Mauricio Pochettino coaching during Arsenal 4-2 Tottenham at the Emirates Stadium in the Premier League.

Arsenal 4-2 Tottenham: Pochettino loses formation roulette

Both managers chopped and changed formations in a bid to outfox each other as the North London derby ended Arsenal 4-2 Tottenham at the Emirates.

Mauricio Pochettino and Unai Emery slugged out a tactical battle that saw both alter, adapt and amend their setups. Emery came out the winner as he had one too many moves that Pochettino could not recover from. The match ended Arsenal 4-2 Tottenham after a scintillating back and forth contest.

Spurs narrow diamond gets stretched

The match started at an extremely high intensity. Arsenal was determined to test how much Spurs had left in the tank after a big week of matches. The Gunners were also keen to expose the Tottenham full backs.

Spurs didn’t help themselves. Firstly, we were very sloppy in possession. Errors were being committed all over the pitch as we struggled to hold on to the ball in the face of ferocious Arsenal pressing.

Secondly, the team lined up in the narrow diamond formation we’ve become accustomed to this season. Whilst this formation has been a nice go to move in many matches, it has had its pitfalls when being used from the off.

The issue the diamond had was two-fold. Firstly, we didn’t press the Arsenal back three from it. Instead the team tried to play a medium block, engaging Arsenal from the middle third.

Secondly, the defensive structure was so narrow that it gave the Arsenal wingbacks acres of space. The Gunners used this to get Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac in particular in to good pull back and cut back positions.

Bellerin and Kolasinac in space against the narrow diamond during Arsenal 4-2 Tottenham.

Bellerin and Kolasinac in space against the narrow diamond.

Serge Aurier had a nightmare against this, as he couldn’t cover the number of Arsenal players running in-behind him with no help from a narrow Moussa Sissoko.

Arsenal took the lead from the penalty spot, but the goal was created well before then. Serge Aurier made a shocking error to let the ball squirm under his feet. Aurier then compounded his mistake by running back and tripping Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

The resulting free kick then saw another needless Tottenham error. Jan Vertonghen crazily raising his hand to stop Shkodran Mustafi getting his head on the ball. Aubameyang converted the resulting spot kick and Arsenal had the lead.

Pochettino moves to a 4-3-3 to spring Son

Arsenal continued to hound Spurs at every move and run in-behind our exposed full backs. The Gunners should’ve been two or more ahead as they spurned good chances.

Help wasn’t forthcoming until our full backs received assistance. Mauricio Pochettino made the first tactical adjustment and switched to a 4-3-3 formation. Dele Alli was pushed up to flank Harry Kane with Son Heung-Min. Behind them, Christian Eriksen and Moussa Sissoko formed a trio with Eric Dier.

Spurs shifted to a 4-3-3 formation during Arsenal 4-2 Tottenham.

Spurs shifted to a 4-3-3 formation.

Spurs could now do three things. Firstly, press the three Arsenal centre backs more effectively to stop them easily moving the ball to their wingbacks in space. Secondly, track the wingbacks to provide help for our full backs. Thirdly, run the outside forwards in to the spaces that the Arsenal wingbacks were leaving. As a result, the three Arsenal centre backs became stretched and their defensive frailties were exposed.

Son Heung-Min then became the game’s key player. Mauricio Pochettino had a word with him on the sidelines. His instructions appeared to be to run directly in to the space behind Hector Bellerin.

Son was then key to Tottenham getting back on level terms and subsequently taking the lead. Firstly, he darted in-behind Bellerin to draw Sokratis out in to an area he didn’t want to be. Sokratis clumsily fouled Son to earn a free kick.

Son gets beyond Bellerin to draw Sokratis out during Arsenal 4-2 Tottenham.

Son gets beyond Bellerin to draw Sokratis out.

Spurs nicely worked the set piece. Unai Emery clearly hasn’t watched many Tottenham set pieces, as Pochettino’s love of a near post routine is one of his overriding principles. You only needed to watch Dele Alli’s goal in Tottenham 3-1 Chelsea last weekend to see a recent example of that.

Christian Eriksen expertly swung in the free kick. Spurs had overloaded the near post with three sizeable players – Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Eric Dier. Arsenal only had three diminutive and aerially weak players in the same zone – Lucas Torreira, Hector Bellerin and Granit Xhaka.

Dele, Kane and Dier overpower undersized defenders at the near post during Arsenal 4-2 Tottenham.

Dele, Kane and Dier overpower undersized defenders at the near post.

Dier was first to the arcing delivery. Bernd Leno made a hash of his handling and Tottenham were level.

Spurs then took the lead with Son’s direct runs in to the room Bellerin had left once more a factor. The South Korean darted for this space to receive Harry Kane’s pass.

Son surges in to the space beyond Bellerin to win a penalty during Arsenal 4-2 Tottenham.

