Harry Kane scores a penalty to make it Arsenal 1-1 Spurs in the North London Derby.

Arsenal 1-1 Spurs: three at the back crossing attack

Three centre backs saw us attack down the flanks, but still register from another spot kick, as it finished Arsenal 1-1 Spurs in the North London Derby.

Passionate, pacey and with a surprise change in plans, the North London Derby was once again a riveting struggle for bragging rights. Mauricio Pochettino opted for three at the back as the Premier League’s meanest defence went for a bold variation in system. It saw us readily hit the flanks and almost pull off a well-deserved win, as it ended Arsenal 1-1 Spurs at the Emirates.

Spurs 3-4-1-2

The inclusion of Kevin Wimmer when the line-ups were announced raised more than just a few eyebrows. At kick off, Pochettino’s plans immediately became clear. Wimmer lined up on the left of Jan Vertonghen and Eric Dier to form a back three. The powerful Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama operated in front as a screen with Christian Eriksen ahead, just in-behind Son Heung-Min and Harry Kane.

It gave us a number of benefits. Firstly, we could move the ball around among the three centre backs to nullify any Arsenal press. Secondly, we could congest the central area and space between the lines that Arsenal, with the diminutive Alexis Sanchez up top, likes to exploit. Thirdly, it got two strikers on the field to help bolster an attack that has been misfiring in recent matches. Harry Kane came short, Son was always looking to run the channels and nip in-behind. Finally, it brought wingbacks in to play. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose could move higher up the pitch and get in to crossing positions with Kane and Son to aim for.

The system worked well, but also saw a mid-game change. Kevin Wimmer started on the left of the back three with Jan Vertonghen in the centre. However, an early yellow card for Wimmer saw him then moved in to the middle to give him more protection. The unit functioned much better after the switch. Jan Vertonghen was much more comfortable on the outside of the three. This was especially true when it came to defending in wide areas.

Pressing systems

The change in formation saw us go with a modified pressing system. With two up top, we immediately got both on the Arsenal centre backs.

This saw the Gunners often struggle to play the ball out from the back. Subsequently, Petr Cech was frequently forced to kick long. This played in to the hands of our back three who dealt with these long balls and nullified the Arsenal attack.

Son and Kane stop Cech playing out short to the CBs during Arsenal 1-1 Spurs in the Premier League.

Son and Kane stop Cech playing out short to the CBs.

Arsenal on the other hand appeared to be slightly thrown by our system. They like to play neat balls and buzz around between the lines, but were struggling to do so. Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama were patrolling the middle. Christian Eriksen was buzzing around looking to pick up loose balls and instigate attacks.

It wasn’t all one way. Arsenal also adapted their pressing scheme. Trying to stop us playing the ball around at the back and moving it out easily, they attempted to hem us in to one side of the field. Alexis Sanchez would position himself in between our centre backs to stop the ball coming across. The rest of the team then tried to challenge us to play out forwards or go long.

Sanchez stops us moving the ball across our CBs during Arsenal 1-1 Spurs in the Premier League.

Sanchez stops us moving the ball across our CBs.

The result was a very high tempo opening thirty minutes, but also one that saw a lot of turnovers.

Spurs crossing attack

Three at the back and wingbacks saw us go to an approach of attacking from wide. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose were looking to get forward at every opportunity and attack the spaces that Arsenal’s full backs were leaving.

Hector Bellerin was being particularly aggressive. The right back was looking to charge forward and attack the spaces beyond the equally high-playing Danny Rose. However, whereas Rose had an extra centre back for cover, Shkodran Mustafi was left exposed, being pulled out towards the touchline.

The German international didn’t have the speed to handle Son or Rose. Four minutes were on the clock when Son spun him and raced in towards goal. A better pass across for Harry Kane would’ve seen us open the scoring.

The pattern of attacking from the flanks was set though. With two strikers, plus Eriksen drifting from deeper, we had targets to aim for. Attacking the side of Bellerin and Mustafi saw Danny Rose as a major factor.

Danny Rose got in to good crossing positions during Arsenal 1-1 Spurs in the Premier League.

Danny Rose got in to good crossing positions.

Rose put in a number of good balls. He sent in a beautiful cross for the equally high-playing Kyle Walker at the back stick. Walker unfortunately got under the header and put it over. He also picked out Harry Kane at the far post, but Nacho Monreal blocked his shot.

At the death, he got in-behind again. However, Vincent Janssen shinned what would’ve been a glorious volley if he’d connected with it.

Christian Eriksen was also a factor in this crossing based attack. Given licence to roam from behind the two strikers, he revelled in the free spaces that were afforded to him.

