What Unai Emery’s tactical change against Spurs means for Arsenal

There was no shortage of excitement and emotions amongst the fans on the red and white halves of North London as Arsenal and Spurs shared the spoils in the first North London derby of the season on Sunday. 

Christian Eriksen, who made his first start of the campaign in the Premier League, put the visitors in front and Harry Kane doubled the advantage for Mauricio Pochettino’s side from the penalty spot after Heung-min Son was fouled inside the box by Granit Xhaka.

Arsenal, though, somehow managed to pull one back in the first half, as Alexandre Lacazette showed some neat footwork before firing past Hugo Lloris just at the stroke of the interval. 

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And in a second-half where the Gunners completely outplayed their bitter rivals in all departments of the game, it was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who restored parity for the hosts with a smart and intuitive finish, thus completing a remarkable comeback for Unai Emery’s side.

Both the teams came into the game on the back of defeats in their previous Premier League fixtures last week.

Arsenal were handed a 3-1 drubbing by Liverpool away at Anfield while Spurs suffered a shock 1-0 defeat at the hands of Newcastle United, meaning the North London rivals were looking to get back to winning ways in the derby. 

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In the end, a draw was a fair reflection on how things shaped up over the course of the ninety minutes at the Emirates, with Spurs dictating the play in the first half before Arsenal looked like a completely different unit following the restart. Lloris was the busier of the two goalkeepers but in all honesty, neither team did enough to turn one point into three.  

Having come under scrutiny for fielding a narrow midfield in the loss against Liverpool last week, it was always going to be intriguing to see how Unai Emery altered his tactical stance heading into the high-voltage derby clash on Sunday. 

And the Spaniard’s team selection would certainly have endeared him to the hearts of the home fans, who had so desperately waited for the devastating trio of Lacazette, Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe to start up front together. 

As opposed to the unorthodox 4-3-2-1 that the manager deployed last week, he went in with a 4-3-3 shape in order to accommodate all the three attackers up top

. Lacazette started as the spearhead of the attack through the middle, with Aubameyang and Pepe playing on either side of the Frenchman. 

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In the midfield, Granit Xhaka started in a holding role, with Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi playing as the two forward-thinking No.8s on either side of the Swiss international.

There was no place for the likes of Joe Willock and Dani Ceballos, both of whom dropped down to the bench from the 3-1 defeat to Liverpool.

Interestingly, Emery might have made an attempt to replicate Liverpool’s tactics last week with his change to a completely different looking 4-3-3 formation in the North London Derby.

And he was, indeed, successful in doing so to a certain degree, although the Spaniard apparently didn’t have the same kind of personnel in all areas of the pitch to execute his plans to a level that Jurgen Klopp’s side manage to do more often than not in the Premier League. 

Aubameyang and Pepe drifted inwards and occupied the spaces between the Tottenham defenders, playing a similar kind of role as Sadio Mane and Mo Salah do for Liverpool, whilst Lacazette dropped down deep to pick up the ball and bring the others into play with his smart hold-up and link-up play, similar to how Klopp uses Firmino. 

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The main difference, though, was that Arsenal didn’t have the same kind of quality in their full-back department and while Sead Kolasinac and Ainsley Maitland-Niles drove forward to threaten the opposition’s backline on a number of occasions, they were hardly as proficient as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson. 

However, it is imperative to mention here that the much-needed understanding and coordination among the front three was lacking at times.

Yes, both Lacazette and Aubameyang getting their names on the scoresheet is a big positive from the 2-2 draw but Emery should probably take note of the fact that both of them scored their respective goals while operating through the middle.

Aubameyang, who wasn’t really at his best in the first half, equalised for the Gunners with an intelligent run and a brilliant finish, showcasing his proficiency in the No.9 position after Lacazette was withdrawn midway through the second half.

And that is something that wouldn’t have eluded the eyes of a detail-oriented and pragmatic manager like Emery. 

Nicolas Pepe was quite horrible on Sunday and his first taste of the North London Derby wasn’t the one that he would have hoped for. The Ivorian seemed to miss a trick every time he got on the ball and Arsenal will be hoping that he hits the ground running sooner rather than later. 

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For the time being though, Emery seems to have a conundrum as far as his team selection is concerned, and the Spaniard would probably be aware of the fact that he would have to find his best eleven and preferred formation in the weeks following the international break. 

Emery might have to make a choice between Aubameyang and Lacazette. And if he is really serious about accommodating all three in the same team, then he might as well have to put in a lot of hard work with the players on the training ground to get the coordination and the movement right. 

There were clear signs of promise but the manager will probably acknowledge that there is still a lot of work to do if he is to continue with a 4-3-3 system later on in the season.

Nevertheless, his bravery to field a different system altogether in the derby encounter certainly deserves a lot of credit.

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