Son surges in to the space beyond Bellerin to win a penalty.

A ridiculous lunge from Rob Holding trying to desperately recover clipped Son and brought him down. Penalty to Tottenham.

Harry Kane coolly converted the spot kick and Mauricio Pochettino’s changes had seen Spurs take the lead.

Unai Emery goes 3-4-1-2 to stretch Spurs centre backs

Unai Emery had initially gone after our full backs, in particular Serge Aurier. The interval saw him shift his plans to our centre backs. Emery introduced an additional striker in Alexander Lacazette. He also sent on Aaron Ramsey to be an aggressive number ten.

Lacazette and Aubameyang split wide to try and drag the Tottenham centre backs with them. The pair did this to open up lanes for Ramsey to run through.

The tactic worked as Arsenal overcame some initial Spurs pressure to blow the game wide open.

The Gunners were soon back on level terms. With Lacazette and Aubameyang split wide, Ramsey took a neat ball down the middle from Hector Bellerin. Jan Vertonghen and Juan Foyth were initially separated, but upon closing Ramsey, left the full backs with jobs to do on Aubameyang and Lacazette.

Lacazette and Aubameyang split to allow Ramsey's run during Arsenal 4-2 Tottenham.

Lacazette and Aubameyang split to allow Ramsey’s run.

Serge Aurier was slow to recognise the danger. He let Aubameyang run off him and guide a smart finish in to the corner with his instep. Arsenal 2-2 Tottenham and momentum was swinging.

Pochettino moves to a back three

In response to seeing us stretched in a different manner, Mauricio Pochettino changed formations again. This time Pochettino dropped Eric Dier in to make a back three.

The change did more harm than good. It invited more pressure as we struggled to play out. Arsenal matched up on it three versus three with Aubameyang, Lacazette and Ramsey. The shift also exposed Dier’s frequent mistakes and poor positioning as a centre back.

Unai Emery moves to a diamond

Arsenal were soon ahead as Unai Emery changed formation again. He switched to a diamond to counteract the loss of Shkodran Mustafi. Lacazette and Aubameyang continued up top with Ramsey as a number ten, as their plan to stretch our centre backs remained the same even though the formation had altered.

Spurs then succumbed to more errors that would strike the knockout blows.

Juan Foyth needlessly turned the ball over to Aaron Ramsey. Eric Dier then half-heartedly tried to block Lacazette’s shot. The flick off Dier’s legs helped the ball evade Hugo Lloris in to the corner of the net.

Dier’s tired and feeble challenge then allowed Lucas Torreira to run off him and put the result beyond doubt at Arsenal 4-2 Tottenham.

To compound what was miserable afternoon, Jan Vertonghen then was shown a red card. Lacazette, Aubameyang and Ramsey continued to press our back three. Dier’s sloppy ball evaded Jan Vertonghen so that he had to scamper after it.

Three versus three sees Dier's poor pass and a red card for Vertonghen during Arsenal 4-2 Tottenham.

Three versus three sees Dier’s poor pass and a red card for Vertonghen.

Vertonghen lunged to win the ball and send it towards Danny Rose. However, his follow through caught Lacazette and sent him sprawling. Referee Mike Dean had no hesitation to show a second yellow and Vertonghen was given his marching orders.

Any chance of a comeback with the score at Arsenal 4-2 Tottenham went with him. Another needless error that summed up Spurs’ day.

Arsenal 4-2 Tottenham overall

Mauricio Pochettino made adjustment after adjustment in order to outmanoeuvre Unai Emery. However, the Arsenal coach had a fresher team and one too many changes.

Pochettino put himself in a difficult position to start with. The inexplicable decision to leave our best defender, Toby Alderweireld, on the bench was baffling. Equally strange was the use of the narrow diamond against an Arsenal team that has spent the entire season attacking through its very aggressively positioned full backs.

What’s more, the Gunners have given up chances and goals in the spaces that their full backs leave all season long and did so again here. So why didn’t we choose a formation and personnel to attack these spaces earlier than the shift to 4-3-3 and more often throughout the match?

Even when it had become apparent what Arsenal was up to the decision to leave Alderweireld on the bench was equally perplexing.

As bad as the personnel decisions were, errors really killed us here. Jan Vertonghen made an inexplicable decision to present Arsenal with the lead. Juan Foyth and then subsequently Eric Dier gifted them two further goals. Foyth has shown that he is not ready to be consistently good at this level just yet. He’ll take this in his stride, but we can’t afford to drop points while he learns in matches of this magnitude. Southampton on Wednesday is a much better playground for him.

Final score: Arsenal 4-2 Tottenham.
MOTM: Lucas Torreira.

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19 Responses to Arsenal 4-2 Tottenham: Pochettino loses formation roulette

  1. Andy B 3rd December 2018 at 2:29 pm #

    Great insight on the tactics of both managers.

