Arsenal 5-2 Tottenham: Villas-Boas goes for two strikers, but loses Adebayor early on

November 17, 2012

The starting line-ups

For the third consecutive season, this fixture saw plenty of goals and featured an impressive comeback.

With Wojciech Szszesny back in goal, Arsene Wenger played his expected side – Theo Walcott was fielded on the right, while Thomas Vermaelen continued at left-back.

Andre Villas-Boas was without Steven Caulker, so shifted Jan Vetonghen into the middle and used Kyle Naughton at left-back. Upfront, he started Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor together for the first time in the Premier League, in a 4-4-2.

There were three separate tactical battles here. Stage one was the opening formation battle, stage two was Spurs’ reaction to Adebayor’s dmissal, and stage three was when Villas-Boas switched to a 3-4-1-1ish formation at half-time.

Two up top

The major talking point was unquestionably Villas-Boas’ decision to play two strikers. He’s generally regarded as a system-based manager that sticks uncompromisingly to his preferred formation, so it was a huge surprise to see both Defoe and Adebayor upfront and a move away from 4-2-3-1.

However, based upon last week’s defeat to Manchester City, it made sense. At Eastlands, Clint Dempsey had a very disappointing game, barely involved in build-up play and less noticeable than Adebayor in terms of dropping deep and linking play. The natural alternative to him, Gylfi Sigurdsson, has also been underwhelming in recent weeks, while youngster Tom Carroll is seemingly not considered ready for league starts. In the absence of a reliable player to link midfield and attack, two upfront seemed a decent idea.

Using both Adebayor and Defoe gave Tottenham power and pace, and they lined up against the men most vulnerable to their attributes – which was crucial for Tottenham’s opener. Per Mertesacker is a good defender but his clearest weakness is his lack of pace, and Defoe outsprinted him to get in behind. Adebayor, who provided the finish, battled in the opening 20 minutes against Laurent Koscielny, who is much quicker than Mertesacker but lacks physicality.

Contrast in styles

This was shaping up to be a fascianting tactical battle. Spurs had numbers high up the pitch and two out-and-out wingers, but were conceding the centre of the pitch – in particular, the zone around Mikel Arteta. Defoe sometimes dropped deep onto him, but often the Spaniard had time and space in deep positions, and with Tottenham playing a high defensive line, Theo Walcott made some good runs in behind the defence, which seemed a likely route to goal – Arteta generally directed play to the right.

But Adebayor’s red card changed the game, and rather ruined the tactical battle. Obviously, Tottenham no longer had two upfront – it was 4-4-1 and eight men behind the ball, and Arsenal now dominated possession overwhelmingly.

11 v 10

Immediately after Adebayor’s dismissal, Arsenal struggled to make their numerical advantage count, as Tottenham continued to play a high defensive line and squeezed them in midfield effectively. Arsenal had difficulties with forward passing – Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud’s movement towards the play was a logical consequence of this, but also furthered the problem. However, the decision to continue pressing in midfield was tiring physically and mentally for Tottenham, and as Villas-Boas acknowledged after the match, it was the final ten minutes of the first half that cost his side.

Arsenal’s route back into the game was based around width and crossing, with Mertesacker heading in the opener and Giroud having a fine chance from a similar right-wing cross. Arsenal played predominantly down that flank, with Walcott heavily involved and Bacary Sagna skipping forward more readily than Vermaelen on the left. The goals arrived as a result of continual pressure rather than any specific strategic move, and Arsenal were 3-1 up at the break.

Tottenham move to a back three

Villas-Boas went 3-4-1-1 for the second half

For the second half, Villas-Boas boldly decided to play three at the back. He brought on Michael Dawson for Kyle Walker, and Dempsey for Kyle Naughton, sacrificing both his full-backs in search of a more attack-minded ten-man system – roughly 3-4-1-1.

It was significant that he chose to play with natural wingers (rather than full-backs) as the wing-backs, instructing them to play high up the pitch and pressure Arsenal’s full-backs. Bale was the obvious left-wing-back option, but using Lennon on the right, rather than Walker or Naughton, was a real statement of intent.

For the first 10 minutes of the second half it proved effective. Tottenham looked significantly better across the pitch, able to retain the ball at the back with Vertonghen and William Gallas spreading towards the flanks, while Dempsey buzzed around in behind Arteta to limit his influence in possession, and acted as the connection between Defoe and the rest of the side.

Usually with a 3-4-1-1, a side would be vulnerable to the opposition full-backs having too much time on the ball – but with Bale and Lennon so high up, instead Spurs’s vulnerability down the flanks came in deeper positions. Cazorla was predictably the man to understand where the space was, and drifted towards the touchlines to enjoy time on the ball.
Arsenal’s fourth goal was a perfect example of where Tottenham were weak with their second half system – the final pass (from Lukas Podolski to Cazorla) was played from the space outside Gallas, all the way across to the space outside Vertonghen. That was the risk Villas-Boas took, and although Spurs ended up losing the game 5-2 (and the second half 2-1), there was some merit in the formation switch.

Arsenal rarely close out games effectively, of course, and Bale briefly made things exciting with a shot from between Arsenal’s lines. But the threat of Walcott and substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the break gave Arsenal a constant out-ball, and the former completed the scoring.

Conclusion

It feels wrong to concentrate on the decisions of the manager who lost 5-2, but every step of the way it was Villas-Boas’ choices that dictated the shape of the game. The two-man strikeforce was a surprise, the continued high line with a man less was a brave move, then the switch to a three-man backline was fascinating – if ultimately futile.

For Arsenal, it was a relatively routine performance in a tactical sense; the expected XI played in the expected shape. Their major positives came in the final third – the front four all scored, and there appears to be increased understanding between that unit. Walcott and Giroud are striking up a good partnership in particular, and the play down Arsenal’s right was effective for the duration of the game.


Arsenal 5-2 Tottenham: Villas-Boas goes for two strikers, but loses Adebayor early on

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