Tottenham 2-1 Arsenal: Spurs defend deep, narrow – and brilliantly
Tottenham record their first league win over Arsenal for a decade, and simultaneously rule Arsenal out of the title race. Arsene Wenger’s side have been written off on at least two previous occasions, but this, surely, is the end of the road.
No major surprises in the starting line-ups – with injuries throughout the side, Wenger merely chose what he had. As against Barcelona, the only choice was between Emmanuel Eboue and Theo Walcott, and the Ivorian got the nod. Denilson played in space behind Abou Diaby and Samir Nasri in a 4-1-4-1 shape.
Tottenham’s formation was their standard 4-4-2, with debutant Danny Rose on the right. Luka Modric sat very deep, almost alongside Tom Huddlestone, although the Croatian’s tendency to go forward occasionally left space for Nasri to exploit.
North London derbies always start at a frantic pace, and Tottenham began by pressing aggressively, putting pressure upon Thomas Vermaelen (who was replaced by Mikael Silvestre) and Sol Campbell. The approach changed when Tottenham went ahead through Rose’s wonderstrike – they instead sat deep, letting Arsenal’s defenders have the ball, and played with two solid banks of four in front of their goalkeeper.
Spurs defended brilliantly throughout – their back four played extremely narrow, across the width of the penalty area, and let Arsenal have the ball in wide areas, confident their centre-backs would win the ball in the air against Nicklas Bendtner. The players they used were crucial – Younes Kaboul was effectively a centre-back playing at right-back, and was a towering presence in the penalty area, whilst Benoit Assou-Ekotto on the left is slightly less solid, but had the presence of Gareth Bale, comfortable at left-back, to double up against Arsenal’s right-winger, and help out in the air.
Arsenal struggle to break down sides who sit deep and play with two narrow banks of four - it was the same pattern against Aston Villa back in December, until Cesc Fabregas came on and changed the game with his direct play. Although Arsenal now have a more traditional target man in Nicklas Bendtner, it’s still not in Arsenal’s game to cross the ball constantly – although their play very wide, their biggest threats often come through the centre, or when the wingers cut in.
Arsenal’s passing style is often likened to Barcelona’s, but there are notable differences between the two. The most obvious one last night was how unwilling Arsenal were to play the ball to their centre-backs once they got into advanced positions. With Barcelona, the ball will often go to Henry, Pedro or Messi in wide positions, and if they don’t see a good pass on, they’ll play it backwards and start again. Not only does this keep possession, it also draws the opposition defence up the pitch, leaving space to exploit in behind, or between the lines.
Arsenal never looked to do this, instead playing short, quick passes in advanced areas, yet rarely steered the ball into goalscoring positions, as passes were intercepted. Arsenal’s over-reliance on short, neat passing also seems to have compromised their ability to play on the counter-attack – too many moves were slowed by Nasri and Rosicky and lost momentum, allowing the Tottenham defence back into position.
Arsenal lacked penetration, lack directness – and this was shown up blatantly when Robin van Persie stepped onto the pitch. He immediately produced a brilliant turn in the centre of the pitch that sent him towards goal – and quickly got shots in to test Gomes. Could a more frustrating night for Arsenal fans be possible? In one game they managed to lose to their biggest rivals, lose sight of the the Premiership title, and then van Persie illustrated ‘what might have been’ had he not been injured for the majority of the season. The good news for football as a whole is that he should be in good condition for the World Cup, as he is one of the best strikers in the world.
Arsenal didn’t have a single shot on target until Robin van Persie’s introduction on 68 minutes. He alone had three in the remainder of the game.
Arsenal’s problem was demonstrated most notably by a misplaced van Persie pass. He picked the ball up in the centre of the pitch, then shifted a through ball behind the defence for Rosicky to run onto. Rosicky, however, was not the same wavelength, and was instead making a run towards the ball for a short pass. The ball trickled out for a goal kick. It may only have been one misplaced pass, but it summed up the difference between van Persie and the rest of the Arsenal side – van Persie is a direct player who looks towards goal instinctively, whereas Rosicky almost seems to have become brainwashed into a regime where short passes in front of the defence all day is the best ideology.
For all of Arsenal’s failings, the game was equally won by Tottenham’s brilliant defending. Michael Dawson was unbeaten in tackles and aerial challenges all game, and Spurs defended solidly as a unit rather than as individuals, communicating well, pressing in numbers when the ball got into their third, and covering for each other when one player – generally Modric or Bale – went up the pitch.
In truth, their passing was poor and they rarely threatened Arsenal – it took a wonderstrike and a defensive lapse for them to score, but once they went ahead, their defending was simply faultless. Only Manchester United had scored two goals against Spurs at White Hart Lane this season, and that same game was the only occasion Tottenham have lost having gone 1-0 up. The focus on Arsenal here should not take away anything from the brilliant way Harry Redknapp set up his side, but essentially there’s not a great deal to say about Spurs – they did the basics well, and when it comes to defending, that’s often the key to a positive result. Redknapp had to shoulder the blame when Spurs lost the reverse fixture 0-3 in November, but he deserves immense credit here.
Tottenham’s defensive brilliance was epitomized by Michael Dawson. This Chalkboard shows his flawless tackling record, and how often he was in the right place to clear the ball.