Arsenal – Tottenham Hotspur: Patterns Draw The Sword To Inconsistent Cockerels (3-1)
The big games have always raised the biggest questions from Arsenal. Mikel Arteta had already recorded wins over Tottenham Hotspur, but none have been as important in terms of determining just how good the Gunners can be.
Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.
Derby day is football’s bread and butter, but competitiveness is the best spread you can put on top. It is what made the most recent North London derby so compelling: Saturday lunchtime would be no exception.
Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur are in a similar space, with many different dynamics at play. Arsenal has been patient with Mikel Arteta, who now appears to find a nice marriage between both manager and players figuring each other out. Spurs doubled down on hiring Antonio Conte, a gamble that paid off to pip Arsenal to a Champions League spot, but although unbeaten, perhaps Tottenham hadn’t controlled games as well as many expected.
Yet this had a Swiss Army knife of game state potential. Tottenham’s buildup has been more predictable, yet one could see Arsenal providing the right platform for Conte’s automatisms to come through. That being said, the demolition of the Brentford back five could have foreshadowed another London team that set up in a similar shape. Arsenal’s flexibility put Brentford under an immense amount of pressure, which you could see Spurs falling into the traps when off the ball.
Spurs’ predictability comes from an overreliance on Dejan Kulusevski’s work in the right halfspace. Here they would have to find a new solution as the Swede missed out due to a hamstring problem. Heung-Min Son returned to the starting eleven as a result, next to Harry Kane and Richarlison in their usual 3-4-2-1 arrangement. Emerson Royal and Cristian Romero also came in.
Arteta welcomed back two very influential players to his set-up. Oleksandr Zinchenko returned to replace Kieran Tierney, whose adaptability from the left enables Arsenal to assert control in settled possession. Martin Ødegaard also came back, whose creativity and rotations with Bukayo Saka get them into the box from the right side.
Arsenal build their ideal environment
The first twenty minutes had Arsenal in their ideal territory, able to put their wingers in one-versus-one situations and reap the rewards from such creation. The hosts have ramped up the back post threat since the start of the season, flexing this added danger once Saka skipped past Ivan Perišić and smacked the post in the first two minutes.
Arteta’s team were able to grind the tempo down once in settled possession. In the middle third, they took up 2-3-5 or 3-2-5 formations, with either Thomas Partey as the single pivot, and the two full-backs in deeper halfspace positions, or Zinchenko closer to Partey and Benjamin White slotting into the back line. Keeping the pace slow saw Tottenham drop back into a 5-4-1 block with very little pressing and with Harry Kane’s transitional support (Son and Richarlison) playing a lot deeper to start with.
8th minute: Arsenal’s 2-3-5/3-2-5 system versus Tottenham’s 5-4-1 defensive block. Adaptable positioning from their two eights (Xhaka and Ødegaard) was able to manipulate their opponents’ midfield line thanks to their places around or inside Tottenham’s wingers.
From here, Arsenal manipulated Tottenham’s midfield line in two different ways. The first came from Granit Xhaka’s high positioning down the left, which pinned Romero and made space for Gabriel Martinelli to rotate inside and away from Emerson Royal. The second came from the flexible Ødegaard, who either dropped vertically to receive on the outside of Son or kept a passing lane open in the pocket between Son and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. Arsenal’s buildup phases may have broken down several times, but when Tottenham was forced to protect the defensive third, space always opened on the edges of the box as their midfield line dropped very deep.
Tottenham may have had passing phases of their own, but struggled to find coherence at the start of the game. Conte tweaked his team’s backline on goal-kicks, as Eric Dier moved ahead of Romero and Clément Lenglet, which saw a three being formed between Dier, Rodrigo Bentancur and Højbjerg. As Spurs aimed to go directly behind a pressing Arsenal, their central balls over the top failed to connect with the extra bodies and cooperation between the three forwards was missing both on the ball and the timing of their off-ball runs.
As a result, Arsenal got the ball back easier than anticipated and deservedly got the lead. Once they moved the ball laterally towards the right side, Saka patiently held the ball as Son and Perišić doubled up on the winger. With Ødegaard and Xhaka in the box, Tottenham’s midfield line had merged into its backline and Partey was in plenty of space to pick the top corner from range.
Spurs find some synergy
Once Arsenal had scored, Spurs began to find a rhythm as Richarlison constantly got in front of Zinchenko and Kane’s dropping started to be utilized more. Arsenal’s pressing between its midfield and backline doesn’t rely on a coherent trigger or collapse into a certain space, more that an individual steps up whilst the shape is maintained. Subsequently, the backline was drawn out more and Tottenham were able to make the game much more chaotic.
