Longwell’s Tactics Column | North London Derby Dissected
Having ousted our North London neighbours in rather glorious fashion this weekend, Geologist/tactics whizz, Longwell, takes a comprehensive looks at how the devil this might have happened:
Tottenham secured three very important points and pulled seven points clear of their North London rivals in a typically frantic derby. Both teams chose to play very high defensive lines at the start, perhaps unsurprisingly as Arsenal and Tottenham rank first and second respectively in the number of times they’ve caught an opponent offside this season. Spurs did the better job of exploiting the space left behind the back four and the better job of adjusting their own strategy to stop Arsenal from scoring in similar fashion.
Gylfi Sigurdsson earned a place on the Tottenham team sheet at the expense of Lewis Holtby after a string of encouraging yet unlucky substitute appearances at last paid off when he found the back of the net against West Ham. Not before he’d once again come agonizingly close to sticking one of his trademark curling efforts into the top corner, but he won’t have had any complaints about the scrappy way he finally got off the mark for Spurs in the league. Steven Caulker, also impressive at Upton Park, was ill so Jan Vertonghen slid over to partner Michael Dawson in central defense while Benoit Assou-Ekotto returned at left back.
Arsene Wenger selected largely the same side that had beaten Aston Villa a week before, with Aaron Ramsey coming in for Abou Diaby. It seemed that the main feature of Wenger’s plan was to overwhelm the midfield area by effectively playing four central midfielders against Tottenham’s two, thereby allowing Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla time to pick out through balls for Theo Walcott or Olivier Giroud. The decision to start Giroud was a puzzling one and seemed at odds with Wenger’s overall strategy. Lucas Podolski’s pace and directness would have been more dangerous and a better fit for a compressed, high-tempo game, and it’s unclear what Wenger thought Giroud was going to bring to the table in this sort of contest. Perhaps he expected Andre Villas-Boas would set Spurs up a little deeper in order to deal with the threat of Walcott’s pace, but even when Tottenham did start to drop off in the second half, Arsenal were poor at picking up the second ball from Giroud’s flick-ons.
Both teams were fortunate not to concede long before Gareth Bale’s opener in the 37th minute. Wilshere and Cazorla both occasionally found space in front of the Spurs defense after escaping the close attention of Moussa Dembele, who was otherwise quietly superb in his defensive work, but their through balls for Walcott and Giroud were generally overhit or misplaced. A rare exception highlighted Giroud’s lack of pace when Vertonghen was able to run him down and make a fine recovery tackle. At the other end, Tottenham had chances of their own to find Bale and Emmanuel Adebayor running past Arsenal’s back four, but the right final ball eluded them.
Eventually, luck ran out for the high line and Spurs were the ones to capitalize. A loose ball came to Sigurdsson in space on the left, and he released Bale with a perfectly-timed pass after patiently waiting for Bale to surge into the space left by Adebayor’s excellent run across the Arsenal defense that pulled Thomas Vermaelen away from Nacho Monreal and created the gap for Bale. Only moments later Scott Parker took up Sigurdsson’s blueprint, and Aaron Lennon reconstructed an almost identical goal after he skipped past Monreal’s cynical attempt to cross-check him and ran onto Parker’s simple defense-splitting pass.
Arsenal got back into the game after halftime when Aaron Ramsey won a free kick from some characteristically zealous Parker defending. Adebayor could have done better to fight through Ramsey’s block and track Per Mertesacker’s run towards the near post, but he was left too far behind and the resulting flicked header clipped Gareth Bale’s head en route to the back of the net. Zonal marking, she is a cruel mistress sometimes.
Adebayor didn’t have a brilliant shift, but his subtle contribution to the opening goal was very intelligent and he did help out a lot in Tottenham’s pressing. He was often positioned deeper than Bale, and very close to Parker, so that he could put pressure on whoever had the ball for Arsenal after a Spurs attack broke down. With Cazorla constantly drifting inside as expected to give Arsenal a fourth passer in central areas, Spurs were frequently matching up with them using Sigurdsson, Parker, Dembele, and either Adebayor or Bale. Lennon generally remained high up the pitch to keep Monreal pinned back and give Spurs an outlet and width. The Tottenham fullbacks were playing much deeper and narrower than usual to deal with the inside movement of Walcott and Cazorla, which often left Carl Jenkinson loping around like an enthusiastic newborn giraffe in a vast savannah of open space on the right. On another day this could have been a cause for some concern, but if part of your game plan against Arsenal is to make Carl Jenkinson hurt you then it’s probably a pretty good game plan.
Another important part of AVB’s game plan, and one that had a significant effect on the outcome of the game, was the job done on Mikel Arteta. By now it should be no secret how important Arteta is to Arsenal, despite him not being particularly flashy. He’s a more workmanlike version of Andrea Pirlo, setting the tempo and orchestrating Arsenal’s counter-attacks from his position as the deepest midfielder, and he is–by some considerable distance–their leading passer in terms of both number of passes and success rate. On Sunday Arteta “only” attempted 59 passes and completed 85% of them. Far from a poor game objectively, but Arteta averages almost 86 passes per game and a 92-93% success rate.
The other main passers for Arsenal, Wilshere and Cazorla, were pretty much bang on their average numbers for passing, and Arsenal as a team had a typical share of the ball for them: around 55-60% depending on whose stats you use. Aaron Ramsey, on the other hand, attempted 68 passes during the game compared to his average of about 45. So Spurs effectively shifted a nice chunk of Arsenal’s creative burden from Arteta to Ramsey. That’s a key ingredient in any recipe for success against Arsenal if those two players are on the pitch together.
How did Tottenham accomplish this? An obvious choice would have been to deploy Lewis Holtby, an energetic and tenacious presser, in the middle so he could drop off onto Arteta when not in possession and try to limit his influence on the game. Villas-Boas instead chose to have Parker play much higher than usual and charge down Arteta that way, with occasional help from Adebayor and Bale dropping in from up top. While it wasn’t the way I would have thought of doing it, it was clearly quite effective, and it probably played into Parker’s natural energy and aggressiveness better than asking him to sit deep and try to stick with Wilshere.
Spurs could have put the game out of sight in the second half, but Bale, Sigurdsson, and Jermain Defoe–who was no doubt cursing his luck at not being quite fit enough to play against Arsenal’s high line from the start–all failed to convert chances that were various shades of glorious. Arsenal’s opportunities were more limited after the break, as Villas-Boas instructed the defense to collapse towards the top of the box and get narrow when Arsenal were on the ball and looking to feed their forwards. This change was largely effective, but it was fortunate that Arsenal’s one excellent shooting chance in the second half fell to Ramsey, who dragged his effort wide.
Both managers gambled with the same risky defensive strategy in this match, and Tottenham were the more clinical in finishing off the opportunities afforded them by playing against such an aggressively high line. Villas-Boas was also the more responsive of the two managers, altering his team’s defensive approach at halftime and restricting Arsenal’s chances of coming back to snatch a victory as they’d done in the teams two previous Premier League meetings.