The 151st London derby between Arsenal and Tottenham ended with the Gunners taking the spoils in the kind of high-scoring encounter which is rapidly becoming the norm when these two meet.
Yet a 5-2 victory for the hosts would have seemed somewhat far fetched in the early stages of the game when Spurs took a deserved lead before a hugely rash challenge from Adebayor reduced the visitors to 10 men after just 17 minutes.
Despite the Arsenal victory, the talking points from the game, tactically speaking, all arrived courtesy of Andre Villas Boas. Both his starting line up and his formation in the second half were very bold and adventurous.
Following the 3-3 home draw against Fulham, Wenger retained Vermaelen at left back. With Gibbs injured and Santos deemed to be defensively suspect, a match up against Aaron Lennon was to be avoided.
In goal, Vito Mannone was replaced by the fit-again Szczesny. Coquelin made way for Wilshere, who returned from suspension.
It was the usual formation that we now expect from Arsenal this season, 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 depending upon the midfield trio’s positioning.
Andre Villa Boas switched Lloris for Friedel in goal. He also brought back Naughton for Caulker, with Vertonghen moved back into central defence.
With Dembele unavailable and Dempsey and Sigurdsson out of form, Villa Boas opted to go with both Defoe and Adebayor up front. For fans of 4-4-2 this was not quite the old fashioned British-style formation with the big man/small man front pairing.
Adebayor supported Defoe in the attacking phase of the game but often came deep during the defensive phase.
This left Sandro and Huddlestone in a midfield pairing. Whilst the midfield retained industry and energy, it lacked the mobility or finesse that Dembele can bring to the side.
Whilst the change in formation may have been surprising, with three defeats in the previous four league games, Villa Boas may have felt he had limited alternatives.
First Half Analysis with Adebayor
Spurs started brightly and with an intensity and vigour to their play which Arsenal found difficult to handle. Spurs were never going to dominate possession against Arsenal with their chosen line up. What they intended to do, and what they did very effectively, was attack Arsenal with pace in a direct fashion. There was no slow, patient build up. Spurs had an abundance of pace in their starting line-up and they sought to utilise this at every opportunity.
The opening goal was a fine example of this. Defoe moved towards the ball, dragging Mertesacker forward slightly, before spinning in behind him. A ball was flighted over the Arsenal defence which Defoe ran onto and, although his shot was parried by Szczesny, Adebayor scored from the rebound: a simple piece of play which was executed perfectly.
Lennon should probably have at least hit the target with his effort in the 12th minute. Vermaelen stood off the winger and allowed him to shoot.
Sandro was having a very positive effect on the Spurs side at this stage, dropping between the centre backs on occasion whilst also pushing forward to press Arsenal. His role was very vertical as he shuttled up and down the pitch.
Whilst Arsenal were showing signs of becoming more involved, the dismissal of Adebayor was a major incident in the first half.
First Half Analysis, Post-Adebayor
With Spurs reduced to ten men, Arsenal were always going to have more possession. Nevertheless, Spurs continued with their initial game plan of keeping a high defensive line and pressing, even if the loss of a key player made this more difficult to implement. Villas Boas used a 4-4-1 formation but Defoe is not known for tracking back and soon became isolated in attack.
Arsenal were able to build attacks more patiently without Adebayor dropping deep and goal side of Arteta to press him. The duo of Sandro and Huddlestone were now numerically disadvantaged, although Sandro in particular continued to work tirelessly in the central effort.
Per Mertesacker was the unlikely source of the equaliser. The German stayed high after a corner kick and headed home from a Walcott cross.
Sagna and Walcott were becoming more pivotal. Spurs attempted to stay compact and high and actively allowed Arsenal space on the wings. This is not an issue on the left as Vermaelen was not coming forward and Podolski is usually narrow, but the tactic failed on the right.
The key period in the game was the five minute period prior to half time. With the score level at 1-1, Arsenal were asking more questions of Spurs. Arsenal took the lead when Sandro was pulled wide to support Naughton and Bale, allowing Arteta space centrally. There was a large element of luck. A deflected pass controlled by Podolski and his shot deflecting off Gallas to give Arsenal the lead.
