Tottenham v Arsenal: One big game, five big questions

Matt Stead

1) Will ultra-defensive Mourinho expose Arsenal’s lack of creativity?
Tottenham Hotspur look more like a proper Jose Mourinho team with each passing week, and their latest Premier League game, a 0-0 draw with Chelsea, was peak Jose – with a twist. He deployed an ultra-defensive set-up to limit Frank Lampard’s most creative players, sitting everyone behind the ball and compressing space between the lines, but with central midfielders Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Moussa Sissoko dropping to make a back six.

These two, as against Man City, are plugging gaps between centre-back and full-back, creating a brick wall that even the most talented playmakers in the Premier League are struggling to break through. Surely Arsenal will find it especially tough given their inability to play cohesive or fluent attacking football this season.

Mikel Arteta has switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation recently, and it hasn’t been working. His players are oddly disconnected from each other, the automatisms having disappeared in the new system as Joe Willock, Dani Ceballos and others probe as individuals. A Mourinho team really ought to be able to keep a clean sheet against them.


2) Or does Vienna victory offer glimmer of attacking hope?
But Arsenal’s 4-1 victory over Rapid Vienna on Thursday night puts a cat amongst the pigeons. Arteta’s side were superb from the outset, showing energy and intent with their passing to tear through the visitors, benefiting not just from 2000 fans being inside the Emirates but from new passages of interplay between fringe players in unusual positions.

Most notably, Alexandre Lacazette excelled in the number ten role, driving forward behind Eddie Nketiah to give Arsenal more purpose in this area than Willock can provide. The Frenchman’s desire to turn in possession and run at the opposition caused panic. It is precisely the kind of line-breaking movement Arsenal will need to stretch Tottenham out of shape.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles was also impressive in central midfield, providing some box-to-box energy at a time when a lethargic Arsenal are struggling to progress the ball into the final third. Arteta will largely rotate the first-team players back in for Sunday, but Maitland-Niles and Lacazette both deserve starting roles.


3) Can Nelson get behind Reguilon?
Reiss Nelson is another star from Thursday night who should stay in the team. He was a constant threat against Vienna, assisting once and creating five chances, more than any other player on the pitch. Nelson has the directness and the confidence so clearly missing from Nicolas Pepe, and when facing a deep defensive line like Tottenham’s it is vital there is at least one winger willing to penetrate to the byline.

His direct opponent this weekend is left-back Sergio Reguilon, who has enjoyed a very good start to life in English football but may find himself overworked by Nelson should Heung-min Son not support. Son was switched to the right for the Chelsea game, but after struggling to make an impact ought to be moved back to the left wing.



4) Will Kane and Son counter as effectively as Wolves?
The biggest issue with Arsenal’s new 4-2-3-1 is that they are considerably more vulnerable to counters, having lost a body at the back. Wolves countered effectively last weekend as Daniel Podence and Pedro Neto repeatedly found space between the lines of defence and midfield, highlighting the issue Arteta has with structure and shape now the 3-4-3 has gone.

Adama Traore found it far too easy to dribble past players, and it only took beating one man for Arsenal’s entire system to be exposed, with runners out-numbering their back four on the break. That should worry supporters ahead of a trip to Tottenham, where Mourinho will instruct his players to search for Son in behind.

Even the best defences are struggling to get hold of Harry Kane’s movement off the front line. Arsenal, now without a spare centre-back to push up to meet him, could be badly hurt by his interactions with Son. The concern may even be great enough for Arteta to revert to the 3-4-3.


5) Or will Arteta move to a back three and create a stodgy game?
Pablo Mari’s impressive performance on Thursday evening does give Arteta the option to play with a back three, especially given Arsenal are expected to give David Luiz the all clear to start. Arteta hasn’t used the 3-4-3 since a 3-0 defeat to Aston Villa, and as Spurs’ approach – sit back, hit on the break – isn’t too dissimilar from Villa’s the Arsenal manager is probably reluctant to make the switch.

The 3-4-3 would certainly prevent a repeat of the creative attacking performance of Thursday night, most notably because the two-man midfield becomes disconnected from the front three, but that Kane problem needs addressing. After such a poor run of form in the Premier League, Arteta might be willing to sacrifice high-tempo ball progressions for a spare man to get tight to Kane.

The Spurs striker has scored 10 goals in 11 north London derbies. Arsenal need a plan to stop him, even if that means undoing the progress made against Rapid Vienna.

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