Arsenal set up their chance creation strategy and high-presses in different fashion against both teams.

Enough small talk, let’s talk analytics.

Lineups:

Arsenal vowed for a 5-2-2-1 formation in possession. Wenger learned his lesson from last week, not to assign Coquelin the leading centre back role. Mustafi played in that position, and was perhaps one of the best performers of the game. Alex Iwobi started the game from the bench, with Ozil, Alexis, and Lacazette being the 3 forward starters.

Spurs began with their now regular 5-3-2. Davinson Sanchez curiously played as a right center back, with Dier in the middle. This is odd since Dier has played as a right center back for quite a while now and Sanchez has performed mostly from the central outlet. Maybe Pochettino wanted to avoid putting Davinson in a situation similar to last year’s Europa League final. “Knowing” Poch, that is highly unlikely. Trippier and Davies beat Aurier and Danny Rose to a starting position. Dembele played the deepest role in the midfield, with Sissoko and Eriksen playing in front of him.

Arsenal High Press Spurs:

Spurs had immense difficulty building up and combining in the initial third. One of the main reasons Mauricio Pochettino’s side had so much trouble building up from the back was due to Arsenal’s efficient high-pressing strategy:

Arsenal assigned man-marking to all 3 of Spurs centre backs, complicating their decision making and time on the ball. TOT’s CB’s, be it any of the squad, are all relatively ball-playing. Not to say they are a ‘Samuel Umtiti’, but they normally feel comfortable enough to knock the ball around regularly. That was NOT the case  during the North London Derby.

As the image illustrates, Arsenal conducted a 5-2-3 high-pressing formation. Ozil, Lacazette, and Alexis each held individual duels with their respective centre back, with Ramsey following Dembele everywhere he went. Xhaka, on the other hand, was the zonal escort to the play.

The front three formation pressed in a triangle formation, and Ramsey’s man-marking on Dembele caused a diamond shaped high-press. As shown, the diamond was very effective at cancelling out most (many times even cancelling all) of Tottenham’s build-up options.

When the ball reached Dier, Lacazette closed in on his marker. An angled press, following a perfectly timed run, forced Dier to give the ball away.

Upon winning the ball high up the pitch, Arsenal looked to transition quickly with 3 forward runs into the box. Alexis made a good decision by successfully putting Lacazette in a favourable situation.

In the end, the Frenchman was not able to take a clever decision, as his shot went flying into the stands. Ozil, as illustrated, was in an ideal position to score.

This is what Arsene Wenger planned his high-pressing tactics to look like, and it worked wonders for the ‘gunners’.

Tottenham’s Midblock Formation

Like many times this season, Spurs aligned a 5-3-2/5-3-1-1, ranging from last seasons regular 5-2-2-1.

Eriksen played in front of Dembele and alongside Sissoko. Dele Alli played a CF role, performing as a second striker behind Kane. Dele’s role was mostly to pivot and link the play between the middle & the final third during Spurs’ transitions.

Spurs Transitional Approach

It’s safe to say Spurs’ first half approach was nearly the most transitional system Pochettino has used this season, second to only Liverpool. Mauricio Pochettino likely attempted to mimic their insane attacking efficiency against Klopp’s side.

Let’s take a closer look at how this possession approach was applied on the pitch:

As explained, Spurs main strategy was to play direct passes, crosses, or long balls to any of the two forwards. Kane or Alli would then attempt to lay off the ball to any emerging players (normally central midfielders and wing-backs).

Let’s look at the play below to help illustrate Spurs transitional system.

Here, Trippier has won back possession for Tottenham. He will now look for a direct pass to either Kane or Alli.

Trippier successfully manages to find Dele Alli in an advanced role. Although the image might appear unclear, the ball is not behind Dele, that Mustafi’s right sock. In that exact moment, the ball had just left Alli’s boot. As stated before, a pass from the back line to one of the 2 forwards was done to attack in a direct way by transitioning quickly. They then played to an emerging teammate (Sissoko in this case).

Alli’s pass is into the space to keep the speed up the play going. He also doesn’t want to disrupt Sissoko’s momentum.

