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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.