Tactical Analysis: How Tottenham Hotspur’s poor game plan played into Arsenal’s hands

The North London derby has always been quite an important football match, but it usually has a telling impact on the top-four besides the local bragging rights it offers.

This time, though, Tottenham Hotspur went into the clash down in seventh place, with Arsenal as many points below them in 10th.

The Gunners’ European hopes were all but dusted in the Premier League, with the Europa League knockouts proving to be their best shot at any continental travels next season.

Anything but a win would put Tottenham out of their reach, meaning that St Totteringham’s Day would not be celebrated for the fifth year in a row. On the other hand, Spurs’ fading Champions League hopes needed three points to survive, so they too would have to go all out for a win.

Despite a fast start, Arsenal found themselves trailing to a wonderous Erik Lamela rabona in the 33rd minute.

However, they equalised through Martin Ødegaard before half-time, before Alexandre Lacazette won and converted a penalty in the second half.

Tottenham had a right go at it late on, but that was only after Erik Lamela was sent off, and it did not yield an equaliser. So, the home side emerged 2-1 victors.

Arsenal undoubtedly delivered a respectable performance, but they were massively helped by some questionable work on Tottenham’s part, both tactically and individually.

In this analysis, we will dissect all the things that José Mourinho got wrong in preparation for this North London derby.

Poor pressing (or complete lack thereof)

Tottenham have never known to be great at pressing under Mourinho, but against an Arsenal side that had conceded both of their last two goals due to individual errors while playing out from the back, it was surely worth a shot?

Perhaps not for Mourinho, as his side were quite happy to camp in their own half in a 4-2-3-1, looking to minimise the space on offer between the lines.

Even when Tottenham did venture into the opposition half to apply some sort of a press, it was half-hearted and usually individual with little support from the rest of the side.

With no serious pressing to worry about, Arsenal’s defence had lots of time in possession to calmly build their attacking moves, which worked quite well.

Defensive problems on the right wing

The right-back position is Tottenham’s weak spot, especially from a defensive perspective, as both Matt Doherty and Serge Aurier are poor in those terms. Against Arsenal, though, these issues were magnified.

The selection of Gareth Bale added another defensive liability, which Arsenal thoroughly exploited as 40% of their attacks came from their left.

They exploited Spurs’ problems easily by sending Kieran Tierney up the flank in possession and asking Granit Xhaka to drop into space on the left of defence. Bale usually failed to track Tierney, so he was left free on the flank.

If Tierney received the ball, Doherty would have to close him down from right-back to prevent him from moving into a crossing position. In doing so, though, he left space behind, which Emile Smith Rowe could exploit as the left winger.

To combat this, a Tottenham midfielder (Pierre-Emile Højbjerg in this case) would have to track Smith Rowe. However, in doing so, he vacated space in midfield, which the likes of Lacazette or Ødegaard could exploit.

In this regard, the inclusion of Lacazette in the side was important, as his ability to drop into midfield and work in tight spaces is much better than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s, so those disciplinary issues could well be perceived to have helped Arsenal.

Smith Rowe’s selection was key here for Arsenal because he stayed central (being an attacking midfielder by trade), facilitating Tierney’s advance and even allowing him to pick up positions that you would typically associate with a left winger.

Arsenal’s equaliser came from the left too.

Tierney made an overlapping run ahead of Smith Rowe, who released him down the left.

The Scottish full-back tricked his way past Doherty and got into a crossing position. With Tanguy Ndombele dragged out of position (as a result of Bale’s previously discussed failure to track back), Ødegaard had an unforgivable amount of space at the edge of the box, and he made Tottenham pay.

Mourinho’s decision to bring Bale off for Moussa Sissoko in the 57th minute was his surrender in this battle. It was a justified decision too, as the Welshman proved to be a massive defensive liability while providing absolutely nothing in terms of attacking threat.

Disjointed attack

Although Tottenham Hotspur opened the scoring, their attacks were terribly disjointed and never looked threatening. The goal itself was an absolute North London Derby stunner (although it was not the first rabona that Lamela has pulled off), but it was also Spurs’ only shot in the first hour of the match.

The major reason for this was their over-reliance on long balls (they attempted 68 of those). Even when their defenders were not being pressed, they looked to find their attackers quite directly, but they generally failed to do so as Arsenal had a fair amount of ace in their backline through the likes of Cédric Soares, Gabriel and Tierney. Therefore, the only thing these long balls did was Son Heung-min’s hamstring.

Harry Kane is the key player for Tottenham’s long ball tactics, but he was aerially dominated by Gabriel, who won three aerial duels while keeping him in check. Furthermore, with the departure of Son in the 19th minute, the visitors lost their quickest player and main attacking threat in such situations.

This is quite a damning touch-map of Spurs’ initial front-four. Together, they could only manage three touches in the Arsenal penalty area, of which just one was a shot.

Evidently, Tottenham were much better off trying to attack a defensively-weak opposition (who were without a clean sheet in their last nine matches) in a more systematic manner rather than solely relying on long balls, for which players such as Dele Alli might have been better suited than pacy options like Lucas Moura.

Conclusion

Arsenal undoubtedly warrant credit for executing their gameplan well through systematic pressing and clever possession-play, but Tottenham were the true architects of their own downfall.

In the pre-match press conference, Mourinho reminded everyone that Arsenal were seven points below his team and that he only looked to the sides above his, but he ended up approaching the match as if he were playing a top-four opposition and not a team struggling to stay in the top half.

The Portuguese manager had used such defensive and direct tactics to good success against both the Manchester clubs this season, but Arsenal are nowhere near them in terms of quality as the table suggests.

His flawed approach was compounded by poor performances and the crucial injury to Son, meaning that his side could not even be saved by a nutmeg rabona.

Tottenham properly reacted to trailing in a derby only after going a man down as they started getting at Arsenal’s shaky defence in the last 15 minutes, but they were a dollar short and a day late (or more accurately, a man short and 75 minutes late) by then.

This could prove to be an important victory for Arsenal for their hopes of finishing seventh in the Premier League (which would earn them a ticket to the newly-formed Europa Conference League next season).

On the other hand, Tottenham’s top-four chances have taken another hit, and they won’t be able to sustain more.

Stats courtesy WhoScored.

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