Spurs always maintain an option on the outside when they attack in transitions, from a throw-in on the right, Spurs funnelled the ball to the other side as Kane dropped to flick the ball onto Bentancur and Son put the ball in Perišić’s path, who had made a run off the sideline. Perhaps his attempt from this location should have been a lot better once he moved into a good angle.
28th minute: Buildup to Tottenham’s awarded penalty. Player movements as Son and Kane combined on the transition, whilst Richarlison provided an option on the outside.
Nevertheless, Conte’s team neatly combined to cause Arsenal problems. Son and Kane produced a classic one-two to put Son behind Partey and force Gabriel to leave Richarlison free on the right. Although the phase appeared to have ended, once Richarlison was forced further out wide and his cross was cleared, a loose Xhaka touch gave Richarlison a second bite of the cherry and he was brought to the floor illegally by Gabriel. Kane stepped up from the spot to equalize.
The visitors continued their momentum past the goal. Dier’s positioning in front of the center-backs started to play a more important factor, as this encouraged Gabriel Jesus to stick more towards the England international and gave more time for Romero and Lenglet to put the ball into the path of their narrow forwards.
The higher position from Eric Dier is shown on a very central passing network, with little connectivity between the forwards.
Now that the front three were combining more, Spurs built more tempo and produced more chaos. Perišić was an excellent addition to their counterattacks, but even though they got into the positions, the timings of Conte’s patterns were unable to create clear chances. Kane had a header straight at Aaron Ramsdale, but Richarlison delaying his pass into Perišić should have created a brilliant chance for the Croatian to capitalize. Kane also had interaction in multiple areas, but Spurs’ attacks would draw to a close if the speed of the attack was lost. Nonetheless, the teams went into halftime with the game on an entertaining knife edge.
Cruise control from wide combos
Though Arsenal had gone into halftime having lost control, it wasn’t too long until Spurs were forced into the same traps at the start of the game. Though still flexible on the ball, Arsenal was noticeably more in the 2-3-5 structure, with Partey playing the single pivot.
This benefitted Arteta’s team out wide. Martinelli and Saka hugged the touchlines to hold width but had the support of both the ball-sided fullback and midfielder which meant that they created more isolation. Arsenal showcased this advantage just a few moments into the second period as Saka was put in a one-versus-one situation and White provided support on the overlap. This meant Saka could move the ball onto his left foot and shoot: a spill between Hugo Lloris and Romero meant Jesus could stab the ball home, with the ball virtually on the line.
White’s overlapping sustained pressure on the right side, as his cross found the head of Jesus at the back post, but the ball bounced wide of the post. On the left, Xhaka provided more of the aggression to assist Martinelli, as Zinchenko had the wider passing range from deep to change the attack’s dynamics. Xhaka combined with Jesus for another headed chance, similar to the way they constructed the goal away to Brentford.
Arsenal had already established the upper hand, but two definitive situations effectively killed the game off. A nasty challenge on Martinelli’s heel saw Emerson Royal sent off on the hour mark. Despite the wing-backs dismissal, Conte continued with no change of shape. Richarlison dropped and Romero played further wide to accommodate, but Spurs were incredibly messy off the ball and seemed unsure as to how to defend this channel.
65th minute: Buildup to Arsenal’s third goal. Romero followed Martinelli’s run, a shift that could happen with a back five as a right wing-back could fill in the space, but this created a huge amount of space for Xhaka to move into.
It came as no surprise as Arsenal got their third shortly after the sending-off. As Spurs attempted to press, Partey combined with Xhaka to put Arsenal behind their opponents’ midfield. Martinelli moved inside of Romero to drag him out, whilst Xhaka would take the ball off Martinelli’s lateral carry. Xhaka moved the ball into the open space, exploiting Dier’s poor positioning and fired the ball past Hugo Lloris.
Conte made the changes he should’ve made ten minutes after the red card, but with two goals and a man down, it felt like these changes were to stop the game from becoming a crazy score. Spurs sat deep in a 5-3-1 formation as Arsenal switched on autopilot for a definitive derby win.
This is an Arsenal team that has been on an upwards trajectory for more than a year and a team with multiple solutions in how to break you down. They are in a great position, that has a set-up that very few will be able to challenge, as long as they continue on this run. A home tie against Liverpool, a team they have infamously performed badly against, could have a very different narrative to it by next week.
Tottenham is still in a great position also, but this was a defeat that had been coming due to the lost control and an attack that hadn’t fully engaged. It came as little surprise that Conte adapted the backline to improve a stale buildup, the problem is, Conte doesn’t have a Marcelo Brozović profile that could make this work as well as his time in Inter. Nevertheless, do not expect Conte to rest on his laurels to get Tottenham working at an elite level.
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