Giroud’s goal arrived in the 44th minute when Cazorla persisted with his run forward even after being fouled. This seemed to affect Spurs who appeared to temporarily stop, awaiting the award of a free kick. Cazorla persisted and his cut back was converted.
The biggest problem Spurs faced when dropping to ten men was the lack of workrate from their wingers in tracking back. This was particularly true of Bale on the left who left Naughton exposed 2-on-1 against Walcott and Sagna.
Next Page: Second Half Analysis, and Villas Boas: Brave, or Foolish? Read Here or click page 2 below.
Second Half Analysis
Villa Boas made two changes at half time. Dempsey and Dawson came on with Naughton and Walker withdrawn. Spurs moved from a 4-4-1 formation to a 3-4-1-1 with Lennon and Bale playing as wing backs but positioned very high up the pitch to force Arsenal’s wingers back. Dempsey operated behind Defoe but sought to break forward at every opportunity.
There was still a feeling of disconnection within the team, understandable given the circumstances, with Sandro and Huddlestone now positioned deeper, possibly due to their exertions during the demanding first half. They were struggling to move up and down the pitch as they tired.
Nonetheless, the revised formation enabled the wing backs to push high and retained the central strength of the team. It did allow considerable space behind the wing backs which Arsenal would take advantage of. It was a chance which Villa Boas had to take to try and get Spurs back into the game.
As the half progressed, Cazorla’s effect on proceedings became stronger and stronger. From early in the first half when he was squeezed between the Spurs defence and midfield and saw little of the ball. He now had considerable freedom to roam and find space, especially when he drifted wide in behind the Spurs wing backs. His goal was the result of a long kick upfield from Szczesny, Giroud winning the header. It left Walcott, Podolski and Cazorla running 3-on-3 against the Spurs centre backs.
And yet, despite trailing 4-1, Spurs continued to produce chances. Bale pulled a goal back with a great solo run and shot. He should have been pressed sooner but with space, he advanced and finished well from distance.
Arsenal failed to learn the lesson and a few minutes later Bale again broke free and cut in from the left. He should probably have squared the ball for Defoe but took the shot and missed, and with that Spurs’ hopes of getting back into the game evaporated.
Walcott completed the scoring late on, by which point he had adopted a central striker’s position with Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right.
With speculation surrounding the future of Walcott and his apparent desire to play centrally, his performance on the right again offered further evidence as to why he is best used wide where he can use his pace. Walcott delivered 13 crosses during the game, more than double anyone else on the pitch. There is nothing to prevent him moving in diagonally to carry more of a goal threat during games.
Villa Boas: Brave or Foolish?
Your side is reduced to ten men after just 17 minutes of the game against your closest rivals but you have a one goal lead.
a) batten down the hatches, bring everyone back and try to hold on
b) continue to try and implement your game plan by pressing high and holding a high defensive line though you have one player less.
It’s tempting to go for option (a). So often the media talk about the need to be defensively strong and hold on when you only been reduced to just ten men. Conventional wisdom would state that when playing with ten men you revert back to a 4-4-1 formation, which is precisely what Villa Boas did. But he also attempted to retain the high defensive line and aggressive pressing which had brought Spurs’ initial success.
Was an attempt to hold on for 73 minutes really going to work anyway? Yes, you must maintain defensive structure and organisation, but equally you have to offer something in attack which makes your opponent consider what they themselves are doing.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but even with it, Villa Boas probably made the right decisions.
It’s the sort of game that both managers can claim to take many positives from.
Wenger will clearly be the happier with his side taking full points but that there were five different goalscorers will also be significant. When you break down the statistics, nine Arsenal players created ten clear chances. The threat in this game came from the entire team with four different players providing assists.
Walcott, Giroud, Podolski and Cazorla now have 15 league goals between them. This addresses the argument that was made pre-season when Van Persie left. With the correct signings, Arsenal have the possibility of sharing the goal-scoring burden, rather than relying upon one individual.
Villa Boas will still have his critics but the second half performance of Spurs, whilst open to the counter attack, was very brave and again demonstrated his ability to set up and organise a team who have suffered having a man sent off. The bold use of a 3-4-1-1 formation dragged Spurs further up the pitch and enable them to create chances whilst forcing Arsenal back.