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North London Derby preview: Will Spurs press or sit back against Arsenal?

Jose Mourinho and Spurs have a choice against Arsenal: absorb pressure or go for the jugular.

Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal - Premier League - Tottenham Hotspur Stadium Photo by Paul Childs/PA Images via Getty Images

Tottenham Hotspur are headed to the Emirates this Sunday - with rocky seasons for both North London clubs, bragging rights in this particular season might just up the ante on what has been a heated match in the past. Arsenal for their part do look slightly better than earlier in the season, with the on-loan Martin Odegaard proving to be an important addition as a creative midfielder.

Their strengths, and frailties, mostly revolve around the way build up their attack.

Forward Line

Arsenal typically begin in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 that can shift into a front line of 5 of Tierney, Willian, Aubumayang, Saka, and Bellerin. Out of these players, Willian and Saka are given creative responsibility while the fullbacks create crossing options.

Partey is one of the players that is consistently trusted to progress the play from midfield. Aubameyang is glued to the defender’s shoulder, always prepared for a pass that will put him in on goal.

Odegaard has settled well at Arsenal, offering intricate midfield play that they have lacked all season. Prior to his arrival, Lacazette was being played as a false 9 - one the main reasons the Gunners were so poor at creating chances. Mikel Arteta expects the Norwegian to be the playmaker, and to consistently shift with Willian and Saka to open up space. Old habits die hard, so as of now Arsenal still create the majority of their chances on the flanks.

Odegaard drifts outside, taking his marker with him and opening up space for Partey. Partey’s marker is slow to react and Bellerin easily finds the Ghanaian.
Simultaenously, Saka makes a run on the inside right channel, dragging two Olympiacos players with him, and in turn creating space for Odegaard. Odegaard receives the ball and drives down the right channel. Aubameyang, as always, is ready for the far post cross.

Their crossing can leave a lot to be desired, for Arsenal fans anyway. The Gunners are 5th in the league with 15.5 crosses per 90, and rank first in the number of crosses coming in from the left flank (Tierney is a good crosser and Arteta looks to maximize that). As good as Tierney is, their cross completion rate sits at 8th best in the league, 32.2%.

Without a doubt, Spurs will be happy to concede the flanks and tighten up the middle of the pitch. That said, Spurs’ wingers will still have a lot of work to do in covering their fullbacks, especially if Davies or Doherty start, both of whom lack the pace to make up distance if they are overcome through quick overloads.

Sanchez and Alderweireld should both be ready to be busy in the air.

Build Up From the Back

Arteta is an acolyte of the Pep Guardiola school of football. It’s no surprise then that he sets up his Arsenal side to play from the back, invite the opposition on to them, play through the press with short passes, and exploit the space left behind. It’s a high risk/high reward system that can yield some good results.

Arsenal’s centerbacks split and a midfielder comes deep to outnumber the opposition players attempting the press (3v2). Burnley’s poor press execution leaves Xhaka open, who plays a one two with Partey, bypassing the first and second line of Burnley’s defense.
They payoff - with Burnley’s midfielders and attackers out of the equation, Arsenal’s attackers are free to run at the Toffees’ defensive line. While in possession, Arsenal created a counterattack -esque opportunity. Aubumeyang ends the move with a goal.

If a team is confident in pressing up as far as Bernd Leno, they have to be on their game and extremely well drilled in pressing triggers + defensive positioning in recovery. Otherwise, Arsenal do have the quality to punish a poorly executed press.

But what about a proper press? They have a much harder time getting out of that.

Here Olympiacos have a great pressing setup. Valbuena is ready to press Bellerin should he receive the ball, the two forwards have their cover shadows blocking short passing options, and up the pitch each Arsenal player has an Olympiacos marker (white circles). Panic besets, and Luiz gives the ball away + a chance on goal by trying to make a short pass.

One thing that’s noticeable about Arsenal’s defenders is that they rarely like to pass it long when they find themselves so deep. Further up the pitch, Luiz can of course be a creative force, but in and around their own 18, Arsenal’s center backs are instructed to always play out the back.

It’s a somewhat dogmatic approach that’s resulted in them conceding shots and goals out of, sometimes, unnecessary risk.

Again Olympiacos press well, making the best use of their cover shadows. Instead of going long, Leno plays the ball to Dani Ceballos who gets his pocket picked by El Arabi. Olympiacos go on to score.
Lots of similarities between the Olympiacos example and this one. Burnley execute a better press this time. Once again Leno attempts to play from the back, finding Xhaka who is in turn pressured by Vydra. Xhaka makes an awful pass outside, that hits off Wood for a Burnley goal.

In both examples, the opposition found success through:

  • A combination of wide and central forwards covering the center backs
  • Midfielders covering long passing options
  • A forward letting Arsenal’s deep midfielder (Xhaka, Partey, Ceballos) receive the ball and immediately applying pressure to force a turnover

High risk/high reward indeed.

Should Spurs Press or Sit Back?

Tottenham’s pressing has improved over the course of the last couple of matches. If Spurs press, they’ll need to be excellent in plugging up gaps left behind, otherwise Arsenal can come out looking the better team.

There are some benefits and drawbacks for both options. If Tottenham sit back, they can force Arsenal wide - where their crosses can be less than effective - but that might relegate the forward line to few chances. In addition, there is still no guarantee that Spurs’ defensive line can consistently resist pressure without conceding.

If Spurs press, they’ll be able to catch Arsenal on a mistake, but will be opening themselves up in the back, and this is where Arsenal shine.

With that said, it’d be disappointing if Mourinho doesn’t go for the jugular. With Lucas, Lamela, Son, and Kane in a (hypothetical) starting lineup there is enough energy to both force a mistake from Arsenal’s backline and drop back to help defensively on the flanks. Should Mourinho decide to absorb pressure, Dele and Bale will surely start.

Either way, we’ll see if Spurs are back to a respectable level of consistency or if the final third of the season will sputter as well.