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How Tottenham Beat Arsenal in the North London Derby: An Analysis

North London is White!

Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Visionhaus

Tottenham Hotspur ended another matchweek on top of the Premier League table as they frustrated Arsenal at home, and added salt in the form of a rival victory in their gaping, 15th-place-sized wound. Mourinho’s excellently executed 4-4-2 low block - a formation the team has been drilled in all season - meant that Spurs were happy be extremely direct in their attack, as we’ve seen time and again with Son and Kane maintaining their sensational form. There was never any doubt that every player in a Spurs shirt knew exactly what they should be doing at any given time.

This piece aims to explore exactly how the 4-4-2 was able to limit Arsenal to low quality attacks and how Arsenal failed to exploit Tottenham on the break.

A Resolute 4-4-2

Mourinho has found a winning formula for this Spurs squad in the shape of two banks of four that are topped by two forwards who, for the most part, sit back to prevent passes in-field. The 4-4-2 has gone through a tactical revolution beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that Spurs do not employ it as a rigid formation. The front two (in this game, Lo Celso and Kane) often interchanged with the forwards on the flanks (Son and Bergwijn), depending on the phase of play.

Spurs in their 4-4-2 shape. Should be noted that the pair to the left, Lo Celso and Kane, were typically deeper in their half throughout the game to channel the ball towards the wings. Arsenal, for their part, were set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with their wingers (Willian and Saka) moving inward, fullbacks pushing high (Tierney and Bellerin) and Lacazette acting as a 10.

Defensively, a 4-4-2 has one goal: maintain compactness in the middle of the pitch. The more compact the shape in the center of the defensive third, the harder it becomes for the opposition to find space in dangerous areas. Logically, then, one way to overcome a block of at least 8 players blocking your path to goal centrally is to attack with width. If all players are keeping the central area gated so to speak, they simply cannot guard the flanks at the same time.

Lo Celso and Kane blocking passing options in the middle of the pitch with their movement/cover shadow. Son is tucked in centrally, ensuring that Lacazatte is not a safe passing option. Note the small amount of space between Sissoko/Hojbjerg and the defensive line - there’s simply no space between the lines for Abaumayang or Saka to drop into to build an attack. The only real, progressive option available is an attack down the opposite flank, highlighted in red, which Spurs were happy to cede.

Spurs were ready for this, and their first line of defense against wide play was to hunt in packs to try to turn the ball over. Their pressing triggers are extremely demanding not just of the midfielders, but the forwards as well because they necessitate that wide players pinch in in order to create a defensive overload. The ball near midfielder, for their part, has to be extremely adept at reading the danger and shift from their central position quickly, while the ball far MF drops in to defend the space just ahead of his central defenders.

The ball is passed back to Xhaka as Sissoko, Bergwijn, and Aurier outnumber Saka and Tierney. Centrally, Hojbjerg maintains positional discipline to act as insurance against a long ball or ball infield. We also see part of the reason that Lacazette did not fit well into Arsenal’s system for the game - in possession, he lacked the situational awareness to shift and become a passing option. Arteta’s intention was without a doubt to have him as a supplemental striker not a creative outlet, but within 20 minutes it was clear that Lacazette was not what they needed supporting Aubamayang.

A second way to beat the low block is for small, intricate passes in the central area. Although Mourinho will happily yell from the rooftops that the team with possession is more likely to make mistakes, there is a clear advantage to keeping the ball: a confident, skilled team retains initiative. The team without the ball can only react. Spurs caught Arsenal at a time in which their confidence is broken, and are missing key skill sets to break down a well drilled defensive process (most noticeably a striker who can get on the end of crosses and a creative midfielder.)

Lacking those tools, the only thing that Arsenal could do was attack through the wings and hope to complete a cross. By the start of the second half, the game had devolved into Arsenal banging their collective head against the Spurs brick wall - with a total of 44 crosses. Spurs racked up 30 clearances, with all but one in the 18 yard box.

Orange = Spurs Clearances. Blue = Arsenal Clearances. Dier, Aurier, Alderweireld, and Hojbjerg were dominant in the air throughout the game.

Arsenal Fail in Transition

There’s a third way to attack a defensive team that sets up with two banks of four - attacking in transition. As a team’s players push out to attack, there’s more space for opposition attackers to attack. This is the core tenet of Spurs attacking play (absorb pressure - explode into space and disorganization with pace.) The few times that Spurs were caught in transition, Arsenal failed to exploit the gaps that appeared.

After a turnover in possession, Spurs are caught in retreat and with big gaps in between their lines. Two main reasons that Arsenal failed to exploit these gaps. 1) Before the introduction of Ceballos, Arsenal moved the ball much too slowly, with Xhaka as the main culprit. 2) It is completely possible, even likely, that Arsenal players were drilled to establish possession dominance and play the pass with the least risk, given Arteta’s managerial origins.

As mentioned before, Lacazette’s positioning demanded that he pull the strings of attacking play when he did find himself in opportunistic situations. His final ball, along with the rest of Arsenal’s, let him down consistently however.

Once Ceballos was on the pitch, Arsenal admittedly did look more menacing, moving the ball around faster and catching Spurs players in slightly uncomfortable positions. But it was all for nought, as the Gunners ended the match with almost triple the amount of passes that Spurs had but only a .60xG.

Closing Thoughts

Having stayed top of the league table by beating your fiercest rivals through a resolute performance - there’s no doubt that Spurs fans have to be overjoyed. The current season seems like dreamland compared to last.

But Mourinho must be wondering if these types of results are sustainable. Such an intense defensive block places a lot of responsibility on Tottenham’s defenders, especially the central pair as seen by the number of clearances completed. Further, on the other side of the pitch, Spurs have scored 5 more goals than their xG suggests (23 to 17.39) - the highest difference on the top half of the table barring Southampton. As it stands there’s no doubt that an off day at the office for a Spurs defender or Son/Kane would have big ramifications for the team.