Villas-Boas continued to use Bale in a central position but made two other changes. Sigurdsson replaced Holtby on the left flank with Assou-Ekotto starting at left back, pushing Vertonghen infield. As a result Caulker sat out the game. On the opposite side Wenger largely kept his side, making only one change. Ramsey came in to partner Arteta in the place of Diaby.
In terms of formation there wasn’t anything surprising. Tottenham again used the 4-2-3-1 looking shape, although it was more of a 4-4-1-1 given the long periods of the game they spent out of possession and defending. Arsenal naturally played within 4-2-3-1, but it looked a bit asymmetrical due to Cazorla’s tucked in position on the left flank.
To live up with the hype preceding it, the match started with frantic tempo. Both teams tried to be direct, lively and aggressive off and on the ball which largely resulted in some sloppy passing and rushed actions.
Expectedly the managers briefed their teams to keep high defensive lines. As a result the main battle concentrated in the midfield area. In that context Arsenal adjusted better, mainly thanks to having more bodies in that crucial zone of the pitch. For Tottenham Bale didn’t drop deeper to help with the midfield battle, so Parker and Dembele were largely isolated and outnumbered against Arsenal‘s trio which looked to move as a unit. Add to this Cazorla’s additional presence – when he opted to move infield – and it was logical to see Spurs’ duo struggling to cope with Arsenal’s midfield.
With Arsenal winning the initial midfield battle, hence having the upper hand in terms of possession, it was the away team who looked more threatening in the opening period.
There were three notable situations where Arsenal’s midfield dominance resulted in creating good chances. All of them included a simple pattern – Arsenal using the possession to try to send a player in behind Spurs’ high line. First in the fifth minute Wilshere slipped the ball in between Dawson and Walker for Giroud to latch on to it in behind, but his return pass was crucially blocked by Vertonghen who moved across to sweep up. Then in the tenth minute Cazorla sent a beautiful diagonal to the right channel for Giroud to chase but his general lack of sheer pace and surprising sluggishness allowed Vertonghen to catch him and again made a crucial intervention. A couple of minutes later it was Ramsey trying to push from deep to meet Jenkinson’s searching pass but a joint effort from Lloris and Vertonghen saw out the danger.
Most probably after all these successive good situations for Arsenal the home team became at least concerned, if not fully scared. Soon after that they obviously started to recycle the ball much more in deeper areas, trying to get hold on the ball. This resulted in the general tempo cooling down and it became much slower and considered as both teams quickly abandoned the initial directness.
The new-found settled tempo helped accelerate the general tactical battle. As soon as the starting XI and players’ actual positioning revealed both teams’ strategies were recognizable.
With Bale central and Sigurdsson out wide Villas-Boas’ idea was simple – try to hit Arsenal on the break. Surely the idea was for Bale to try to exploit Arsenal’s lack of a natural holder or ball winner through the middle. Meanwhile his and Adebayour’s mobility (given Defoe was only fit to start on the bench) to try to target the expected Arsenal high line, constantly making it 2-v-2 at the back (the very same thing that lead to Spurs taking the lead in the reverse match earlier in the season).
From an attacking point of view all of this seemed fine and suitable. The problem came from the fact that the home team effectively left themselves too open defensively in two crucial zones. First, by having Sigurdsson out wide in a narrow position left Spurs’ left flank unprotected. Perhaps Villas-Boas felt that Jenkinson (with Sagna injured it was always going to be Jenkinson the right back, so this was something expected) wasn’t an attacking threat and could be left with time and space on the ball. Although this was partly justifiable, given he is not the classic attacking fullback, it was still risky to leave him with so much space to overlap.
The other weakness was that by having Bale central and higher up the pitch (effectively he was a second forward, rather than a third midfielder), Spurs were too lightweight through the middle. And this against a technical, passing-oriented team as Arsenal, who were always going to have at least three players in that zone, all of them capable to carve openings due to their vision and passing abilities. As it turned out Cazorla was the fourth body in that zone, although he failed to really influence the proceedings.