    I am not sure if any tactical changes would have made that much of a difference in this game.

    Arsenal were more fired up and more on their game than Spurs were.

    Unfortunately Arsenal played very well and deserved to win. It is the best I have seen them play for a long time.

    I agree that Spurs badly missed not having our best player Alderweireld on the pitch. I guess Pochettino is looking at the whole picture and decided to rest him, looking at all the games he has played and will be playing. Pochettino maybe didn’t prioritise the Arsenal game as any more important than any of the others. He may have also wanted to make amends for the emission of Foyth from the champions league squad. I don’t know. I am just guessing on this.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 3rd December 2018 at 4:51 pm #

      Poch has made a thing of not focussing on Arsenal when we were trying to finish above them for the first time in ages, so maybe he doesn’t prioritise this fixture. The only other reason is that maybe he and Toby have differences over Alderweireld’s contract situation.
      Whatever the reason, for me, rest and rotation can come during the easier run of matches we have coming up, not in a North London Derby. It’s not just the three points and bragging rights, its directly inflicting damage on a rival for top four and halting the momentum they are building up.

  2. potter 3rd December 2018 at 2:51 pm #

    A fair assessment of the tactics but the Son penalty and Hackett’s comments have opened a can of worms . Video evidence casts doubt on whether he was touched but the thought that he was entitled to go down because Holding was close and possibly reckless and therefor he was protecting himself opens the door for all the known culprits to spread themselves all over penalty areas everywhere and what VAR will make of it ? Who knows ?.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 3rd December 2018 at 4:56 pm #

      Penalty all day long. A reckless challenge that is out of control. It looked as if he caught Son’s foot, but even if it was a very near miss its still endangering an opponent and a foul.

  3. Mark from Virginia 3rd December 2018 at 5:46 pm #

    Hi Mark,
    Well thought out analysis of the game that was a pleasure to read. I agree with your thoughts regarding Alderweireld – after the Inter shutout I figured we would have the Toby and Jan pairing for this one. I was also surprised Rose didn’t start.
    I think going to three at the back was correct but it was all too late – Poch was reactive throughout this game and didn’t react quick enough in the second half. It was immediately clear what Arsenal were doing at the 50th minute! Since Sissoko was not very effective, I thought it would have made sense to sub Toby on for Sissoko to have a back three of Juan, Toby and Jan. Rose could have come on for Davies which should have helped cause problems in the space behind Belerin.

    Either way – Arsenal were up for it and their new coach has definitely raised expectations. I thought in recent years that they were a reflection of Wenger – always whining and complaining about everything rather than getting the job done. Considering how badly Arsenal wanted it this, the result is understandable – though had Son converted the gift he received this game would have ended very differently.
    Many thanks!

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 3rd December 2018 at 5:54 pm #

      Hi Mark. Spot on. Poch was always reacting throughout this one and that’s what had us in trouble. The starting line-up and initial formation was wrong and that had us behind the eight ball from the off. Bringing Toby on to make a back three would’ve made sense, but i’m wondering if things are not all they should be between him and Poch?!

      Son should’ve converted that gift. I felt he took the shot on too early and should’ve drove the ball in at goal more. He had a great layoff opportunity to a wide open Dele. He then picked the wrong corner as the bigger space was on the other side and its on Leno’s left hand, which would be his weaker side. All ifs and buts, much like Spurs’ afternoon!

      • YouShubes 4th December 2018 at 4:14 pm #

        if Sonny can become more clinical/improve his decision making he will be our Hazard…this diamond or 352 is a great for him and H especially against side that play deep…

        Maybe we were too daring away from home maybe we should played a 352 and playing on the counter…Poch can plan we have seen that..

        Credit the goons they planned, played and ADAPTED well…like Doomsday hope Poch learns from this

        • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 5th December 2018 at 9:53 am #

          We did try and play on the counter initially – the first image in this match report shows that we laid back and played from the middle third. However, the key to attacking this Arsenal side in its current state is to press their back line heavily. Emery doesn’t have the centre backs he needs to play around the press. With his wingbacks/full backs always playing so high in every game this season, these are the zones to attack – as Son showed on winning the free kick for the first goal and then on the penalty. Laying off this Arsenal team allows them to play, which is what they shouldn’t be allowed to do.

  4. Antony 3rd December 2018 at 9:21 pm #

    An afternoon to forget!

    They wanted it more.

    Given the number of games coming up let’s hope that there are no lingering issues between Poch and Alderweireld, as these things often cause problems off the pitch as well.

    A few additions over the January window would not come amiss either.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 4th December 2018 at 12:10 am #

      It really felt like the bad days when we were getting thumped 5-2. Hopefully this ignites a spark that we have to match the opponent’s energy from the off if we’re to match and meet their challenge.

