Tactical analysis – How Arsenal came away with a big North London derby win vs Tottenham

Arsenal beat Tottenham Hotspur in the North London derby in March 2021. (imago Images)
Arsenal beat Tottenham Hotspur in the North London derby in March 2021. (imago Images)

Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur faced each other in a highly anticipated North London derby on Sunday. The two rivals have had a long history and this was expected to be nothing short of a feisty, thrilling and controversial game that we have come to witness over the many years of this iconic Premier League fixture.

Mikel Arteta mastered a comeback for the Gunners as they came from behind to beat Spurs 2-1. Tottenham took the lead via a cracking rabona goal from Erik Lamela. Nevertheless, they squandered their lead as Arsenal struck two and then managed to hold onto the lead.

So how did this come about? Did formation have anything with it? Was it brilliance from individual players, or did luck dictate the result of the game? Let’s find out.

Analysing the game

The formations

Arsenal and Tottenham fielded out their teams in an identical 4-2-3-1 formation. While it looked similar on paper, the application by both teams varied in several subtle ways. It is a formation that both Spurs and Arsenal have come to use in recent months.

But formation on the paper and on the field often tend to vary from each other. This was the case here too. We can easily find this out by looking at the average positions of both teams in the match in Image A.

Image A. (WhoScored)

While Arsenal looked to attack via full-backs, Tottenham seemingly went for a more conservative approach, with their wing-play down the left being very reserved in order to keep Bukayo Saka in check. This had a big impact on the game.

In possession

Arsenal were allowed time on the ball to build from the back. And in contrast to that, Spurs were readily pressed by Arsenal inside their own half whenever the chance presented itself.

This is seen by the PPDS (passes per defensive action stat), which calculates how many passes an opponent was allowed before a defensive action was made. Image B shows that it was 14.10 for Spurs and just 9.78 for the Gunners.

Image B. (Understat.com)

This resulted in a great chance for Arsenal, which turned out to be a long-range shot from Emile Smith Rowe that struck the woodwork. Image C shows how Arsenal pressed the ball and won it back deep in Spurs’ half (in the red circle) in the starting stages of the game.

Image C. (Spurs TV on YouTube)

Arsenal, on the other hand, were allowed to build the play up with more freedom, which resulted in more possession (52.6%), more passes, and more touches for the home side. (h/t WhoScored)

Attacking down the wings

Arsenal were relentless in their attack down the wings. This is apparent in Image A where Kieran Tierney’s (number 3) average position is visible. He was allowed to do that because he usually found himself 1v1 with Matt Doherty on Tottenham’s right flank.

This was, in fact, how Arsenal’s equalizer came about. Lamela put Spurs in front in the 33rd minute with a rabona kick no one could have done anything about. Spurs switched the ball quickly to Sergio Reguilon on the left flank, who played a one-touch pass to Lucas Moura inside the box. The Brazilian laid it off to the Argentine, who scored a memorable derby goal.

But Arsenal continued to pelt Tottenham’s wings. While they attacked both sides of the wing (Image D), their best attacks came down the left flank. And Image E shows just how advanced and vital Tierney (red circle) was to the Gunners’ attack. His cross found Martin Odegaard (in yellow circle), whose first-time shot was deflected into the net in the 44th-minute.

Image D. WhoScored)
Image E. (Arsenal TV on YouTube)

Image F shows how advanced Arsenal’s full-backs, Tierney and Cedric Soares were in comparison to Spurs’ Doherty and Reguilon (right of Image F).

Image F. (WhoScored)

Men in midfield

Arsenal often tried to overload their midfield to gain a numerical advantage in the middle. They did it by often having their wide players come in centrally, which led to their 2nd goal.

In Image G, it is evident that Arsenal players (4 midfielders in red) are trying to converge to the middle of the pitch in order to give more passing options to their teammates.

Spurs’ midfield, as a result, were tasked with marking more players. Look at how high up the pitch David Luiz (yellow circle) is in Image G. With the Spurs midfielders preoccupied, Alexandre Lacazette made a piercing run behind Spurs’ centre-back and right-back.

Image H shows how thin Spurs were once Saka dissected their midfield with his pass. The French striker (red circle) fluffed his shot, but a silly tackle from Davinson Sanchez earned Arsenal a penalty, which was duly converted in the 62nd minute.

Image H. (Arsenal TV on YouTube)

Making their own luck

Luck is something that has a say in each sport. And it was luck that carried Arsenal across the line to some extent. A 10-man Spurs had the ball in the net in the 83rd minute, only for Harry Kane to be adjudged offside. But was that luck, or just Arsenal executing the high line to perfection? Arteta would claim it was the latter each day of the week.

Then, a thunderbolt free-kick from Harry Kane hit the post. As Image I displays, the follow-up to that free-kick from Sanchez (in the white circle) was actually headed for the net, and Gabriel was positioned perfectly to head it off the line in the dying embers of the game.

While the former action could be luck, the latter was great defensive awareness. And Arsenal showed that more often than not that you really have to make your own luck.

Image I. (Spurs TV on YouTube)

Individual performances

The winner of the game was clearly Kieran Tierney, who troubled Spurs all day down that left-hand side. He combined with Smith Rowe as Arsenal utilized Jose Mourinho’s willingness to let Arsenal have space in the wide areas. Gabriel was also stellar as the Gunners defence put up a great defensive display.

The loser was Gareth Bale. After a run of games that saw him grab 9 goal contributions in the space of 6 games in all competitions, he blanked completely against the Gunners.


Often in big games, tactics go out of the window as the game often gets out of control. For at least the first 80 minutes, Arsenal knew what they wanted to do. They were solid on the ball and kept it more than their opposition. As a result, they created more, and when it was their turn to defend, their defenders did not let them down.

Tierney was our man of the match from the game, while Smith Rowe was a constant threat too. Arteta would be proud of his Arsenal players, who executed a great game plan to perfection against a master tactician in Jose Mourinho. The Gunners remain 10th in the table after 28 games while Spurs fell down to 8th.

But it was more than the 3 points that were up for grabs on the day. The bragging right stays with Arsenal fans as they can proudly say that North London is Red.

Written by Aniket Rai

An ordinary football fan, doing what he loves.

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