However, it was clear to see that largely the away team managed to contain Spurs’ strengths for large parts of the match, apart from some spells in either half. Arsenal’s high line pushed back Spurs’attacking quartet, and although it was the fact Arsenal would play with high line that was a crucial part of Spurs’s strategy, the home team’s attacking players failed to threaten. Of course it was also thanks to Arsenal dominating in terms of possession. The other important thing was that Arsenal’s lines were more compact than usual. The team didn’t press from higher up, although it was evident how Spurs constantly teased them with their passing around the centre-backs. This enabled them to have the players closer to each other and not leave space around the pitch that could be used by Spurs on the break.
Apart the two goals, it was only in the 21st minute when the home team actually managed to put their general strategy in action. As it turned out – it was a general rehearsal for the opening goal. Sigurdsson angled a through ball towards Bale between the centre-backs, who sneaked in behind Vermaelen only to just fail to reach the ball.
The home team effectively gambled on their perceived strengths to outweigh Arsenal’s and to be able to exploit the opponents’ perceived weaknesses better than Arsenal would be able to do with their own. It could be said that purely from tactical point of view the gamble didn’t pay off, as Arsenal constantly managed to take advantage of Spurs’ weak zones, Arsenal out passed them and Spurs’ left flank was constantly exploited by Jenkinson. It was only because of Arsenal self-imposed failings and problems that they failed to take maximum advantage of Spurs’ weaknesses.
As it proved to be, in terms of score line the gamble actually paid off. Both goals were identical in terms of how the home team created them. But they were also identical in terms of how Arsenal defended poorly, hence showing they were unable to keep up their earlier concentration and defensive organization intact. Twice Arsenal let Tottenham have space in midfield and failed to pressurize the player on the ball (first Sigurdsson, then Parker), leaving him too much time to carry the ball and eventually pick out the killer pass. And twice Arsenal were punished due to their tactical failings and individual miscommunication at the back as for both goals it was notable how Monreal simply failed to track the runner from his zone; with Vermaelen’s positioning for both goals being suspicious and hard to see whether he tried to cover for Mertesacker in case he was going to be beat for pace or simply tried to defend zonal. If it was the first, then Monreal was at fault more as it was his job to track any runners. If it was the latter it was Vermaelen who could be blamed for turning his back, hence not being able to spot any runners coming in behind.
In hindsight it could be said that Villas-Boas knew that Arsenal would lack the attacking potency to make usage of the possession and Spurs were happy to let them have it. Meanwhile it could be argued that he knew that sooner or later Arsenal’s backline will crumble. Hence it was a simple case of being patient and wait for the perfect opportunity to strike. In the meantime try to stay in the game by defending reliably at the back. It has to be said that Spurs’ defending was superb. Not only Dembele expectedly stayed deep and played a very disciplined role to support Parker, but Dawson and Vertonghen’s efforts at the back were sublime and often the last barrier for Arsenal’s dangerous attacking moves.
Still, with the general dominance that Arsenal enjoyed and the clear weaknesses that Spurs had gambled with could have so easily backfired. It was a case of Arsenal failing to take advantage of it, not that they didn’t have the tactical opportunities to do so.
With the inclusion of Cazorla on the flank it was clear Wenger put increased emphasis on midfield control and the eventual possession dominance. That’s why it was strange to see that as soon as the tempo petered out Arsenal lost their attacking potency and ability to penetrate Tottenham. Still, given the following problems it was logical to see the away team struggling to find the break through.
It could’ve been expected to see Cazorla constantly moving infield to help his team further influence and dominate the midfield battle. Meanwhile Monreal’s attacking habits would have been useful to complement the Spaniard by constantly overlapping him. On the other flank with Walcott’s presence it was to be expected that Arsenal would use him either to stretch the play and create for Giroud and the onrushing midfield runners (Wilshere, Ramsey); or seek to use him as an extra forward, initially inviting his direct opponent wider before suddenly sneaking diagonally past him at pace. In reality neither of this happened, at least not with the required quality and cohesion to the rest of the team and its needs given the actual match context.