Eriksen got pockets of space to work in during Arsenal 1-1 Spurs in the North London Derby.

Eriksen got pockets of space to work in.

Eriksen picked out a delicious cross to Harry Kane that was headed just wide. He also sought out Vincent Janssen with another pinpoint ball. With just seven minutes to go another cross, this time from a free kick, ringed back off the post. A foul on Danny Rose by the recovering Hector Bellerin gave him the opportunity to deliver.

Eriksen also had a glorious chance in the match, which again came from a cross. Harry Kane, who was pulling the Arsenal centre backs around whilst Son darted off him, swung in a wickedly curling ball. Son challenged Koscielny and Mustafi as Eriksen swept in to hoover up the loose ball and force a good save low down from Cech.

Arsenal attack our centre backs

Arsenal was struggling to get to grips with our back three. With Alexis Sanchez up top, they spent much of the first half trying to get him to run in-behind our defensive line. He tried to get down the sides of our centre backs or in to the vacant full back’s spaces. He was successful in gaining possession of the ball, but also caught offside.

Arsenal offsides in the North London Derby.

Arsenal offsides.

As the half wore on, Arsenal started to get some joy from this tactic. They began to get men down the sides of our back three. Alex Iwobi had the most guilt-edged opportunity, as he charged in down the side of Eric Dier.

Iwobi gets in down the side of our narrow back three during Arsenal 1-1 Spurs in the North London Derby.

Iwobi gets in down the side of our back three caught narrow.

Our back three were caught narrow, leaving space outside them. Iwobi fortunately scuffed his shot straight at the thankful Hugo Lloris.

Theo Walcott was the next to get in, this time down the other side of our back three. He fired the ball like an arrow, rattling the post with Hugo Lloris this time clawing at air.

Set play strikes

Both teams were creating their best chances from a distinct method of attack. Us from crossing opportunities; Arsenal from getting down the sides of our back three. However both goals arrived from set plays.

Arsenal took the lead as Hector Bellerin charged forward and was fouled. A turnover and then a poor challenge from Danny Rose saw Bellerin running at our centre backs. Goalside of both screening players, Dembele and Wanyama, Bellerin had Mesut Ozil running the channel down the outside of our centre backs. Fortunately, Dembele got back just in time to challenge and make the pass difficult, but in doing so, fouled him.

Ozil chipped in the free kick. Unbeknown to Kevin Wimmer that Mustafi and Sanchez behind him were offside, he had to deal with the ball in or risk giving up a goal. He got his head to the ball first as Koscielny jumped with him, but sent it unwittingly in to the corner of our net. Whilst not directly interfering with the ball or his ability to jump, they were interfering with his decision-making. The offside law again needs to be looked at.

Four minutes after half time and we were on level terms through a set play of our own. Mousa Dembele charged forward, puncturing lines of the Arsenal defence to earn a penalty. Laurent Koscielny, who is a front foot defender, was caught trying to get in and nick the ball, as he had done all afternoon.

Harry Kane coolly converted the spot kick, another one sent down the middle, just off centre. Is Pochettino coaching Janssen and Kane to do this or is it merely coincidence?

It was Arsenal 1-1 Spurs with both goals coming from a set piece. Christian Eriksen would then strike the post as he swung in another set play.

Both managers made changes. Arsene Wenger was more aggressive with his changes. Mauricio Pochettino had to make his out of necessity. Harry Kane was clearly running out of steam when Vincent Janssen came on for him. The injured Kyle Walker had to be replaced by Kieran Trippier. It wasn’t until Son was switched for Harry Winks that Pochettino could tactically influence the game. Even then, it was just a change to remove a striker to bulk up control of the midfield.

With Tottenham finishing the stronger, time ran out and it ended Arsenal 1-1 Spurs for the third North London Derby in a row at the Emirates.

Arsenal 1-1 Spurs overall

Formational flexibility was something we called for at the start of the season and we’ve got another variation of it. The 4-1-4-1 and 3-4-1-2 have now joined the oft-used 4-2-3-1 of the last campaign. Both new set ups have advantages and disadvantages, but give us options. More importantly, it gives us an element of surprise. Just as we were speculating when the team sheets were handed in, so too will be the opposition.

This approach wasn’t without its teething troubles. Jan Vertonghen looked much happier on the left of the back three than when in the middle. This also worked out for Kevin Wimmer whose switch in the opposite direction meant that he was less exposed when surrounded by more experience.

Eric Dier didn’t seem as comfortable on the right, especially when being drawn out in to wide areas. However with Toby Alderweireld back, he and Vertonghen with Dier in the middle looks an incredibly robust option with the potential of excellent ball distribution.