Both participating players (Kane and Sissoko) already prepare themselves for a cross into the box.

So for a quick recap, Tottenham vowed for an extremely transitional system, with constant direct balls and crosses to Kane or Alli. If Spurs were in the initial third, they tried to find both forwards in the middle third for them to pivot and lay off the ball to any emerging teammates. When they were in the middle third, they just looked for straight direct balls to cause damage.

This system, however, was a massive failure. Pochettino’s approach at the North London Derby was devoured by a Wenger tactical masterclass. The away side rarely created any significant chances to truly trouble Cech.

Arsenal’s Chance Creation Strategy

Arsenal had a very straight forward strategy to create chances against Spurs in the first half.

Let’s take a look at Arsenal’s second goal of the match to illustrate how the home side vowed to create their chances when in possession:

As the image shows, their strategy was literally as simple as that. Working themselves into the central axis about to enter the final third, to then find a penetrative pass to a teammate making a run into the yellow area.

Lacazette was a nightmare for Davies and Vertonghen; always escaping their sight before making penetrative runs.

Bellerin managed to successfully place his forward pass, meaning Lacazette had all the time in the world to come up with an end product.

In the end, the Frenchman finds Alexis in between loads of Spurs defenders. The Chilean slammed it home for a 2-0 Arsenal lead to enter the break.

As simple as it may sound, Arsenal managed to completely tear Tottenham’s defence apart with this simple chance creation strategy. It was BY FAR Spurs’ worst defensive 45 minutes of the season.

First Half Recap:

The first half ended with a 2-0 lead for the ‘gunners’. Alexis scored off Lacazette’s ground pass while Mustafi scored a quality header from a set piece. Arsenal completely dominated Spurs in every aspect of the game. They managed to successfully create quality chances while nullifying Tottenham’s offensive weapons. Not only that, Spurs were never comfortable when building up from deep or knocking the ball around in the initial third. Dembele failed to connect the team’s defensive line with their forwards. It was quite clear that Pochettino needed to adjust his tactics if he wanted to put his team back in the game.

 Spurs Possessions After Harry Winks Came On

Considering there was no link between the teams 3 lines, Pochettino opted to switch to a more compact approach after bringing on Winks in the 62nd minute. The young English midfielder replaced Dembele as the deepest midfielder on the field.

Winks presence meant Tottenham now wanted to keep the ball via horizontal passes to their full backs and backward passes to their 3 CB’s. As the picture illustrates, Winks will look for Sanchez after Arsenal create a compact mid-block unit.

After passing to Davinson, Winks drops deeper to provide another horizontal passing option for the Colombian.

As explained, Spurs strategy to create was similar that in the first half. Basically getting the ball to wide area to prepare for a cross. The way Tottenham built up to get to this area was what varied the most. They were way more patient and confident on the ball in the central axis.

This image shows right after Winks dribbles 3 players and passes to Dele.

Again, Winks gets himself into a good position to provide a passing option for Vertonghen.

After successfully turning, Tottenham continue to knock the ball around until finding themselves in this situation.

As you can see, the quality of the chance created is better than in the first half, however nowhere near as good to cause serious damage to Arsenal’s back line.

Tottenham had a patient build-up in the first half, with slower transitions and a similar chance creation strategy than in the first half.

Second Half Recap:

The second half was scoreless, as both sides had a few decent chances to score but couldn’t execute. As Spurs went on looking to get one back, their team structure was stretched, making it easy for Arsenal to counter attack. Spurs ditched their transitional approach once Winks came on, granting them more possession and higher quality chances. The chances created, however, were not enough to beat Cech.

Conclusion:

Arsenal got their tactics on point, executing their high-press, chance creation strategy, and overall game plan to near perfection during the majority of the match. They were rarely troubled by Spurs transitional approach in the first 55 minutes. After Winks entry onto the pitch, Spurs opted for a possession system. It certainly worked more than their first half approach, however their lack of creativity and proper deliveries into the box made it impossible for Kane and Alli to pull one back. Again, the fans watching the North London experienced an Arsene Wenger tactical masterclass.

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