The north London derby is always one of the highlights of the season but this Saturday’s clash at Wembley feels extra special. Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur are separated by just four points with 12 Premier League matches remaining and, in light of Chelsea’s mini-crisis, both sides harbour realistic ambitions of a top-four finish.
It might also be Arsene Wenger’s final north London derby, depending, perhaps, on Saturday’s result and its subsequent impact on the race for Champions League football. Whatever the outcome, this promises to be a frantic end-to-end match with plenty of goalmouth action.
Here are five tactical questions ahead of Tottenham v Arsenal:
1) Will Wenger use Ozil and Mkhitaryan as inside forwards to mimic Liverpool’s narrow counter-attack approach?
Wenger has expressed his desire to deploy all of his best attacking players at the same time, but for the trip to Wembley he will surely revert to a slightly more conservative 4-3-3 to combat Tottenham’s narrow formation. The most likely compromise will be to play Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan as inside forwards behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, which would allow Arsenal to mimic Liverpool’s surprise counter-attacking approach at Anfield last weekend.
Mkhitaryan and Ozil will look to take advantage of Spurs’ high line by quickly feeding through balls for Aubameyang to chase. This method could be successful – Liverpool hoofed long and high passes over the top throughout the first 30 minutes last weekend in the hope of pushing Spurs back – although it is difficult to imagine Wenger being quite so pragmatic. He always looks to win the possession battle.
The effectiveness of Mkhitaryan and Ozil will largely depend on the territorial war of attrition in the first half-hour or so – and the extent to which Tottenham’s midfield can track both players as they drift into the half-spaces.
Mkhitaryan was able to thread Aubameyang through for his debut goal for Arsenal. the goal was a combination of multiple factors:
-Ozil's positioning in between the lines skewing Everton's mid 4 to open lane for Mkhi
-Mkhi's positioning centrally in b/w the lines pic.twitter.com/JN2DF9oPeB
— Football Bloody Hell (@fbhfootball) February 3, 2018
2) Can Spurs’ full-backs make the most of the space Arsenal leave on the flanks?
The disadvantage of fielding both Ozil and Mkhitaryan is the space this will leave on the flanks for Tottenham’s overlapping full-backs. Neither player particularly enjoys tracking back, and assuming Wenger will field a front three to a) maximise counter-attacking opportunities and b) apply pressure to the Spurs back line to force Sanchez or Hugo Lloris into an error, this could play right into Tottenham’s hands.
One of the most important (and consistent) features of Pochettino’s tactical approach is to suck the play infield before quickly switching the ball out wide; Spurs’ narrow attacking lines force the opposition to become increasingly narrow themselves, leaving the flanks free for Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies.
Hector Bellerin is having a poor season and Nacho Monreal’s new-found thirst for goals and assists makes Arsenal particularly vulnerable should they be lured into the Spurs trap. Fielding two defensively undisciplined playmakers in the wing positions only makes matters worse. If Davies and Trippier are on song then Harry Kane, who’s scored six goals in six games against Arsenal, will get plenty of chances.
We’re actually going to play Ben Davies and Kieran Trippier against Arsenal’s rapid attack aren’t we…
— Dan (@Aldervveireld) February 7, 2018
3) Are the Arsenal midfield disciplined enough to cut off the passing lanes to Eriksen and Alli?
The Liverpool v Spurs game wasn’t just a reminder of how to counter-attack against Pochettino’s side, it was also a lesson in how to stunt their attacking play. Jurgen Klopp’s high-energy pressing – though more conservative than usual – aimed to block passes through the middle of the pitch by cutting off the line to Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli.
Spurs didn’t help themselves by deploying a strange 4-4-2 diamond formation (they improved greatly in the second half after switching to a 4-2-3-1; we won’t see the diamond again any time soon) but Liverpool deserve credit for their approach. However, once the visitors began to tire, Spurs started finding their two playmakers on the half-turn, which forced Liverpool to ease off and concede territory. From an Arsenal perspective, the worry is they won’t be able to squeeze the central midfield space to begin with.
Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey truggle defensively, but after a decade of failures in defensive midfield it is clear the error lies with Wenger’s system, not the individuals within it. Arsenal’s midfield is incapable of staying tight, holding their ground, or helping compress the space between their own lines of defence and attack. Eriksen and Alli, then, should see plenty of the ball in the number ten zone.
4) Can Arsenal’s cut backs cause damage around out-of-sorts Eric Dier?
Aaron Ramsey’s hat-trick against Everton was a clinical reminder of the Welshman’s ability when given the freedom to burst late into the penalty area, a role he is often denied due to the instability of Arsenal’s midfield in a 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-2-1. But with two midfielders shielding behind, Ramsey will be surging into the box again on Saturday.
Moussa Dembele’s excellent form over the last few weeks, coupled with the narrowness of Tottenham’s system, means Mkhitaryan and Ozil will drift into the channels quite frequently to find room, which in turn could lead to a repeat of those cut-backs to Ramsey we saw in the 5-1 defeat of the Toffees. A key battleground, then, will be on the edge of the box, where Ramsey will look to outmanoeuvre Eric Dier.
Dier looks a little flat-footed at the moment and appears particularly immobile when asked to suddenly backpedal towards his own goal. Ramsey, a highly intelligent footballer, will no doubt target the England midfielder by making himself available for the cut back.
Eric Dier hasn’t progressed in the last 2 years. In fact, his defensive game has gotten steadily worse.
— Spurs Views (@SpursViews_) February 4, 2018
5) Will speedy substitutes change the game as legs begin to tire?
Tiredness will surely become an issue in the final 20 minutes as a consequence of the frenetic end-to-end action, and so the north London derby might be settled by whichever manager makes the most effective substitutions. Fortunately for the neutral, there is serious pace on both benches to ensure the tempo doesn’t drop.
Lucas Moura will take a bit of time adapting to English football but that doesn’t mean Mauricio Pochettino won’t throw him in to attack Monreal should Spurs need a late goal. Arsenal’s Alexandre Lacazette, desperate to prove a point to his manager following Aubameyang’s arrival, is another potential game-changer.
When Arsenal beat Spurs 2-0 at the Emirates in the reverse fixture last November the amount of goalmouth action increased as the game went on, reflecting how exhausting these high-pressure derbies have become for defenders; we saw 15 shots on goal in the first 70 minutes and another 13 in the final 20. With Lucas and Lacazette warming the bench things aren’t going to be any calmer this time around.
Alex Keble – follow him on Twitter