Tottenham 2-1 Arsenal: high lines and balls in behind the defences

March 4, 2013

The starting line-ups

Tottenham recorded an important victory over their North London rivals, thanks to two identical goals towards the end of the first half.

Andre Villas-Boas used Gylfi Sigurdsson rather than Lewis Holtby, while Jermain Defoe was fit enough for the bench.

Arsene Wenger used Santi Cazorla on the flank rather than in the middle, which meant Aaron Ramsey played in midfield, and Lukas Podolski was on the bench.

Arsenal actually started strongly and dominated possession for long periods, but as Wenger acknowledged after the game, Spurs were more efficient in the areas that mattered.

Overall pattern

The sides actually used similar systems – a direct winger on the right (Aaron Lennon and Theo Walcott) combined with a playmaker on the left (Sigurdsson and Cazorla), drifting inside to help dominate the centre of the pitch.

This came more naturally to Cazorla, and partly because Arsenal used a ‘proper’ central midfielder as their number ten (whereas Spurs used Gareth Bale, a direct dribbler, in that role), the away side dominated possession in the opening stages. Mikel Arteta sat deep and Wilshere tried to find space between the lines, with support from Aaron Ramsey. Mousa Dembele continued to sit deep alongside Scott Parker, in a much more defensive role than when Sandro was Spurs’ holder.

High lines

The problem with Arsenal’s possession dominance was that it wasn’t particularly valuable in the context of the game. This wasn’t about outnumbering the opposition in the centre of the pitch and asserting dominance through slow, patient build-up play. It was a battle almost entirely about exploiting high defensive lines.

In that respect, the game was similar to the first meeting between Villas-Boas and Wenger – Arsenal’s 5-3 victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last season. Both sides pushed up and squashed the game into a frantic, high-speed clash close to the halfway line. Within the first ten minutes, there were already signs both sides would be able to get runners in behind, and in that respect it also felt like a lot of top-level Eredivisie games, where both sides try to press high from the starts, and are vulnerable to the runs of quick attackers.

Arsenal through-balls

Arsenal did have opportunities to play the ball in beyond Tottenham’s defence, especially as Cazorla came inside and caused an overload in that zone, distracting Parker and leaving Wilshere free between the lines. There were two problems, though – Wilshere’s passes were overhit and went through to Hugo Lloris (who started high up, ready to sweep), while Olivier Giroud lacked the pace to sprint onto balls in behind. Cazorla’s big diagonal switch after ten minutes found Giroud in advance of the defence, but his sluggishness allowed Jan Vertonghen to regain his position and make a fine tackle.

Theo Walcott recognised where the space was, and started to play as a second centre-forward. He made a couple of decent runs that went unspotted, but it’s arguable that his positioning was too ‘obvious’, too permanently central, and in a position where the Tottenham centre-backs could see him easily.

Tottenham defended well, however. Although they started with a high line, they didn’t blindly keep that positioning when Arsenal advanced towards them, and instead dropped off closer to their own goal. Vertonghen’s anticipation skills were invaluable, while Dawson got into good covering positions. Benoit Assou-Ekotto played very narrow and followed Walcott inside, although this opened up his flank to darts forward from Carl Jenkinson, with Sigurdsson also narrow (and not the most natural defender).

Tottenham through-balls

Tottenham were more dangerous in these situations, primarily because Arsenal’s defensive positioning was very poor. The back four continued to play very high up the pitch with little midfield pressure upon the ball – there’d been a couple of warning signs when Bale nearly got in behind in a manner identical to his opener, but his goal actually came because Arsenal were too busy trying to get a player in behind themselves – Walcott was taking up a centre-forward position next to Giroud, which meant the right side was bare. Sigurdsson simply wondered inside and knocked the ball to Bale, who finished nicely.

Also crucial was the run of Adebayor across the front of the defence, turning Arsenal’s players towards their right, as Bale made a run around the other side, to their left. In effectively becoming a second striker, there was a slight similarity to Spurs’ opener at the Emirates in the 5-2 defeat earlier this season – Arsenal unable to cope with 2 v 2 at the back.

Spurs’ second goal was almost identical. Scott Parker’s pass was played from the same position, at the same angle (between Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermalen) and Lennon’s run was the same as Bale’s (between Vermaelen and Nacho Monreal). See the similarity in the below graphics.

Again, the finish was smooth, again the run was perfectly timed – but Spurs must have been surprised at how easily they created one-on-ones against Wojciech Szczesny. The problem was so obvious it barely needs explaining – the defence was so high up the pitch, with little pressure on the ball. There were other problems: the lack of communication between players when opponents made diagonal runs, and Vermaelen’s individual positioning seemed particularly strange, but the primary issue was Arsenal simply inviting through-balls slid between their defenders.

Second half subs

Predictably, neither side defended with a such an aggressive defence line after half-time – both sat deeper, with Arsenal dominating possession and Spurs retreating into a more defensive shape, getting men behind the ball. Arsenal’s early goal, from Per Mertesacker’s header, made things interesting.

Wenger made two attacking substitutions – after an hour he replaced Jenkinson with Tomas Rosicky, moving Aaron Ramsey to right-back for the second consecutive weekend. It was surprising Bale didn’t go to the left at this point, especially as Ramsey was Arsenal’s only player on a booking.

Rosicky buzzed around in midfield and did OK, but Ramsey’s advanced positioning could have cost Arsenal – he left a big gap that was exploited by Gylfi Sigurdsson on the break – Sigurdsson could have made it 3-1, but underhit his square ball to Bale. That was after Villas-Boas had replaced Adebayor with Defoe – which worked well, as Defoe was more direct on the ball (he would have relished playing against Arsenal’s high line in the first half, too).

Wenger then brought on Lukas Podolski for Mikel Arteta, and Arsenal ended with an extremely attack-minded side – Wilshere and Rosicky in the middle, with Podolski, Cazorla and Walcott supporting Giroud – whose aerial threat became more important once Spurs sat deep. He actually won the vast majority of high balls, but often flicked it towards a Spurs player. Wenger ended up moving Mertesacker forward in the final minutes to become an emergency centre-forward.

The last 15 minutes were more like Arsenal’s games against Harry Redknapp-era Spurs – Arsenal dominating the ball, Spurs sitting deep and narrow before trying to play on the counter-attack.


The game was effectively won before half-time. In an amazingly open match with two staggeringly high defensive lines, Spurs were superior in three areas. First, the defence adjusted their position and dropped deeper. Second, they put more pressure on the ball and stayed compact, to deny Arsenal too many opportunities to play through-balls. Third, their timing of passes and runs was perfect for the two goals.

The third point is, of course, related to the first two – Arsenal’s made it simple for Spurs, who didn’t need to play their best football to win.

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