What happened was that Cazorla spent if not more, then at least equal time down the flank, hence not really helping to further influence the midfield battle. Even his pass towards Giroud early on came from a wider position. Only once in the first half did Cazorla actually move into his more comfortable central position between the lines to create something for his team. It was in the 23rd minute when he sent a delightful pass for Walcott in behind Dawson only for the winger to be blocked out. With Parker, and especially Dembele, sitting deep and being disciplined with their positioning in front of the back four Cazorla could have been much more useful if he attempted to move infield more often to help Wilshere overload the space between the lines.
More often than not Cazorla’s rather wider position blocked Monreal’s path forward, which eventually devalued his attacking input. The left back received the ball in the last third only when he already was there, staying stationary on the outside. He was rarely, if ever, fed on the run, with space ahead of him which he could exploit to run with the ball and whip a dangerous cross for Giroud or another onrushing player. As a result he didn’t contribute single cross, let alone creating a goal-scoring chance. His single dribble was attempted in his own half. He was forced to act as just another passer down the flank, often just passing the ball to the nearest player (often Cazorla, 13 times – the third most prolific combination in the match).
On the opposite flank the problem was reversed. With Sigurdsson playing in a narrow position down the left flank, Jenkinson had acres of space to push forward and burst past him. In the moments when the Icelandic was in position to actually track the right back he was too slow to do so and often remained stationary. If it could be said that from Arsenal’s point of view Monreal didn’t receive the ball neither often enough nor in good enough positions, Jenkinson received the ball too often and in good attacking positions. Perhaps this sounds strange, but given Jenkinson is not the classic wing-back, or attacking fullback, Arsenal surely would have preferred it to be the other way around and Jenkinson, not Monreal, to be concerned mainly with recycling the ball and support the team’s passing flow.
Perhaps this is harsh on the right back, but even given the several situations he had huge space ahead of him to run on and off the ball and time to pick out his next move, he simply lacked the end product to justify his attacking presence. He received the ball twice as often as Monreal in the first half (30 vs 14 times), but failed to find a teammate with all of his seven crosses, hence not able to muster a good opportunity for a teammate. Accepted that he was often left completely unmarked and in space it was logical to see him not forced to make a dribble. Not only this but he was too wayward with his forward passes from deep, but the majority of his passes from higher up were backward.
Arsenal’s problems on the right flank didn’t stop here. Perhaps due to Spurs’ high line Walcott interpreted his role to be constantly trying to sneak in central, goal-scoring positions. This wasn’t wrong per se, but arguably it wasn’t the most suitable thing for him to do. In a way it could be explained with the freedom Jenkinson received on the outside (more so given Walcott and Assou-Ekkoto both vacating the flank to move infield), so Walcott’s attempts to provide diversity was understandable. The problem was that he moved into such positions too early, hence becoming often sandwiched between the home team’s centre-backs, deep-lying midfielders and left fullback. It was notable how narrow Assou-Ekkoto’s position was, so Walcott’s constant attempts to end up in that zone was largely redundant. What seemed the more useful thing for him to do, given the context, was to initially keep his wider role, drag Spurs’ left back wider (especially with the help of Jenkinson, it would have dragged not only Assou-Ekkoto but one of the midfielders too, given the lack of defensive aid from Sigurdsson) before beating him for pace on his way infield off the ball. All of this could have been helped by Spurs’ high line and the fact Giroud plays with his back to the goal and constantly drops deep further more inviting the home team’s centre-backs to push up, leaving space in behind. The situation in the 28th minute was the only one when in the first half where Walcott ran with the ball down the flank, picking it up deeper and having space ahead of him to use his pace.
So, not only was Walcott was too isolated and unable to stretch the play, he wasn’t even in areas to receive good balls in the centre-forward positions he constantly occupied, but Jenkinson lacked any attacking end product to take advantage of the fact the right flank was left to him.
To summarize it – the fullback that Arsenal could have wanted to have space to overlap didn’t have it, while the wide player they would have wanted to move infield more remained predominantly wider. Meanwhile the fullback they surely would have prefer to join the passing flow had acres of space to bomb on, while the wide player they would have wanted wider kept constantly moving into central positions.