After the performances in recent matches, this was a real positive step in the right direction. Ok, it finished in a draw with our goal again coming from the penalty spot, but there was so much here to be encouraged about.

Final score: Arsenal 1-1 Spurs.
MOTM: Mousa Dembele.

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15 Responses to Arsenal 1-1 Spurs: three at the back crossing attack

  1. Colin 7th November 2016 at 4:13 pm #

    Great article explaining some of the reasons/results of the formation change. One thing I have noticed in all of the formations we have used is that there doesn’t seem to be much pressure from our attack outside the box. We haven’t scored a goal from out of the box this season and I wanted to ask if you thought that was an actual area of concern or just a factor of our wide, pressing play-style? We have had troubles converting this year and I was thinking part of that might be because we aren’t causing pressure in enough places. So often it seems we miss a chance because of one final touch or or one final pass that went off. Thoughts?

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 7th November 2016 at 5:40 pm #

      Good points, Colin. Pochettino’s attack strategy usually focuses on going through the centre. That is why, in the 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1 set ups we see Lamela and Eriksen (when they are the wide players) drifting in to join Alli and overload through the middle with Dembele. The end result is to get higher percentage shots inside the penalty area. They are closer to goal and chances should be more central, which means that they should have a higher percentage chance of scoring, in theory.

      If we look at some shot numbers from the Premier League, we are actually on a par with last season, we are just not converting them. Last season we took 295 of 659 shots from outside the box (44.8%) in the Premier League. This produced 10 goals from outside the box of our 69 total goals (14.5% of total goals were from outside the box).

      This season, through 11 Premier League games, we have taken 86 of 195 shots from outside the box. A slightly lower 44.1% compared to last season’s 44.8% but only a fraction. We have only scored once in the Premier League from outside the box from a total of 15 goals ie 6.6% of our goals have come from outside the penalty area, way down on last season’s 14.5%.

      So, the percentage of closer and long range shots is the same, we need to improve on the number that hit the back of the net. Eriksen and Kane were responsible for goals from outside the box last season. Without Harry for a large chunk and Christian off form, we are struggling to add goals from outside the penalty area in this campaign, so far.

  2. YouShubes 7th November 2016 at 5:07 pm #

    Is this AN answer to the counter press? Found it odd Wimmer being the biggest (and probably least) mobile did not start off in the middle

    TBF this is how we played a lot when Dier was the holding midfielder alongside Moussa and I think moving him between middle CB and DM will in theory give us that “extra man” should we ever move to the 4-1-3-2 that you have mooted esp for the bus parkers…trick is who starts in the #10 the genius/destroyer – Moussa? Our Enigmatic Great Dane? The unorthodox highly talented.Dele.. our #10s have not hit the heights of last season consistently enough…this may force it a bit more

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 7th November 2016 at 6:04 pm #

      It gives an extra body to play around the press, whether it counters it depnds on accuracy of pass and speed of ball movement. I still think the answer lies in switching the ball faster. Alderweireld provides that, Dier and Vertonghen need to work on it in training. Both Dier and Vertonghen can play long diagonal passes, but we don’t see it enough.
      As for number ten, i’d go with Dele, but Eriksen made a good audition for the role against Arsenal in the 3-4-1-2 system. Although, with two strikers ahead, it gave Eriksen the room that often one striker doesn’t afford him as both centre backs were occupied.

  3. freeflow12 7th November 2016 at 5:19 pm #

    What are your thoughts on Wimmer’s performance? And can Carter-Vickers fit in a back three? Just in case …

    How do you see us face West Ham and especially the rampaging Chelsea? Back three vs back three?

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 7th November 2016 at 5:53 pm #

      Some good questions Freeflow12. I thought Wimmer was much better after the switch to put him in the middle with the protection of Vertonghen and Dier either side. It seemed to calm him down as his positioning was all a bit flustered prior to the change.

      I’ve never seen Carter-Vickers in a back three, so I don’t know how he’ll react. He’s looked decent as a centre back, but I don’t know how he’ll fare being dragged out towards the touchline, especially if that means having to deal with someone like Eden Hazard!

      I don’t think we should get sucked in to the notion we’re going to play a back three every game. It’s just an alternative set up that gives us options of which formation to play depending on the opposition. I think we’ll return to a back four against West Ham, unless in the inlikely event that they have Andy Carroll back as it would help nullify his aerial presence.

      Against Chelsea you could argue that to nullify their wingbacks that we should go with the same. However, Everton tried that and look what happened to them! Stamford Bridge is an incredibly tough place to go and I believe a 4-2-3-1 would work much better to take away Hazard’s space between the lines and give Matic and Kante something to think about. The more those two can push forward and seal the pitch to hem the opponent in, the more Chelsea can destroy teams. You have to overrun their engine room otherwise they’ll get the ball and give it to Hazard, Pedro and the wingbacks to tear the opposition apart.

