Tottenham 0-1 Arsenal: Arsenal grind out a win

March 17, 2014

The starting line-ups

Arsenal went ahead within two minutes, then sat uncharacteristically deep for the remainder of the game.

Tim Sherwood made four changes from the side that lost to Benfica, with Nacer Chadli in the number ten role and Nabil Bentaleb returning to the side.

Arsene Wenger named his expecting starting XI, in a 4-3-3 shape with Mikel Arteta as the holding midfielder.

Spurs had plenty of possession, but failed to find an equaliser.

Arsenal lead shapes game

Arsenal took the lead within two minutes through a stunning Tomas Rosicky, strike after he darted forward to combine with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the counter-attack, and from then the pattern of the game was set. Spurs needed to dominate possession and force the issue, while Arsenal had already proved their best route to goal was by attacking directly from deep.

It means the nature of the Arsenal performance has to be viewed in the context of the game state, but this was the most reactive performance you’ll find from an Arsene Wenger side – Arsenal completed their fewest passes in a league game for five years. Did Arsenal deliberately play in this fashion because of tactical reasons, or was it a mere result of going ahead so early?

The truth is probably somewhere in between – Arsenal weren’t going to be as positive as usual, but the early lead exaggerated the reactivity.

Arsenal counters provide goal threat and push Spurs back

Either way, Arsenal repeatedly threatened on the counter-attack. Lukas Podolski played the purest counter-attacking role, staying high up on the left and breaking in behind the defence repeatedly, although the runs of Oxlade-Chamberlain continued to threaten, and he missed Arsenal’s clearest chance when completely fluffing a one-on-one when running through into the inside-right channel.

The fact Arsenal possessed such a counter-attacking threat throughout the first half meant Spurs were reluctant to commit too many men into attack, particularly the full-backs. Danny Rose had been caught out, in advance of the ball, for Arsenal’s opener, while Naughton was scared of Podolski attacking in behind him, too. It meant Spurs had plenty of possession but rarely attacked in great numbers until after half-time.

Spurs high line

Spurs made it very easy for Arsenal to counter-attack in behind throughout the first half, because they played a extraordinarily high defensive line. At one point, after twelve minutes, Mikel Arteta had the ball in space, five yards inside his own half, in the centre circle. The Spurs defence was positioned just 15 yards inside their own half, with acres of space behind them.

In the next three minutes, Arsenal got in behind three times: Podolski was (probably wrongly) flagged offside on the left, Oxlade-Chamberlain got in behind for his chance, running half the pitch with the ball and beating just one challenge, on the halfway line, and Hugo Lloris stereotypically swept quickly from his line to prevent Olivier Giroud reaching a simple Santi Cazorla knock over the top.

This was a throwback to the Andre Villas-Boas days, and again, the problem was the high defensive line and the lack of pressure on the ball. This hasn’t been an obvious feature of Spurs’ play under Sherwood, but it’s easy to pinpoint the major reason why they shifted much higher up the pitch – it was only the second game all season Michael Dawson hasn’t started. Very slow on the turn, Dawson looked uncomfortable in Villas-Boas’ high line and has preferred defending deep under Sherwood – his absence meant Sherwood was keener to push his side up the pitch. The fact Spurs were playing against Giroud, whose lack of his pace is unquestionably his major weakness, certainly contributed.

Despite these logical reasons, however, the fact remains Spurs played the tactic poorly. The Oxlade-Chamberlain chance was the perfect example – Jan Vertonghen followed Giroud over towards the touchline, but Kaboul doesn’t even attempt to get in a covering position, opening up half the pitch for Arsenal to break into. Spurs had forgotten how to play this way – if they ever knew in the first place.

Midfield zone

The midfield zone was fast-paced but scrappy throughout. This game had 29 fouls, eight yellow cards and both sides recorded pass completion rates significantly below their average this season, which isn’t entirely surprising in a derby.

Nothing particularly interesting happened in this zone – the midfields were matched closely, and no-one showed great invention on the ball, with Oxlade-Chamberlain’s forward running the only interesting feature.

Spurs would have liked more invention from their midfield. Sandro and Nabil Bentaleb ensured they dominated possession, but it felt like those two were playing the same role – or, at least, covering the duties a top-class holding midfielder could have done solo, holding his position and distributing the ball reliably. Neither attempted to break beyond Chadli regularly.