All of this summed up the away team’s lack of cohesion and proper patterns of play and suitable tactical ideas on how to capitalize from their possession dominance and Spurs’ high line. That’s why since Ramsey’s chance in the 11th minute, and as soon as the tempo calmed down, Arsenal failed to create single decent goal-scoring chance. Their attacking moves lacked surprise and their passes were being either over hit or lacking any kind of penetration.
Unsurprisingly the second half started with a drastically calmer and cautious tempo from both teams, compared to the first part. Spurs continued to just pass the ball in deeper areas when they had the ball. The game quickly faded away for Arsenal as it seemed like the home team will comfortably see the game out.
That’s why the Arsenal’s goal in the 51st minute was a welcome thing to happen, given it quickly refreshed the general tactical battle. The goal was a simple case of Mertesacker’s height and heading abilities being again too much for Spurs to handle, especially given he was once again (as in the game at Emirates)poorly marked and left to head it easily towards the goal (although it did come off of Gareth Bale).
This goal logically gave Arsenal impulse and with rejuvenated mood and confidence they started to put pressure on Tottenham. In the next few minutes the away team had successive dangerous attacks, once again showing Spurs’ lack of protection in crucial zones. It was interesting to see that it seemed the half-time brought some much needed changes to the Arsenal’s behavior. Walcott seemed willing to spend more time on the outside before move infield, Cazorla looked like he had been told to occupy a more permanent central position, leaving Wilshere dropping deeper before pushing forward off the ball. Meanwhile Ramsey was even braver in his forward movement. All of this quickly resulted in Arsenal actually being in position to target Spurs’ weak zones and play to their own strengths.
Still, Arsenal’s momentum was again quickly halted as once again Spurs managed to get hold on the ball in deep areas, hence slowing the tempo down and preventing the opposition having the ball. More so, in the 60th minute the home team actually managed to construct another deadly break following their deep recycling. Dembele carried the ball forward from deep (probably the first time he did so in the game) before passing to the overlapping Assou-Ekotto (one of the very few times he did so). Then the fullback send a low cross which wasn’t cleared by any of the Arsenal’s defenders, hence reaching Bale (again poorly marked by Monreal) on the far post who simply ought to score a third goal. Instead the Welshman hit it over the bar.
Seconds later Wenger opted to make his first change – Rosicky replaced Jenkinson, so Ramsey went to the right back. Now Wilshere permanently went deeper alongside Arteta. The change was logical due to two main reasons: a) the space that Arsenal’s right back was afforded; and b) although he had acres of space and time Jenkinson failed to contribute offensively. Perhaps Wenger hoped Ramsey’s better ball usage and attacking instincts would make a positive difference.
Anyway, as much as Ramsey’s role as right back brought some attacking freshness down the right flank, it could be said the introduction of Rosicky was largely redundant and didn’t really change anything. This isn’t a criticism of the Czech as he did OK, or at least didn’t play badly at all. It was just a case of Arsenal didn’t really need another ball-player, more so they gained another in the face of Ramsey. The more the time passed by the more Spurs adjusted and started to drop deeper and deeper, becoming narrower. So arguably what Arsenal needed was aplayer who was able to provide additional attacking width, not another player to just pass in front of the home team’s defence.
The other problem was that although Cazorla, finally, started to move infield and vacate the left flank, hence opening it for Monreal, with Ramsey now on the right flank Arsenal become hugely biased over that flank. Probably it’s a testament to the input the makeshift right back had on his team’s play, although it’s worth remembering that Sigurdsson continued to be sluggish defensively and it was rather easy for Ramsey to continue where Jenkinson left. However, it just made Arsenal even more predictable and lacking dual threat on both flanks in order to properly stretch the opposition and open space for Wilshere to burst forward and for Cazorla to try to send his usual through balls.
