Arsenal 2-3 Tottenham: Redknapp proves he is a decent tactician, even if he doesn’t want to be

November 20, 2010

The starting line-ups

An astonishing second half comeback gave Spurs their first win in this fixture since Arsene Wenger became Arsenal manager.

Arsenal brought in Laurent Koscielny in place of Johan Djourou at the back, and Denilson came in with Jack Wilshere a slight injury doubt.

Jermain Defoe was only fit enough for the bench, so Tottenham kept 4-4-1-1 with Rafael van der Vaart behind Roman Pavlyuchenko, who was chosen over Peter Crouch. Tom Huddlestone’s injury meant Jermaine Jenas started alongside Luka Modric.

Arsenal took an early lead through Samir Nasri, who turned the ball in from a tight angle after Heurelho Gomes’ mistake. It is the third time in a recent big game that Gomes has made a mistake – put this with a sending-off early on at Inter and the confusion for the Nani goal at Old Trafford.

It was also notable that the goal came from Arsenal’s right-sided player, as they had constantly threatened down that side. Nasri, Bacary Sagna and Cesc Fabregas had all got into promising positions down that side, and it was reminiscent both of Arsenal’s passing pattern last week at Everton, and of this fixture last season, where Sagna assisted two goals from right-back.

No holding player for Spurs

Their second, through Marouane Chamakh, came on the counter-attack after Tottenham found themselves exposed in front of their back four. Without Huddlestone, Jenas wasn’t playing the holding role particularly well, and Arsenal had too much space to break into without encountering a challenge.

Despite the 2-0 lead, Arsenal weren’t playing particularly sparkling football. The two goals were their only first-half efforts on target, and whilst they may have reasonably felt that keeping possession at 2-0 up was the primary objective, it was rare to see them get in behind the defence – when they did, through Chamakh, the Moroccan seemed intent to cut back towards his own goal, rather than motoring on towards Gomes.

Half time changes

The second half line-ups

The real tactical action here happened at half-time. Redknapp could have taken a few players off, but he made an astute substitution, removing Aaron Lennon and introducing Jermain Defoe as a second striker, with Rafael van der Vaart moving to the right.

The Dutchman is not famed for his defensive work or positioning (although he did put himself about today, conceding four free-kicks), and so Redknapp knew he would be weaker defensively down that side of the pitch in the second half. He was wise to ‘concede’ his right-hand side, rather than the left-hand side that Arsenal had often threatened down.

Spurs narrow

The key to Spurs’ revival was not necessarily the change of formation, but the change of positioning of the side as a whole. Spurs were much narrower, with van der Vaart inevitably drifting into the middle and Bale doing the same from the other side – indeed, it was from a right-centre position that Bale scored Spurs’ first, a similar position to where he scored from against Arsenal at White Hart Lane in April.

Spurs were passing better through midfield, finding it easier to make connections between their creative players, Modric, Bale and van der Vaart, for the simple reason that they’d converged towards each other – Spurs’ long balls to their wide players in the first half were frequently unsuccessful, and van der Vaart was better off receiving the ball to feet rather than hoping for knockdowns from Pavlyuchenko.

Inital approach unsuccessful

On that note, it’s worth considering the nature of playing a ‘big man’ knocking the ball down for another player. It’s been a favoured approach under Redknapp with Peter Crouch and Defoe, then with Crouch and van der Vaart. In the first half here, this approach was unsuccessful (with Pavlyuchenko rather than Crouch). The reason? There was no Defoe to offer a threat in behind, Arsenal could afford to field a high defensive line, and therefore a ‘big man’ knocking the ball down 30 yards from goal offers relatively little threat.

This was identical to the situation last season in this fixture -Crouch won 16 from his 19 aerial challenges, but with no Defoe (out injured) these were in a non-threatening area of the pitch. The introduction of Defoe gave Spurs height and pace, and therefore they were much more dangerous.

Redknapp the tactician?

There are those who believe that Harry Redknapp is a useless tactician with no real idea about football strategy. This myth has been propelled by Redknapp himself, who – much like Brian Clough – seems to regard being a ‘tactician’ as somewhat of an insult. In a recent column for The Sun, Redknapp said:

“You can argue about formations, tactics and systems forever, but to me football is fundamentally about the players. Whether it is 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, the numbers game is not the beautiful game in my opinion. It’s 10 per cent about the formation and 90 per cent about the players.”

And he’s clearly not overly concerned with shape in training – Rafael van der Vaart said this week:

“There are no long and boring speeches about tactics, like I was used to at Real Madrid. There is a board in our dressing room but Harry doesn’t write anything on it.”

But Redknapp clearly sees the game in somewhat of a tactical way – after this game, he said:

“I changed it at half-time, opened it up even more really – stuck Rafa out on the right, and brought Jermain on to give us two targets upfront.”

“In the first half I played with two wingers, and we were stretched…I’ve got a front man up there, with Rafa in behind, when we lost possession they outnumbered us in midfield and played through us and played around us, and we had to narrow it up in the second half.”

He might not use the chalkboard, but in his head Redknapp clearly sees the pitch in quite a chess-like way, even if he might not like to admit it. He’s frequently shown himself to be very good at turning situations around – he made a mistake with his initial selection against Young Boys, for example, but a first-half switch meant Tottenham turned a 3-0 into a 3-2, with two away goals, and eventually progressed into the Champions League proper.

This is backed up by the statistics so far this season. Spurs have won more games (4) from losing positions than any other side, and gained more points (13) from losing positions than any other side.

Arsenal collapse

Of course, equally we must blame Arsenal’s late collapse. The problems here seem to be mental rather than tactical, but their tendency to play so high up the pitch seems to catch them out, and they concede too many costly free-kicks. Their last defeat, against Newcastle, was thank to Andy Carroll, who headed in a Joey Barton free-kick when Arsenal committed too many fouls in the centre of the pitch. Here, Spurs’ equaliser and winner both came after unnecessary free-kicks were conceded.

A word should go, too, to William Gallas. He won 7 from 8 tackles (the most of any player), made 6 interceptions (the most of any player) and completed 24 from 24 passes (the only player with a 100% completion rate). ”I thought William Gallas was amazing today”, said Redknapp. “He lead by example…absolutely top drawer.” Gallas may have been a problem in the dressing room last season, but he was superb for Arsenal alongside the more highly-rated Thomas Vermaelen, often sweeping up behind when Vermaelen made mistakes. Arsenal’s good defensive record last season was largely because those two started the first 26 games of the season together. This season, Arsenal have used five partnerships already, and whilst today’s has been the most frequent combination in the league, throwing together two new signings and expecting them to gel straight away is a big ask – it was the second time this season that these two have conceded three goals in a home game.

by Guardian Chalkboards


It’s difficult to imagine a more demoralising victory for Arsenal. Losing a 2-0 lead, losing to their biggest rivals, missing the chance to go top, and having a ‘hate figure’ captaining the opposition to victory whilst being the best player on the pitch. It’s strange that Arsenal, so renowned for their ability to keep the ball, are so prone to late collapses.

Spurs weren’t fantastic – they’ve played much better football this season and not picked up results – but the belief and character they showed was excellent, as was Redknapp’s half-time shift.

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