I completed 32 years on this planet on Friday and was hoping for a birthday gift from the Gunners on Saturday. They obliged, and how! My thanks also to former Gunner Adebayor for his part in giving me such a delightful start to a new year. Defeats for United, Chelsea, and Everton were like the icing on a sumptuous cake.
Wenger started with the expected line-up incorporating Szczesny and Wilshere into the eleven. AVB surprised me a bit by picking two strikers, a move that would have delighted many Tottenham fans and looked like it was working till one of the two pressed self-destruct.
The opening exchanges were even but Spurs created the two incisive moves including the goal. Arsenal saw more of the ball but the visitors were, as expected, very well organized and worked hard to prevent the build-up from the back. I don’t remember the Gunners creating anything in the final third in the first 15 minutes or so.
At the other end, multiple defensive issues combined to present Tottenham with their first goal. Defoe’s movement flummoxed Mertesacker. The German’s lack of pace and inability to turn quickly was also evident in the manner in which the Spurs striker spun in behind. The fact that no one closed Vertonghen down – Giroud was trying but Cazorla should have stepped up , or the manner in which Sagna and Koscielny dropped back while Mertesacker was pushing up, exposed the lack of collective defensive understanding between the Gunners.
Minutes later another golden opportunity arose for the visitors when a simple hoof from Lloris resulted in a 4-v-4 for Spurs as the gaps between the Arsenal lines were too large for the midfield to influence the move. Lennon dragged his shot wide, just.
Arsenal’s first real inspiring moment came in the 16th minute when a sublime turn from Wilshere eliminated the midfield screen and opened passing options behind the defence. While that move in itself was not decisive, it did result in a minute or so of territorial pressure from Arsenal and forced the clearance from Vertonghen that Adebayor challenged for.
Of course, no amount of pressure on the defence would justify the sheer recklessness of that tackle. It was to be the single most decisive moment of the game and provided further proof that Adebayor’s lack of mental stability/clarity has hindered his talent from blossoming into a world class striker.
The game was completely different after that as Tottenham’s tactic of defending in the centre of the pitch was no longer effective. This meant they had to drop much deeper as a unit. I don’t think they were prepared, as a team, for such a scenario. From the sending off till the first half came to an end, it was all Arsenal.
Spurs completed 53 of their 67 passes in the opening 17 minutes which produced 4 shots and 1 goal. In the remaining 28 minutes plus injury time, they just completed 55 out of their 77 passes with no shots on goal.
In contrast, the Gunners completed 80 of their 99 passes in the first 17 minutes but did not have any shots on goal. After the sending off, Arsenal were 161/181 for the passes and had 7 attempts including 3 goals.
The passing charts explain the patterns of play pretty accurately. In the opening 17 minutes the game was tight and both teams found it hard to gain territory. It was mostly a battle in the midfield but Spurs were able to create two good opportunities even if those were the only real moments of penetration. Arsenal weren’t able to build from the back. Although they too have a couple of passes into the box, Tottenham were not as open at the back. That said, the sending off was indirectly related to those two passes into the Spurs box as it was the first occasion where Arsenal enjoyed some territorial gain and kept the game in the Spurs half.
For the rest of the first half, Spurs just didn’t have a way out. I’ve often talked about the importance of building from the back to Arsenal’s tactical dominance as it’s directly related to their ability to attack and defend. Once Tottenham went a man down, the Gunners were able to link the defence with attack and made it count.
The passes that we see inside the Spurs half in the central third and on the edge of their defensive third were the key to this linking process.
It’s worth noting that many smaller teams do cede that territory to the Gunners in order to defend resolutely by dropping deep and narrow in a compact shape. At times, when opponents show impeccable discipline, that works and frustrates the Gunners. But most of these teams play a variant of 4-5-1 and often have 9 or even all 10 outfield bodies between the ball and goal. It was difficult to visualize AVB instructing his side to do so mainly because they’re not built to play that way. I don’t remember the last time Spurs put all men behind the ball for 70+ minutes to hold on to a one goal lead.
That said, we must also commend the Gunners for the manner in which they piled on the pressure. A stand out observation for me was the manner in which they sustained territorial advantage and had bodies in the box even after an initial set-piece was cleared.
Arsenal’s first and third goals came from such sustained pressure. Mertesacker went up for a corner in the 22nd minute and stayed up for nearly a minute and a half to score the vital equalizer. Spurs didn’t know how to deal with the extra attacker as Podolski and Giroud occupied their central defenders. I saw Huddlestone marking Mertesacker but the Englishman lost the German way too easily. Walker was also seen idly observing play without sensing danger. Walcott’s ability to get past Naughton to create space for the cross should also be noted.
The second goal was not related to a set-piece but again resulted from Arsenal’s ability to gain control of cleared balls to keep the visitors pinned deep. Podolski got a bit of luck with the momentary pin-ball effect that directed his attempt towards goal but this kind of fortune is generated by the pressure that opens gaps and forces mistakes.
Giroud’s goal was again a result of winning possession back from a clearance and creating a chance soon after. Again Arsenal had 5 or 6 bodies in the box but the key part in the goal was Cazorla’s tenacity and desire to make something happen. He could easily have gone down for a foul but the Spaniard sensed the opening and went for it.
It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of the second and third goals. If the game had been close at half-time, as it had been for 40 odd minutes, AVB could have given his team the instructions to be compact and play for a draw with the hopes of nicking a goal on the break late in the game. Arsenal would have been frustrated as time went on and the fans would also have become edgy.
