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How Spurs tweaked their tactics to peg back Arsenal

By Alex Keble 24 Sep 2023
Arsenal v Spurs

Alex Keble analyses the tactical battles that shaped Sunday's north London derby

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Alex Keble analyses Sunday's north London derby draw between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.

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A turbulent, energetic, and thoroughly entertaining 2-2 draw between Arsenal and Spurs has preserved the unbeaten records of the two rivals, but Ange Postecoglou will be the happier of the two managers having witnessed his team show the courage needed for "Ange ball" to work.

Postecoglou's bold, attacking football is a high-risk, high-reward strategy that requires bravery and self-belief. If the players don’t buy in, or if they cower in the face of a difficult moment, then the entire system breaks down.

See: What happened in the north London derby

Spurs definitely did not do that. They took the match to Arsenal and attempted to win on their own terms, twice coming from behind to equalise. It is a testament to the psychological advantages of playing all-out attacking football, and already this season it has won Spurs eight points from losing positions, the second-most of any team.

Arsenal also have reason to feel optimistic. For long spells, in the first half especially, they worked out Spurs’ weaknesses, only for things to break down a little after Declan Rice’s injury.

See: Arteta on why Rice came off at half-time

Here’s the tactical story of the north London derby.

Arsenal’s press and Saka switches exploit Spurs

Before Rice went off and the patterns changed (more on that below), Arsenal’s set-up gave them the upper hand in two distinct ways.

First, Arteta’s high press successfully trapped Spurs inside their own half. Postecoglou’s team always look to pass dangerously out from the back, encouraging a press, but while ordinarily they can pop the ball round the corner and get out, thanks to their innovative use of inverted full-backs, Arsenal found a way to stop them.

Arteta crowded the centre of the pitch, squeezing there more than he usually would in order to take advantage of Spurs' shape. Whereas normally Spurs have numerical overloads in the middle, via those full-backs dipping infield, Arsenal ring-fenced the area, making the visitors look far too narrow.

This image, taken just seconds before Gabriel Jesus tackled James Maddison but missed a huge chance to make it 2-0, was typical of the set-up as Spurs' full-backs (circled) failed to find space.

Arsenal press v Spurs

With Spurs struggling to get out of their own half, Arsenal, after winning the ball, attacked quickly and relentlessly through Bukayo Saka. He touched the ball 35 times in the first half, with only Oleksandr Zinchenko taking more touches for Arsenal, with 38.

Arsenal’s plan was to switch the ball quickly from one side to the other, taking advantage of how Spurs' full-backs are expected to defend the flank on their own. Destiny Udogie’s early yellow card set the tone for his tussle with Saka, and he was directly to blame for letting the latter cut inside and shoot for the Gunners' opening goal.

Saka first half touches map
Postecoglou adapts and Spurs’ risk-taking is rewarded

Spurs' first equaliser was a textbook example of how Postecoglou’s uncompromising tactics can fill his players with self-belief.

Despite Arsenal’s successful press, Spurs kept going and going, until eventually they broke the lines, got set in the opposition half, and within minutes forced an equaliser.

Momentum shifted on this goal and, from that point on, Spurs had a lot more joy getting out. There were several different reasons for this.

Perhaps most importantly, Postecoglou appeared to tweak his build-up structure (or, just as likely, the Spurs players simply worked out a tweak on their own). Faced with that narrow clump of bodies, Spurs began to split wider, working their way around their hosts.

Spurs’ average positions, in the first half and second, show the back line getting wider.

Spurs first half positions v Arsenal
Spurs average positions v Arsenal 2nd half
Arsenal substitutes reveal squad weaknesses

The other main reason for the shift was Arsenal’s press waning significantly, after a half-time double substitution upset their system. Kai Havertz and Jorginho were considerably less effective than Fabio Vieira and Rice.

That was a theme of a frustrating second half for Arsenal, who lacked conviction in the final third. Eddie Nketiah couldn’t get on the end of things, while Reiss Nelson and Emile Smith Rowe had little impact, suggesting Arteta’s bench still lacks difference-makers.

But Jorginho had the most noteworthy impact of all the subs. He was dispossessed moments after Saka’s penalty had given Arsenal a 2-1 lead, allowing Spurs to equalise just 98 seconds later.

From a Spurs perspective, the goal was another example of the best of Postecoglou: relentless energy and confidence, and it is to the Australian's credit that Spurs already feel like a Postecoglou team.

“This is the type of experience I want the guys to have and for us to have as a group to help us grow,” he had said before the match. “You don’t grow by being in the shade; you need to stick your head up and see the sun.”

Spurs certainly didn’t hide. It might not have been the result supporters of either team wanted, but Spurs fans should take great encouragement from what they saw.

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