Arsenal and Tottenham may be drifting but Alex Keble highlights the tactical areas which suggest we could be in for a thriller at the Emirates.
It speaks to the drifting, ambling status of both Arsenal and Tottenham at the moment that this game feels like an underwhelming north London derby despite being a significant one for both clubs.
A match between two roughly top-half clubs unlikely to challenge for the major European places is nothing really to get excited about, especially when poor form means the game’s only star player – Harry Kane – may not be worth tuning in for. And yet this game could have big ramifications for the two managers. Should Mikel Arteta make it three wins in a row his Arsenal project may finally take off. Should Nuno Espirito Santo win this little Spurs wobble will be behind him.
It is a difficult game to call precisely because both sides have been so volatile this season. Each is vulnerable and brittle, capable of good performances in 45 minute bursts but also of sudden defensive collapses. That should, at least, make for an entertaining game.
Adventurous systems suggests goals
Arteta finally has the technically-proficient players he needs to play a more obviously Guardiola-inspired style of football. He is now using a 4-3-3 formation with two free eights either side of Thomas Partey, creating a fairly stretched midfield that looks to play expansively in the opposition half, and while this has not led to entertaining games so far (they beat Norwich and Burnley 1-0) playing Spurs should give them extra space to attack.
That’s because Nuno has moved away from the defensive football we saw in his first few matches in charge. In the first half against Chelsea, Tottenham pressed high and put the visitors under significant pressure thanks to the use of a 4-3-3 that is roughly the same as Arteta’s, with playmakers advancing from either side of a defensive midfielder.
However, the key difference is that Spurs’ wide forwards are expected to stay very narrow to the striker while Arteta looks for width through Bukayo Saka and Nicolas Pepe. The openness of the two sets of midfielders, the commitment to high engagement, and the clash in how they use their wide forwards points to an end-to-end match at the Emirates.
Key battle zones are the number ten spaces
Keep an keen eye on those midfields. For Arsenal, Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard have begun to roam into the half-spaces, mimicking how Guardiola uses Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva to dominate possession and maximise opportunities to create chances in open play. So far, the Arsenal pair aren’t quite producing – but the mere threat of their presence is pulling defenders out of position.
Spurs could struggle to cope because in the transition Pierre Emile-Hojbjerg may find himself alone at the base, struggling to keep track of both Arsenal players. Nuno will be hoping that his off-the-ball shape, which invariably involves a three-pronged attack blocking the passing lanes through the middle, is strong enough to prevent the ball reaching Smith Rowe and Odegaard in the first place.
At the other end Arsenal face the same problem. Until now Arteta’s new 4-3-3 hasn’t really been tested, but on Sunday, Partey will surely struggle to hold down midfield on his own against four Tottenham attackers. Against Chelsea, Giovanni Lo Celso and Kane dropped into the ten space while Dele Alli and Tanguy Ndombele advanced into it.
Tomiyasu gives Arsenal intriguing three on three
Arteta signed right-back Takehiro Tomiyasu to create a hybrid formation that, again, copies what he learnt from Guardiola. Tomiyasu is a defensive footballer who will largely stay back when Arsenal attack, creating a lopsided formation in which Bukayo Saka and Kieran Tierney dominate possession on the left before quick switches can be made to Nicolas Pepe, alone, on the right.
More importantly, it means Arsenal swing into a back three when on the ball. Tottenham’s desire to play quick counter-attacks under Nuno, filtered through a narrow front three that quickly exchange passes and dribble through the lines, gives us an intriguing tactical battle: watch out for a three-on-three developing whenever an Arsenal attack breaks down.
Kane and Emerson Tottenham’s key players
As for Spurs, aside from the midfield battle attention turns to Kane, whose goal against Wolves in midweek might just kick-start his season. The 28-year old has 11 goals in 13 games against Arsenal and, needing something to reconnect him with the fans, is presented with an opportunity on Sunday to put the summer behind him.
He has looked a disconsolate figure so far, wandering around the pitch disinterestedly and conjuring some of the worst stats of his career. He’s had just ten touches in the opposition penalty area this season; failed to score from his first four league games for the first time since 2015/16; and amassed a risible four shots on goal.
Nuno needs Kane in form to arrest the slide, and yet even if his striker comes up with the goods it might not be enough in a potentially topsy-turvy game. At the other end Emerson Royal has endured a difficult start, and up against Saka and Tierney – with little support from his team-mates in their narrow formation – he could be in for another difficult afternoon.