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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.