The transfer window has not even closed yet here was the first North London Derby of the season arriving earlier than normal. With Arsenal being fairly inactive in the transfer market leading up to this game whilst Spurs had set about significantly enhancing their squad, many will have viewed this game as potentially being more than just three points. This represented the opportunity to deliver a major psychological blow for Spurs if they won or for more of the same if Arsenal secured victory. In the end it was just three points as usual.
What this game told us is that both sides need more time for differing reasons.
Arsenal Vs Tottenham Hotspur Line Ups
Arsene Wenger didn’t really have many options with his squad due to injuries. Koscielny was available after suspension and replaced Sagna who dropped to the bench following illness. With Podolski out through injury, Rosicky returned to the team as the most advanced of the midfield trio.
The returning Mathieu Flamini had to settle for a place on the bench.
From the seven new signings, only Eriksen was unavailable for Spurs but Lamela only made the bench. Otherwise, this was an unchanged Spurs side named by Andre Villa Boas.
There were two key elements in the game. Spurs inability to support Soldado in attack and Arsenal being extremely comfortable allowing Spurs possession and playing a counter attacking game.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the game was the contrasting styles of play. In recent games between these two, both would seek to dominate possession yet here Arsenal seemed content to allow Spurs to have the ball, dropping off and seldom pressing very high at all. The ease with which sides have attacked Arsenal during transitions will have no doubt aided the decision to remain so deep but so to would the very high line which Spurs use in an attempt to squeeze their opponents into their own half.
And it worked with Spurs dominating possession and having a significant territorial advantage yet Arsenal retained a much greater attacking threat than their neighbours. The graphic below shows final third passes in the first half:-
Spurs had possession but it was all very sterile. They passed the ball neatly in midfield and the defence pushed up to contain Arsenal but when moves broke down, Arsenal looked to spring forward quickly, attempting and completing more passes in the final third including passes into the penalty area. Arsenal moved the ball faster than Spurs and supported Giroud better. The Frenchman being used as a reference point to play off when the home side needed to shift the ball forward quickly. With Arsenal sitting deep, Spurs didn’t have that option. Soldado is not target man and support to him was poor.
Support the Strikers
From early on this game despite Spurs dominating the possession stakes, one element was clear for all to see. Whenever Arsenal broke forward, Giroud was heavily involved in the play, coming short and linking up with team mates whilst Roberto Soldado was often isolated and even if he comes short, it’s not Soldado’s natural game to link play nor has it ever been. Soldado is most effective within the penalty area. Remove him from that environment and his effectiveness diminishes considerably.
Spurs were not providing Soldado with any product in the first half whereas Giroud was always central to Arsenal attacks. This situation only continued into the second half:-
The inability of Spurs midfielders to break forward and provide support from the second line of attack was a severe hindrance to the side. With only Soladado to deal with and even he was moving deeper to try and get involved, the Arsenal backline was relatively untroubled until late in the game when they appeared to tire and Spurs managed to build some momentum. If Soldado drops deep, somebody has to move beyond him. It wasn’t happening.
The graphic below shows the number of crosses that both sides completed during the game but there was never anybody in the penalty area for Spurs to get onto the cross and they were usually cleared with ease. All too often, Spurs crossed the ball in front of the Arsenal defence as well. Townsend would either cut in or hit an early cross. The away side rarely got in behind the Arsenal defence and produced cut backs etc. Chadli, after having a relatively bright opening period, disappeared form the game as he moved infield and became mired in a clogged central area:-
There was something almost mechanical about the way Spurs played. There was no spontaneity in their play and it was devoid of creativity. The ball was recycled slowly with no alteration in tempo or rhythm. They passed the ball well and retained possession but the midfield trio didn’t work. Wenger’s pre-match comments about new signings needing time to adapt was correct and Villa Boas admitted this afterwards. The introduction of Lamela and Eriksen will make a huge difference here and support to Soldado will be far better. The quality exists in the squad, it might just take a little longer for relationships to develop on the pitch.
The average positions are shown below from whoscored.com. Helpfully, Spurs are in red and Arsenal in blue:-
Spurs are playing extremely close together and holding the high line but Soldado is almost on top of the midfield. Arsenal meanwhile, are significantly deeper than they would normally play. Early on in the game, Spurs played a few cross field passes to try and isolate their wingers against the Arsenal full backs and this offered promise with Chadli tormenting Jenkinson but the tactic shown disappeared and Spurs become tied down in midfield.
Arsenal Defend Deep. And Well
If this makes it sound like the victory was all about Spurs failure to create, it fails to acknowledge the tremendous work rate within the Arsenal team and particularly Aaron Ramsey. The Welshman has had many critics including Arsenal supporters themselves but a consistent run in the team, returning to full fitness and, crucially, confidence have enabled the player to regain the form he demonstrated prior to his serious injury a few seasons back.
Arsenal successfully made 28 tackles form 42 attempted with Ramsey making seven tackles from 11 attempts as shown below. Note how he moves towards Gibbs in the left back area allowing Cazorla to stay higher:-
And when Ramsey was not making tackles, he was recovering the ball for Arsenal, again staying close to Gibbs in the left back area:-
The cover that Ramsey provided on the left was central to the plan to allow Cazorla to function further up the pitch and closer to the central area thereby leaving the left sided berth.
Santi Cazorla – Moving in Behind
The positioning of Cazorla for Arsenal is well known. He is nominally positioned on the left but drifts inside and helps create numerical supremacy in the centre of the pitch for Arsenal. The flip side of course is that Arsenal are weak on their left flank during transitions. Here, he was positioned very centrally almost completely abandoning the left handside where Gibbs played a fairy conservative left back role, not bombing up and down as we are used to seeing. Aaron Ramsey helped Gibbs out, covering for Cazorla’s lack of defensive duties on the left handside enabling the Spaniard to stay higher up the pitch. The graphic below shows his final third passes with a number occurring centrally:-
Cazorla was able to get in behind the Spurs Midfield to run at their defence on transitions. Arsenal played it simple in that respect. Win the ball from Spurs and shift it forward as quickly as possible. Running centrally, Cazorla looked to thread balls through the Spurs back-line often aimed at Walcott coming in off the right wing. The Spaniard instigated the only goal of the game from a deeper position.
Spurs never managed to come to terms with his movement.
So bragging rights in the first North London Derby of the season go to Arsenal. All their problems are behind them now and they can move on with confidence and secure at the very least 4th place whilst for Spurs, their entire summer has been a waste of time and their acquisitions simply won’t help them get 4th place.
That’s what this game means, right? Not quite. It’s three points, an important three points even in just the third week of the season but that’s all.
Spurs new signings will take time to settle and adapt. There is no doubt that Spurs have bought genuine quality into the their squad but the introduction of so many new players who could potentially be first team starters will take time. The players need to develop their game on the pitch and form patterns of play with each other. That Arsenal already have such familiarity was a boost for this game. Eriksen will operate closer to Soldado and Lamela can replace Bale on the left and provide goals and assists. There is not reason for Spurs fans to be downbeat so early in the season.
For Arsenal, taking a step back and counter attacking at home is not the norm. Will Wenger shift to a more transitional style of play in certain games? The acquisition of Mesut Ozil, a player entirely deserving of the World Class tag, suggests that Arsenal are moving in that direction. The German undertakes his best work in transitions but this leaves questions over whether the side are defensively strong enough and disciplined to encourage teams to attack them? Arsenal have strength in their forward department now but can they hold off opponents at the other end?
And as tremendous as the capture of Ozil is, other areas of the side remain unaddressed.
There is still much to play for. Fans of both sides would do well to remember that no prizes are handed out on the 1st September.