Spurs’ play was predictable, with only Christian Eriksen’s drifts inside overloading Arsenal. Andros Townsend looks less dangerous by the match, because he has so consistently (at club level, at least) proved he offers absolutely no end product. In 19 league appearances, he’s scored one goal (an overhit cross) and recorded no assists.

Adebayor influence

The major reason Spurs have collected points under Sherwood (despite appearing bafflingly short of a football identity) is Emmanuel Adebayor, revitalised and firing under the new regime. Although his performances have dipped in recent weeks, he’s always up for a scrap against his former club – and he dominated the first half here, with Spurs’ best moments coming when they simply chipped the ball in behind for him to chase.

Adebayor, at his best, is a tremendous all-rounder – he offers aerial strength to battle against the centre-backs, but also acceleration and outright pace to sprint in behind. Therefore, it’s difficult for opponents to know whether to sit deep (to negate his pace, but leave themselves exposed to his aerial power) or push up (nullifying his aerial power, but allowing him space to break into). Few other Premier League strikers give opposition defenders such a dilemma (Romelu Lukaku, Danny Welbeck and Jay Rodriguez would be three arguable examples), which doesn’t mean that it’s easier to play against, for example, Sergio Aguero – but at least there’s an obvious way to play against him. With Adebayor, defenders have to find a balance.

This was a real test for Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, but they emerged as the game’s best players. In fact, they were the perfect combination to play against Adebayor as they cover both bases – Mertesacker fights in the air, Koscielny has great acceleration. Of course, any half-decent striker is intelligent enough to realise this and take on the other at their ‘weak’ suit, which means Adebayor often battled against Koscielny in the air.

Arsenal lose counter-attacking threat

In basic terms, the second half followed the same pattern of Spurs possession…but Arsenal suddenly became extremely sloppy with their passing. They were still attempting to break, and therefore tried ambitious passes into attack rather than retaining the ball for long spells, but this doesn’t excuse the regularity with which they handed possession back to Spurs.

The lack of counter-attacking threat, particularly as their attackers tired, meant Spurs could throw more players forward. Rose and Naughton advanced to cross the more, and now Arsenal were under serious pressure, with Wojciech Szczesny making a couple of errors to gift Spurs chances.

Lack of Spurs cohesion

There was still no obvious way Spurs were attempting to make the breakthrough, however, and there’s still a complete lack of cohesion and mutual understanding between the Spurs players. They certainly had pressure, they were unfortunate not to score on a couple of occasions, but there was barely a moment of genuinely good football – they simply ramped up the pressure and prayed for a mistake. When the error came, through Szczesny, they didn’t take  dvantage.

Sherwood made progressive substitutions – Paulinho on for Sandro to provide more forward thrust from midfield, then Gylfi Sigurdsson for Nacer Chadli – the Icelandic international went left, with Eriksen as number ten – and then finally Roberto Soldado for Eriksen, and Spurs to 4-4-2. More players were in dangerous positions and getting inside the box, and Arsenal were never entirely comfortable.

Arsenal sit very deep

Wenger’s changes were, logically, the reverse – each time, a more a defensive player introduced. Mathieu Flamini (holding midfielder) replaced Rosicky (playmaker). Nacho Monreal (left-back) replaced Podolski (left-winger) and finally Thomas Vermaelen (centre-back) replaced Oxlade-Chamberlain (box-to-box midfielder).

Eventually Arsenal were 5-4-1 and sitting very deep, with Vermaelen’s introduction forcing a reshuffle at the back – he played to the left, and Koscielny went to the right of Mertesacker. These changes aren’t typical for Wenger, but this season his substitutions when ahead have been much more pragmatic, and here he helped Arsenal record a clean sheet by ensuring he had a spare man at the back after Soldado’s introduction.

Conclusion

Tottenham’s continued pressure should have resulted in goals, but they only had two shots on target in the game. Many of their shots were blocked – including one once Szczesny was beaten – and this was an unusual feature of Arsenal’s game. They recorded ten blocks, their highest number since Opta started recording this feature in 2006.

The most interesting feature of the game was the positioning of the two sides as a whole – Spurs extremely high, Arsenal unusually deep. Ultimately, neither side did enough with the ball.


Tottenham 0-1 Arsenal: Arsenal grind out a win

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