Arsenal v Tottenham: one big game, five big questions

Alex Keble

Will Mourinho resist all natural urges to be conservative? Will Arteta go for it? Smith Rowe and Bale may be crucial for Arsenal and Spurs.


1) Will Mourinho stick with his new attacking system or pull back?
Tottenham have won five consecutive games in all competitions and scored four goals in three of these, a frankly ridiculous turnaround under Jose Mourinho that nobody saw coming. Spurs are now among the favourites to win the Europa League and are closing in on the top four. It would be the ultimate surprise of this confounding Premier League season should Spurs and Mourinho achieve all of their wildest ambitions for 2020/21.

To do so, Mourinho needs to continue with this aesthetic, however strong the urge to retreat to more conservative tactics for big games like this one. That’s why Sunday’s North London Derby is a particularly crucial litmus test for the months ahead; if Tottenham go all out at the Emirates with an attacking line-up and a 4-2-3-1 they can blow away an error-prone Arsenal and begin serious discussion of a top-four challenge.

To retreat – to drop the number ten for a third stodgy midfielder or to leave Gareth Bale out of the side – would see heads drop somewhat. Mourinho needs to seize the moment and seize the initiative. The option he chooses will go a long way to defining the tactical pattern of this match.

2) Will Arteta try to dull the game with Elneny and Willian selections?
But Mikel Arteta’s choices are just as important in avoiding yet another tedious ‘Big Six’ game. At their best, Arsenal look distinctly modern and pleasingly different from a Pep Guardiola team, focusing on quick verticality; on direct dribblers playing on the half-turn; and on risky passing out from the back followed by a sudden surge in tempo.

This is surely the best approach to tackling Mourinho’s Spurs, who will either sit deep (meaning Arteta needs more creative players and hard runners to break through the blockade) or play more expansively with Bale and a number ten (meaning extra space in the transition, where players like Emile Smith Rowe and Dani Ceballos flourish). However, Arteta has shown a disappointing tendency to pick a slower, possession-based line-up for big games.

Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka often play together against big teams, which inevitably leads to endless sideways passing as Arsenal hesitantly shuttle the ball meaninglessly in front of a low block. Similarly Arteta may go for Willian on the left, a more defensive option than Nicolas Pepe or Martin Odegaard. Here’s hoping both Mourinho and Arteta decide to go for it.


3) Can Bale indirectly put Arsenal’s right-back under pressure?
Although Bale has been directly involved in nine goals in his last seven games in all competitions, arguably the Welshman’s biggest influence is indirect; he is proving a good distraction on the right, drawing attention away from Heung-Min Son and Harry Kane (who tends to drift to the left) and therefore creating more room for Tottenham’s two best players.

Son remains high and wide on the left, Kane occupies central attacking midfield, and Bale tends to drop the deepest of the three to collect a pass between the lines: the three Spurs forwards occupy different zones vertically as well as horizontally, and it is Bale’s job to receive on the half-turn, drive at the defence, and – having drawn the opposition to his side – switch the play out to Son.

This attacking interplay is likely to expose Arsenal at right-back, which remains their most problematic area. Hector Bellerin, Cedric Soares, and Callum Chambers are all rotated into this role, betraying Arteta’s distrust in their respective defensive qualities. Whenever Bale switches it out to Son or Kane, Arsenal fans will be holding their breath.


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4) Can Smith Rowe help expose Spurs’ weaker right flank?
Tottenham are also weakest at right-back, with Matt Doherty failing to settle well into a back four and Serge Aurier continuing to make rash decisions. This problem will only get worse with Bale expected to help out on that side, so if Mourinho does pick an attacking line-up Spurs should have serious problems on this flank.

Only Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, and Manchester United attack down the left more frequently than Arsenal (41% of the time), reflecting Kieran Tierney’s attacking importance and Arteta’s tendency to play Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on that side. Whoever the manager plumps for on Sunday, as long as it isn’t Willian – the defensive option – Arsenal should be able to put Spurs under significant pressure.

Arteta’s team selection against Olympiacos hints at starts for Smith Rowe and Alexandre Lacazette, which means Aubameyang out on the left. Smith Rowe will no doubt lean over to that left side to combine with Aubameyang as he has done throughout the season. In those moments when Bale is caught high up the pitch, Doherty is in trouble.

5) How does Mourinho force more Arsenal defensive errors?
Arsenal just can’t stop giving away easy goals. Xhaka’s awful mistake gifted Burnley a point last weekend, and on Thursday night Dani Ceballos was caught on the ball for a soft Olympiacos equaliser. Both goals followed a well-established pattern that Mourinho will have noted: Arsenal’s relentless attempts to pass out from the back are extremely vulnerable to high pressing.

Arteta really won’t mind that his team are encouraging this approach, because the whole point of the strategy is to draw the opposition forward, thus creating more space once the press has been out-manoeuvred. Conceding goals like the ones against Burnley and Olympiacos are just collateral damage that serves to further lure the opponent into their trap.

High pressing isn’t usually something Mourinho likes to do, but surely Spurs will indeed close down the Arsenal centre-backs when Bernd Leno has the ball. Tottenham’s best option is to field Dele Alli, a good presser under Mauricio Pochettino, behind Kane, but that might be a little too ambitious for Mourinho to stomach

Alex Keble hosts a Premier League pre-match tactics show at