  4. james 7th November 2016 at 5:40 pm #

    Thanks for another great piece Mark,

    Whilst I’m enjoying the formational flexibility this year, the shift to the back 3, was superseded by the change to a 1-2.
    By which I mean that Dier normally drops in between Toby & Jan anyway when we are building up; was there a big difference between Dier’s typical positioning vs Wimmer’s this match (Presumably Wimmer played a bit deeper)? Did this have a discernible difference on the way we built play?

    I’m really struggling to remember the last time we played with a 1-2, though? Even with VDV, he tended to either play off Crouch or start on the right … – it feels quite retro in the absence of the diamond. What sort of opponents do you think it might be deployed against & do you think Kane and Jansen could work together in this (rather than as parts of a 4-2-3-1)?

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 7th November 2016 at 6:18 pm #

      Hi James. Yes it did have a diffference on the way we play. The usual positioning of our DM dropping in means that he starts and has attacking responsibilities further up the pitch. It also allows him to push forward and become an extra presser to regain the ball without any centre back duties in that phase. He only has to drop in to bring the ball out when our centre backs split or if one of the centre backs is caught forward out of the game, so it is much more offensive role. We didn’t see much from the central defender in the back three other than defensive duties, so it did stunt the way that Dier can often move the ball from defensive midfield.

      Kane and Janssen could well work in this, but it would require Kane to play a lot more on the shoulder and stretch the defence in-behind as Janssen is a natural hold-up player that comes towards the ball. I think that is why Pochettino went for Kane and Son, so we had two players that would test Arsenal in different directions. He hinted in one of his interviews that this is what he wanted to do to get some speed on the field and have some firepower with 2 strikers given our goal drought.

      I think it woud work against pressing teams where we need a good hold-up presence eg Liverpool. An argument coud be made for use of Kane and Janssen in this system against teams that park the bus, but a 4-1-3-2 would be better. Otherwise you’d have three centre backs against usually one striker and thus one redundant player who would be better deployed in attacking midfield. Food for thought though.

  5. james 7th November 2016 at 7:44 pm #


  6. ashley collie 7th November 2016 at 11:50 pm #

    Mark, I’m pretty sure Wimmer was in the middle of Dier on right and Verts on the left…which was bold of Poch…look forward to reading whole post!

    • ashley collie 7th November 2016 at 11:55 pm #

      Never mind, you noted the early CB shift. Verts plays as LB for Belgium and Dier has played as RB for us, so it made sense to split them that way, after Kevin’s yellow. Haha! PS Poch did mention using this formation vs Watford last season, and in many ways, it’s been set up that way when CB Dier was put into the DM position, and would drop back between Toby and Jan. It’s been developing. Be interesting to see how much it’s used in future?

      • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 8th November 2016 at 4:14 pm #

        Hi Ashley. Yes it was strange that Poch didn’t start with JV on the left and Wimmer in the middle. The unit seemed to make better sense that way, although Wimmer has played on the left of a three for Austria, so maybe that was in his thinking?

        Against Watford we used a 3-3-3-1 setup which I discussed its use in detail during the match report for that game, which you can read here. Strangely, that formation hasn’t been seen again, so I do wonder whether we’ll see more of this 3-4-1-2 system or whether its also bound for the back of the cupboard waiting to get another airing?!

        • ashley collie 8th November 2016 at 7:16 pm #

          Mark, some of this talk about formations hurts my brain, LMAO. Perhaps more important is getting our players back healthy. But as long as we get the results, eh? 3 at the back can quickly become 5 when defending, and 3 at the back can also mean 7 going forward when on attack. COYS! Keep up the excellent work, mate!

  7. Matt 8th November 2016 at 9:23 pm #

    I think we’ve struggled most when subjected to the counter press as you discussed earlier. With Toby back I think we’ll see that against teams likely to press e.g. Liverpool. As you say maybe no need against WHU or Chelsea but given the improvement we showed and the fact we have CBs well suited to it, I wonder if Poch will be tempted to stick with it? He’s become quite the Mr Unpredictable hasn’t he!

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 9th November 2016 at 9:29 am #

      We’ll see what he does, but I guess the uncertainty is a good thing, as it makes us very unpredictable for opponents to scheme for.
      He doesn’t really need three at the back against West Ham, but maybe he’ll stick with it as another practice run, maybe to then match Chelsea’s formation. Dier did say they only found out about playing that way on Saturday, so maybe Poch will want more practice at it or maybe, like against Watford last season, it was just a one off.