Arsenal 5-2 Tottenham: Arsenal complete an amazing comeback

February 26, 2012

The starting line-ups

Tottenham went 2-0 up but then lost their shape completely and conceded five.

Arsene Wenger had something approaching his first-choice back four available. He used Tomas Rosicky in the Aaron Ramsey role in midfield, and Yossi Benayoun getting a start on the left.

Harry Redknapp picked two out-and-out strikers upfront, with Rafael van der Vaart and Aaron Lennon only on the bench and Niko Kranjcar making a surprise start on the right of midfield.

This was another ridiculously open Premier League game (and another North London derby with plenty of goals). Both back fours had poor games and Tottenham were unable to control the game at any point – even when they were playing well and 2-0 up. There were four major themes here:

(1) Tottenham play direct

This was a classic 4-3-3 v 4-4-2 match-up. In simple terms, the 4-3-3 is likely to dominate possession by virtue of having an extra man in the midfield, but the 4-4-2 can be more direct with two strikers.

That’s basically what happened early on. Tottenham played quick, direct balls towards Louis Saha and Emmanuel Adebayor, who battled with the Arsenal centre-backs. But the approach was slightly more complex than that – the two forwards drifted into wide and deep zones to split the Arsenal centre-backs and open up room for midfield runners. Kyle Walker made a clever off-the-ball run to drag Thomas Vermaelen into a poor position for the first goal, while the second came from a penalty won when Gareth Bale found space to drive into.

It was interesting that Adebayor worked the left side in particular, forcing Laurent Koscielny into difficult situations high up the pitch. As mentioned when Zlatan Ibrahimovic did the same, Kosicelny doesn’t like coming high up the pitch – he generally leaves that to Vermaelen and looks to get in covering positions.

But Arsenal’s problem was that they had no covering defender, leaving 2 v 2 at the back and telling both full-backs to push high up the pitch. This made them extremely vulnerable to quick breaks with no spare man and the full-backs not in a position to cover.

They aren’t used to having to play more conservatively at the back – this was only the second time in the Premier League this season that a side had come to the Emirates in the Premier League this season and played two upfront. The other side was Fulham, who also caused Arsenal problems and picked up a point having been 1-0 up, but at least that day Arsenal had a defensive-minded right-back in Johan Djourou to cover. (Manchester United also played two forwards, but Wayne Rooney was usually picked up by Alex Song to maintain a spare man).

(2) Arsenal pass well

Arsenal have been wider and more direct this season, and reliant upon their wide players for creativity – but this was a bit more like the Arsenal of a couple of seasons ago, with Yossi Benayoun coming inside from the left, and Rosicky moving forward from midfield without any defensive responsibilities. Those two actually played in similar positions, but this allowed them to work short passes, form triangles with van Persie or Arteta, and Benayoun drove well at the defence.

Arsenal had an extra man in this zone, of course, though Redknapp told Adebayor and Saha to drop onto the deepest Arsenal midfielder when Spurs didn’t have possession. This is one area where it works well for Arsenal to rotate their midfield trio, though – if Saha moves onto Song, then Arsenal tilt the triangle to bring Song higher up the pitch, Saha will have to move over and pick up Arteta instead. Not particularly difficult, but not natural for a centre-forward. Jermain Defoe, who was on the bench, has been very disciplined at playing this role in the past couple of years.

(3) Tottenham lack control

Tottenham were 2-0 up without playing particularly sparkling football – they just broke quickly and efficiently. At 2-0 up they were clearly in an excellent position, but they were unable to exert any kind of control upon the game, and invited pressure from Arsenal – Rosicky and van Persie both had good chances before Bacary Sagna got a goal back (and it’s important to note that the advanced positioning of the Arsenal full-backs did have positive effects despite the aforementioned problems at the back).

The second half line-ups

A side can control the game either in or out of possession – by keeping the ball and slowing the tempo, or by retreating into an organised defensive shape and soaking up pressure. Tottenham did neither – they were outnumbered in the centre and therefore unable to keep the ball. Modric’s pass completion ratio was down at 82% (compared to the usual 88%), and he couldn’t do it on his own anyway.

More surprisingly, their defensive shape wasn’t particularly good – previously against Arsenal they’ve defended well with two banks of four, but here the two wide players were particularly poor defensively, and there was also the problem with dropping a striker onto an Arsenal midfielder.

(4) Arsenal start to counter

At half-time Redknapp moved to a 4-1-4-1ish system – van der Vaart on the right in place of Kranjcar, but more significantly Saha off, and Sandro on. Tottenham lost their shape, became increasingly narrow and their gameplan was confused – it wasn’t clear whether they were trying to see more of the ball in the centre, or continue their direct attacking.

Either way, they gradually started to become very vulnerable to Arsenal counter-attacks. Rosicky got the third when Tottenham found six players ahead of the ball – Sandro wasn’t sitting as he was meant to, and Parker was now higher up – and Arsenal worked a 5 v 4 for the goal.

Then Walcott became involved in the game. Having been poor in the first half, he suddenly became excellent midway through the second half. But there was good logic to that – he’d been anonymous when Tottenham sat deep, he became useful when Tottenham pushed up and left space in behind. The away side’s offside trap was poor, and Walcott had the pace to take full advantage on two occasions.


On the face of it, this was a game that defied logic with how open it was…yet there were some fairly logical factors that contributed to the scoreline. In the first half, Arsenal left 2 v 2 at the back and were weak at the back, but dominated the midfield battle 3 v 2 and built pressure.

Redknapp’s changes at half time didn’t have the effect they did in this fixture last season, and in the second half Tottenham were extremely poor – lacking structure at the back and with no ideas going forward.

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