      Levy’s history in January transfer windows isn’t good, so I’m not getting my hopes up!

  5. SomeGuy 3rd December 2018 at 9:40 pm #

    First time reader, really enjoyable article with astute analysis. I only noticed 2 formation changes rather than the whopping 4 that you picked up on!

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 4th December 2018 at 12:14 am #

      Thanks for reading and getting involved. Always great to have new readers!

  6. Brian 4th December 2018 at 3:11 am #

    Hi Mark

    A good summing up,me old mate.Like yourself,i could not understand Och;s decision to
    leave Toby Alderweireld off.and in all honesty,it can back too ahunt us..For the coach too leave,our most inlectual player off,was really confusing.And what with the errors,contributed too us losing this game.That said,while we contested the first half,we seemed too run out of energy in the 2nd half.perhaps ou game against Inter,took it out of us.After all the Arse had an easier time of it in their European game.And too me they looked more purposeful then ourselves,especially in the 2nd half.

    Many regards Brian

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 4th December 2018 at 11:55 am #

      Hi Brian, it was a very strange decision indeed and hopefully not the start of a rift between Alderweireld and Poch!

  7. Toby4eva 4th December 2018 at 8:04 am #

    Thanks Mark

    Hats off to Woolwich and their new Manager.

    He’s clearly not suffering from Moyes syndrome.

    Well managed, good players, good movement, hunger – and a serious comeback.

    They looked as shell shocked as their fans after Harry’s penalty.

    But we were never at the races and were pretty ordinary to be frank.

    Aurier and The Oaf were absolute passengers.

    Son looked our only hope of scoring.

    He has developed into a top class footballer.

    But why can’t Harry help him with his finishing?

    Toby on the bench simply beggars belief.

    If The Gaffer still doesn’t “get” what this game means to both teams, then Houston – we really do have a problem.

    At least we won’t be getting beaten in a League Cup semi…

    Back to the launch pad.

    Good run of games now.


    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 4th December 2018 at 12:07 pm #

      There were a few too many passengers. We started off like we wanted to play casually and conserve energy. Arsenal’s quick start caught many by surprise, which is baffling given what this fixture is and we know that it is played at high tempo. The TV made some comment that we had players with 70-odd appearances in the North London derbies as opposed to Arsenal’s 19, so i can’t believe that somehow our players don’t know that this is a high tempo and high intensity game, where there is no time on the ball.

      Poch comes from Argentina where derbies are ferocious both on and off the field – just look at the recent River-Boca flare up. He played in plenty for Newells Old Boys against Rosario, so he knows what it means, even if he downplays it. I agree with him that we shouldn’t just focus on finishing above Arsenal, but when derby day rolls around, the focus is and has to be beating them, at least getting a draw. What’s more, put all the rivalry stuff aside, to finish in the top four you cannot surrender points to those teams around you. Beat them at home, get at least a draw on the road. Don’t go left field or rogue with your line-ups, simple!

      Overall, this was a real hark back to the bad old days of getting thumped 5-2 in consecutive seasons or the Christian Gross era. I know we’ve improved beyond belief since then, but this game on its own was a right royal mess up!

  8. Toby4eva 5th December 2018 at 11:47 am #

    The Derby passion even gets to our very own mild-mannered and always analytically articulate gaffer!

    Beautifully and succinctly put boss.

    Yes it was a prick of a week – but champion teams don’t fall apart and cry that life is tough.

    It’s abdolutely galling (see what I did there) to watch “footballers” that get paid 100,000 quid a WEEK strolling about aimlessly, drifting out of position, getting in the way, losing the ball, blaming others for their obvious mistakes, et al for 95 minutes.

    Yes the squad is good.

    Yes we have plenty of high quality players.

    Yes we have beaten Chelsea and ManUtd convincingly.

    Yes it’s our best ever start.

    Yes we love the Poch.

    But getting beaten 2-4 here after climbing to the lead at half time emphasised that there is a mental hurdle that must be overcome.

    We have succumbed to the best three teams in the league whilst beating (almost) all the non- contenders.

    Yes – we have a Top Four mentality and punch above our weight.

    But we don’t have a “win fings” mentality.

    Not “getting up” for this game is symptomatic of why we cannot close out a big ticket trophy.

    All of this is not an epiphany or rocket science of course.

    But it is bloody frustrating.

    Poch the alchemist has made gold out of clay but can’t sell it for silver on the High Street.

    So I too need to vent!



  9. Erik Zen 8th December 2018 at 12:49 pm #

    We couldn’t beat them in both the Prem AND the League Cup.

    Hence we’re winning a trophy this season.

    And then losing to the Arse will have been worth it!

    They were scarily good. Bodes badly for next year. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them being perennial complainers the last few years.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 9th December 2018 at 1:11 pm #

      I hope your logic is true! I would love a trophy and the league cup final is only a few games within reach!