Arguably Arsenal needed someone like Podolski, and not Rosicky, to come in and provide both attacking width and additional attacking presence in and around the box. What Arsenal could have done was to now use Walcott and Podolski to initially stretch the play before burst infield and support Giroud and get on the end of his passes and knock downs. The more Spurs dropped deeper, the more Giroud started to be influential but without players near him his aerial dominance largely went wasted. Then it would have been a case of Monreal and Ramsey bombing on to provide the width, allowing the wide players to move infield. This would have gave Cazorla more potential passing outlets in the last third. Now with only Giroud and Walcott getting lost and confused what actually to do – be wide and stretch the play or come infield and be goal-scoring threat – Cazorla didn’t have these options and what he did on the ball was largely overlapping with Rosicky’s input – just passing around.
By the time Podolski actually came on – in the 77th minute, replacing Arteta – Arsenal had already lost their attacking momentum . More so, since the 70 minute mark, the home team became the more threatening proposition, creating few very good chances and gaining territory, pinning Arsenal back. Podolski failed to provide anything, apart of taking part of what was a promising team move in the 79th when his first touch prevented him from potentially heading into a goal-scoring position, although an angled one with Lloris already covered the near post.
It was Defoe’s introduction in the 67th minute in the place of Adebayour, who took a knock, that was the prime reason for Spurs’ increased attacking presence. Defoe is a more direct player, comfortable to work the channels and latch on through balls – hence making him the perfect forward for such as counter-attacking style. Adebayour is more of a target man, who likes to drop deep and play more with his back to the goal. Soon it was quickly shown how the change of the spearheading striker benefited the home team.
In the 70th minute Bale sent a pass from deep, for Defoe over the right channel (positioned in Monreal’s zone, ready to take advantage of his lack of understanding and co-ordination with Vermaelen). As soon as Defoe received the ball he quickly moved across Arsenal’s backline, drawing the defenders towards him, hence both providing the time and space for the onrushing Sigurdsson to gain territory and exploit the gap on Arsenal’s blind side. Everything was perfect till the moment when Sigurdsson received the pass from Defoe in what was the perfect goal-scoring position but strangely opted to square the ball for pass instead of simply put it into the back of the net. A minute later Defoe again showed his appreciation for counter-attacking style, this time acting as the consumer positioned between the two Arsenal’s centre-backs, only to shot just wide.
Not only Spurs became more threatening going forward, but in the last 15 minutes they became even more solid at the back. They went even narrower as now even the wide players were told to drop deep and form a permanent secondary bank of four. With Arsenal lacking the ability to stretch them the home team fairly comfortably saw out the game, even when Wenger resorted to using Mertesacker as another target man in the dying minutes. Still Arsenal’s best chance came thanks due to that Spurs narrowness. Both Assou-Ekotto and Sigurdsson were overly narrow in that situation. The left back had to track Walcott infield, but it was the Icelandic who bears the fault here as he had to track back Ramsey. Instead he was narrow in a zone when he neither was able to join the midfield battle and prevent Rosicky send the pass towards Ramsey, nor in position to sprint and cover for any midfield runners.
It was after that situation when Villas-Boas swapped Sigurdsson and Bale. Now Spurs were able to more naturally form two banks of four with the former able to add numbers in midfield too.
Although the tactical battle was largely a simple one it was quite interesting and enjoyable. The main talking points had to be Arsenal’s impotence to exploit the advantages Spurs so readily handed them; and the home team’s tactical gamble that relied on the opposition being poor offensively and defensively for it to have actually paid off properly.
It was interesting that Villas-Boas insisted on his initial strategy throughout the majority of the match. On paper once his initial game play had delivered – to hit Arsenal on the break – it would have made sense fo Spurs to approach the second half with Bale and Sigurdsson switched over to offer more natural protection in the two areas that it was evident for the first half when Arsenal dominated. If not during half-time, Ramsey moving to right back was the second suitable time for Spurs’ manager to perhaps make that change. The logic was not only because it proved that the left flank had a growing hole defensively but also to put Bale to eventually target Ramsey’s lacking of natural defensive skills and reflexes (more so given he was on a yellow card and one clumsy tackle on the bursting past him Bale could have seen him sent off).
Tactical observer and writer.
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