The opening stretch of the Premier League before the international break ended with a North London derby.
After losing to Liverpool, Unai Emery added Alexandre Lacazette to his frontline, changing to a 4-3-3 formation. Also coming off a defeat, theirs against Newcastle, Mauricio Pochettino set up Totttenham in a 4-4-2 shape.
Arsenal had an interesting defensive set-up. The forwards stayed high, positioning themselves in the gaps between the Tottenham full-backs and holding midfielders so that they could press either if Spurs attempted to pass into midfield. Arsenal’s midfielders would keep tight behind them, ensuring there was no space to turn if a pass did slip through. The Arsenal wing-backs would also get tight to the wingers to prevent passes down the line.
If Spurs’ centre-backs took too long on the ball, eventually one of Arsenal’s forwards would move up to pressure them. The wide forwards would curve their runs to block the pass into the full-back when they pressed, while the midfielders would move up behind them to get tight to Harry Winks or Moussa Sissoko. If the centre-back lofted the ball over the top of the Arsenal attacker’s head out to the full-back then Matteo Guendouzi or Lucas Torreira would rush out to the wing to close them down, normally having enough time to get close before the full-back could control the bouncing ball.
This lead to Tottenham giving the ball away in their half a few times and with three forwards staying high up the pitch, often only against the two Spurs centre-backs if the full-backs had pushed up, Arsenal unsurprisingly looked a threat on the counter.
Tottenham did find a way to pass around this pressure, although it was rarely utilised. When Arsenal’s wide forward pressed, the ball would be played into the midfielder, himself under pressure from Arsenal’s midfield, however, rather than trying to turn out, he would rebound the ball out wide to the full-back in space. This helped eliminate two of the problems for the full-backs: firstly, the midfielder would be drawn towards the Tottenham midfielder, generally giving the full-back more space; secondly, the full-back would receive the ball along the floor rather than a bouncing chip over the attacker’s head, making it easier for them to control so they could progress the ball faster.
The reason this strategy wasn’t used more is perhaps best shown by the opening goal: Tottenham could simply smack the ball over Arsenal’s press. Hemmed in by Arsenal, Jan Vertonghen played back to Hugo Lloris who punted a long ball towards Harry Kane. Despite Granit Xhaka already challenging, Sokratis Papastathopoulos decided to go in for the header. This left Arsenal three against three at the back, and the situation only remained even due to Sokratis’ quick recovery as David luiz was, as usual, of no help. Kane won the header and flicked the ball on to Son Heung-min, who, much like Mohamed Salah last week, easily sent Luiz into no man’s land with a drop of the shoulder, then poked a through ball into the path of Erik Lamela. The Argentinian managed a weak shot at goal but Bernd Leno could only palm it into the path of Christian Eriksen for a simple finish.
Tottenham then doubled their lead with a penalty after Xhaka lunged wildly at Son in the box.
The home side did pull one back shortly before half-time. Twice Arsenal managed to crowd out Tottenham before they could clear the ball following a free-kick and, the second time, they snuck the ball through to Lacazette, who took a touch past Vertonghen and rifled home a shot.
Arsenal had arguably been the better team in the first half, but terrible defending had gifted their rivals an easy lead. On top of their pressing and counter-attacking threat, Arsenal had also looked good when they were forced into being more patient. The front three stayed narrow, often coming short to help work the ball forward, so the Tottenham back four tucked inside to ensure there wasn’t any gaps between them to exploit, however this left plenty of space out wide for the full-backs to attack. Davinson Sanchez was looking particularly troubled out of position at right-back and Arsenal could have created several good chances if Sead Kolasinac was capable of sending in a good cross.
In the second half, Tottenham sat back and looked to protect their lead, eventually switching to a 4-5-1 when Son dropped back into midfield. They continued to look a threat on the counter but they were ceding momentum to Arsenal, who passed the ball around well looking for an opening.
That opening finally came with twenty minutes remaining. Guendouzi found space to loft a ball into the Arsenal box that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang got a toe onto, poking the ball inside the post, just out of the reach of Lloris. It was an inch perfect goal that demonstrated the danger Arsenal’s attackers pose, but it also demonstrated some intelligent movement by Aubameyang. The Gabonese striker stuck close to Rose initially then made a run inside behind Vertonghen as the ball came in. Rose, worried about Nicolas Pepe behind him, opted not to follow Aubameyang, but he couldn’t make Vertonghen aware of Aubameyang’s run in time, enabling him to sneak in behind the Belgian.
No longer ahead, Spurs pushed forward again, however Arsenal kept them pinned back. Every time Spurs tried to break an Arsenal player seemed to nip in and intercept the ball, putting Tottenham back on the defensive. Arsenal looked the likelier to get the winning goal, having one ruled out for offside, but Tottenham managed to hold out for a draw.
Much like the Manchester City match, it was an iffy performance but a point won against one of the better teams in the league for Spurs. Emery looks to have the making of an interesting set-up based around his attacking trident, yet it will all be for naught if his defenders can’t stop ruining everything the attackers work for.