How Arsenal can outplay Tottenham in the derby on Sunday
This weekend sees Arsenal take on Tottenham Hotspur at the Emirates in one of the fiercest European derbies. It is a rivalry that has come to define the landscape of English football, especially in the 21st Century.
It’s been a while since Arsenal or Tottenham have won a major trophy, but this derby itself has come to matter as much as silverware to the fans. This season, Spurs have regained their form and are challenging for top-4 in the Premier League, while Arsenal would probably be content with a UEFA Europa League spot.
But this match will come to matter more than any other game for both teams, more so for Arsenal fans who don’t have much to look forward to this season. So how can Mikel Arteta better Jose Mourinho on the pitch? For that, let’s try and understand what Tottenham’s strengths and weaknesses are.
Spurs play a solid 4-2-3-1 with a double pivot, an attacking midfielder, two wide midfielders, and a sole striker up front. This is a tried and tested formation for them this season.
The wide midfielders, recently, have been Son Heung-min and Gareth Bale. The man up top is Harry Kane most of the time, and the double pivot consists of the dependable Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Moussa Sissoko.
The hyper-active left-wing
Spurs’ left side is very good when it comes to chance creation and scoring goals. As you can see in Image A, Ben Davies and Sergio Reguilon, the two players who play left-back for Spurs, have a combined 9 assists in all competitions this season.
And of course, the left-midfielder/winger Son Heung-min needs no introduction. The South Korean has 34 goal contributions in all competitions so far this campaign. So Arsenal would know that this is the side to lock down with utmost priority.
The defensive structure
Tottenham defend in a compact manner with their double pivots rarely ever being caught out of position. This is supplemented by their two most attacking players, Son and Harry Kane, who drop back and form another line of defence.
This allows the midfielders to provide a shield to the centre-backs while the attackers then become the first line of defence. This is displayed in the image below.
One way to counter such a tactic is to invite the opposition to attack and hit them on the counter. When this is done, it is obvious that the opponents would have men caught up the field and would not be able to fall back as quickly as they would want to otherwise.
The resurgence of Gareth Bale
One man making headlines for Spurs right now is Gareth Bale. The Welshman joined Spurs on loan in the summer and had a slow start to this season. But he has now picked up the pace, becoming a major threat down the right-hand side.
The Spurs winger has 9 goal contributions in his last 6 matches in all competitions. So, Arsenal would know that the former Southampton man would need some special attention this weekend. This can be done by locking him down Arsenal’s left-hand side.
In the image above, Fulham have displayed how it can be done. They started in a 4-4-2 formation and reduced Bale to just 35 touches down the right-hand side, with just one of those coming inside the box. It resulted from some good work rate down the left-hand side from left-back Robinson and left-midfielder, Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
The photo below hints that Arsenal may already have that problem minimized to some extent. Of the total number of shots they have faced, just 14% of those have come from the side where Bale would be expected to play against them.
Attacking the right-flank
Spurs are not as potent from the right flank as their left-wing. Their right-backs, Matt Doherty and Serge Aurier, rotate for game time and have just 3 combined assists this season.
“You really need that wing-back to be everything because that is what’s so important to their side right now. It’s not only defending but getting forward, overlaps getting into good areas, showing that quality. When you’ve got one player not doing it on one side [right-flank], it weakens you.”
That means that it is a side Arsenal can potentially look to attack more than they can target the right side. Bale, who has started at right-wing, is also not the most diligent winger when it comes to helping out in defence. This was also implied in former manager Glenn Hoddle’s comments.
“… [Steven] Bergwijn at Tottenham who actually plays sometimes in the big games, because maybe other players at the moment are not ready to track back.”
And this is something Arsenal have been doing this season themselves, as shown in the image below. 41% of their attacks happen down their own left-flank, which could become a fruitful tactic to employ against Spurs.
Taking care of the attack
Spurs are only the 2nd team in Europe to score 100 goals this season. The other team is Bayern Munich, who are one of the best teams in the world themselves. So Arsenal would know that a patient game might be a good approach.
If they choose to trade strikes, it would make for an exciting match, but Spurs’ attacking power might just become too much. And in particular, the Gunners have to do everything in their powers to mark Son and Kane. The two have a combined tally of 29 goals this season so far.
Son mostly plays down the left flank but operates freely in a variety of positions. Hence, a number of Arsenal players might have to be made aware of his positional tendency. And more importantly, they have to be aware of Kane’s ability to drop deep and create goals.
This creates confusion for the opposition regarding the marking of Englishman. He is too deep for the defenders to mark and if one of them gets sucked into challenging him, Son makes the run behind them. This was best displayed in Spurs’ league win against Manchester United this season.
The image above shows how Kane (white circle) drops deep to occupy Harry Maguire (red) and Aaron Wan-Bissaka (grey). This creates space for Son (in the yellow circle) to make a run and meet Kane’s through ball to score.
Arsenal must be wary of this and make sure their defensive solidity and shape is intact when Kane and Son try to combine.
One lesson Arsenal must learn from their previous encounter against Mourinho’s men this season would be to not commit men forward too much. Spurs are quick to counter and they can really catch a team lacking when it happens; just as it did against the Gunners.
The image shows how outnumbered Arsenal were when Tottenham attacked them. Son was completely free on the left-hand side. He received the pass in space and assisted Kane for their 2nd goal on the day.
Another lesson Arsenal must learn is utilizing Bukayo Saka on the right-hand side. The youngster is a menace down the right-hand side and has proven to be more effective when played down that wing. Not only that, Arsenal are also a better side with him in the team.
Spurs are potent. Their 4-2-3-1 is solid. They have scored 100 goals this season and have let in just 1 goal in their last 4 games. But if Arsenal are patient and can carefully pinpoint the attacking threats in the Tottenham side, they can reduce their goal-scoring output significantly.
And when Arsenal can defend well, they would know that they just need that one moment on the break to take the lead and take home the 3 points.
(All match images taken from official Tottenham Hotspur YouTube account)