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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.