Arsenal’s Organisation Allows Their Front Three to Outpoint Tottenham

mustafiArsenal put in a complete performance against Tottenham in the North London Derby. They defended beautifully, firstly by pressing before then settling into a deeper structure after half-time, and they also attacked with a combination of intelligence and quality. In a lot of ways, it could be argued that this was a measured yet brilliant display, one full of attacking football but tempered by a sense of needing to account for the opposition’s ability.

In the early stages, the real highlight was Arsenal’s pressing. They never allowed Tottenham to play out from the back with ease, and they didn’t lose their organisation. In essence, when Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris had the ball at his feet, his first option was always one of the three central defenders in Mauricio Pochettino’s 3-5-2 formation. That meant either Jan Vertonghen, Eric Dier or Davinson Sanchez would receive the first pass out from the back, but Arsenal’s formation allowed them to match-up well in order to stop this.

Using their own system, a 3-4-2-1, they could go man for man against Spurs backline. Striker Alexandre Lacazette moved up onto Dier, Spurs’ middle centre-back, while Arsenal’s two No. 10s, Alexis Sanchez on the left and Mesut Ozil on the right, applied pressure to Tottenham’s outside centre-backs, Sanchez and Vertonghen respectively. Spurs therefore had no simple out-ball to any of those defenders, and when you consider that Arsenal’s wingbacks and central midfielders also filtered forward to support the press, Tottenham were always likely to have trouble getting their passing game going.

An example of this arrived early in the game, when Dier found himself in possession. He was tucked up against the edge of his own penalty area, and Lacazette charged up onto him. Tottenham’s other centre-backs were also covered by Sanchez and Ozil, and as well as that, midfielders Mousa Dembele and Moussa Sissoko were blanketed by Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka. That left Dier with little to do but force a pass, but by that time, he had already taken too long. Lacazette stuck out his left foot in order to divert the pass into the feet of Arsenal’s Sanchez, and he then played Lacazette in behind the defence. The Frenchman quickly cut inside to shoot, and though his effort sailed well wide of the mark, the move marked Arsenal’s intent.

They wanted to press and they wanted to go man on man, with their front three up against Tottenham’s back three, and this pattern continued throughout the opening 45 minutes. Arsenal’s press allowed them to either force Tottenham into quick long balls or force them into hurried short passes, and the Gunners nearly capitalised on this a few times, most notably with a Hector Bellerin cross that very nearly teed up a tap-in for Lacazette.

Equally, though, the Gunners used Tottenham’s press against them, and one of the fascinating aspects of this process was that it involved the same three on three dynamic. Even when Arsenal had the ball, or looked like trying to break soon after regaining it, they pushed their front three into positions that would occupy Tottenham’s central defensive trio. They never wanted the Spurs defence to settle, and given how Tottenham often pressed high up, with their forwards and midfielders jumping up onto Arsenal’s players in close proximity, Wenger’s men regularly saw the opportunity to go quickly into their advanced frontline.

Take the lead-up to Arsenal’s opener, for example. Here, Arsenal were back in defensive positions, but the front three stayed high enough to cause problems in the case of a turnover. The move progressed, with Arsenal regaining possession inside their own penalty area. Ozil then dropped deep to receive a pass, but in order to regain the three-man frontline, Bellerin used his searing pace to get up alongside Sanchez and Lacazette. Ozil then danced around the oncoming Dembele, who had pressed high as per Tottenham’s strategy, and fed Ramsey. That meant the Welshman now had three players charging towards goal, and given that they were each covered by only one defender, it looked good for the Gunners.

Ramsey then lofted a pass into the path of Sanchez, and when he received the ball up against Tottenham’s Davinson Sanchez, he managed to draw a questionable foul. Arsenal scored from the following set-piece, through Shkodran Mustafi, and while some might argue that the Gunners were fortunate to get the foul call, the fact is that the goal was coming.

Even Arsenal’s second goal involved the front three up against the Spurs back three, and again, Dembele had pushed too high up to offer any support. That enabled Bellerin to receive the ball on the right-hand side in space, and with Tottenham wingback Ben Davies stuck somewhere in between guarding the Spaniard and tracking runners in behind, he could do little. Ozil then dropped off, thus taking direct opponent Vertonghen with him, and Lacazette used that opportunity to shoot in behind the Belgian. Bellerin played Lacazette in and, with a sharp square pass, the former Lyon man teed up Sanchez for Arsenal’s second.

Again, it was a case of Tottenham’s defensive aggression leaving the back three in a tough spot, and up against an attacking trio like Sanchez, Ozil and Lacazette, it felt like it was only a matter of time until the Gunners took command.

Wenger then instructed his players to shut things down in the second half, and as they dropped deeper and moved into more of an absorb-and-counter mode, they defended well and retained their threat in transition. In a lot of ways, it was the complete performance, and for all of the negativity surrounding Wenger’s shortcomings, the fact is that, at least from time to time, he shows an ability to outpoint bright young managers like Pochettino.

Why this doesn’t happen more often is a difficult question to answer, and it’s also the thing that make Arsenal such a frustrating side for their supporters. They have now won 11 consecutive home games in the English Premier League, and if they can get their away form back on track, there’s no reason why they can’t start to get some additional traction in their domestic campaign. Things therefore aren’t looking too bad for Arsenal, but they need to build upon this performance if they’re truly going to get things going.

For now, though, it’s probably only worth noting just how good they were against Spurs, and when you throw in their recent acquisition of Borussia Dortmund transfer guru Sven Mislintat, who discovered the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Shinji Kagawa, it’s fair to suggest that Arsenal are enjoying a much-needed period of positivity.