But a two goal lead meant Tottenham had no choice but to go for goals. Villas-Boas did the right thing in taking out the full-backs for a central defender and a midfielder. The idea with a 3-4-2 or a 3-5-1 was to build the same kind of pressure higher up the pitch that prevented Arsenal from building play from the back in the initial exchanges. AVB had to find a way to regain some territory and push his team away from their own goal. Some might argue that Walker was the better man for the role on the flank rather than Lennon but it’s difficult to say whether that would have had any impact on the result.
Combined with the fact that an Arsenal side lacking in confidence wasn’t really sure how to handle a two goal lead i.e. whether they should sit on it or go for more, AVB’s tactics succeeded in shielding the Tottenham goal while making the game a lot more even despite the numerical difference.
In the first 15 minutes or so of the second half Arsenal did not have a shot on goal as the game once again became a midfield battle albeit with a few more spaces. The passing chalkboards from 45-60 minutes show a distinct lack of Arsenal passes inside the Tottenham half in central areas.
The way around the midfield congestion can be a ball over the top as Tottenham had showed in the early exchanges of the first half. Wenger’s team are not good exponents of this approach but they used it to good effect to add to their lead on the hour mark.
It took approximately 10 seconds for the ball to move from Szczesny’s six yard box to the back of Lloris’ net. All four of Arsenal’s attacking players (Front three plus Cazorla) were involved, but the goalkeeper bypassed the back four and the two central midfielders, and thus the area Tottenham were contesting. Apart from Walcott, every Gunner involved played one-touch football in that move. Once the central third was taken out of the picture, Spurs paid the price of being one defender short. Gallas and Vertonghen were in a 2-v-2 with Walcott and Podolski while Giroud had pulled Dawson ahead. Cazorla broke forward from the centre circle when Giroud headed the ball and was able to score unchallenged at the back post. Some people might blame Sandro for losing his man but, having seen many occasions where the midfielders tracking back can’t quite make a difference, I find it harsh to blame the Brazilian.
Arsenal regained confidence and control after the fourth goal. They now moved the ball with a lot more assurance even if it was just a keep-ball exercise for most parts. They created numerous promising moments in the rest of the period and could have scored two or three with better composure and technique in the final third. The fifth goal did come in injury time as Oxlade-Chamberlain capped his cameo with an assist while Walcott carried his knack for scoring injury time goals forward.
In between, Spurs did get one back as Bale was rewarded for his hard work and gaps in front of the Arsenal defence remained worrisome. Had the Welshman showed better judgment and squared the ball for Defoe in the 74th minute, the game could have become extremely nervy for the Gunners. But no team scores with every chance they create and on the balance of play i.e. considering the chances created by the two sides, the 5-2 score seemed fair.
Szczesny: I don’t think he was culpable for either goal even though his positioning for the first one seemed indecisive. There was more indecision on other occasions as well like the Defoe air-kick in the 77th minute from the corner. There was an odd occasion where his distribution put the team under pressure. On the whole it wasn’t a great game from the Keeper but it wasn’t too bad either.
Sagna: Saw a lot of the ball – the second most touches. Was part of many attacks that were built down the right and created an excellent chance for Giroud. Admirable shift on the flank against Bale but wasn’t on the same page as Mertesacker which led to them going in opposite directions in the build up to the first.
Mertesacker: Bad error in judgment and decision making for the first goal. Good presence in the box and excellent attacking header for his goal. Won all his duels and tackles but that only tells part of the story as Tottenham did find space and opportunities in the Arsenal defensive third.
Koscielny: Can’t really blame him for the first goal but he probably should have done better for the second. Decent game on the whole.
Vermaelen: Not directly at fault for either goal but Spurs did get into some promising positions down his side. Was able to make a greater contribution to the attack than he’s done in the recent past from left-back.
I wouldn’t say this was a good defensive effort from Arsenal considering the nature of chances conceded and more so after getting a man advantage. The spacing between the defenders themselves, that between the defenders and midfield, and the decision making of individuals could all have been better. In fact, it needs to be better or simple balls over the top will keep putting the team under pressure. That said, it’s vital to reiterate that the task of defending is just not limited to the back five.
Arteta: Was under pressure in the opening exchanges and Tottenham made it hard for him to influence the game. He completed 13 of his 18 passes in the first 17 minutes but only 2 of those went into the opposition half. Came into his own and ran the show after the man advantage led to territorial gains as discussed above.
Cazorla: Didn’t see much of the ball when the Gunners couldn’t build from the back early on. Was extremely influential with many decisive contributions, including but not limited to his assist and goal, after the sending off. Was the most creative player for the Gunners and a constant menace for the visitors.
Wilshere: Didn’t quite know how to help his team when Spurs were pressing high up the pitch. Attempted only 6 passes in the first 17 minutes and that shows he just wasn’t getting into useful areas to circulate the ball which would have helped the tempo and created possibilities to beat the pressing in the congested central third. It’s down to his age and experience. Does create some highlights-worthy moments like his turn in the 16th minute which show what he can do, but he needs to develop into a more rounded player rather than one who is known for a few inspiring moments in a 90 minute game. Was the least influential of the midfielders but his limitations weren’t a concern after the sending off.
I’m not convinced about this midfield combination. Individually they’re all excellent players but the balance doesn’t seem right. If Arsenal have to give Wilshere the freedom to express his talents, they need another technically sound and physically strong player in there with Arteta to build play. Cazorla will probably have to move wide in such a case. With Wilshere and Cazorla both in midfield, the burden on Arteta is tremendous and the cover in front of the defence is flimsy at times.
Walcott: Terrorized Naughton after Arsenal were able to push Spurs back. Excellent inviting cross for the first goal, good composure for his goal, and played a vital part in the fourth as well. But he also missed a couple of very good chances and his poor touch or decision making wasted some promising moments as well. Overall a commendable offensive game.
Giroud: Got three chances, scored one – again a respectable conversion rate. Had good presence in the box and kept the defenders on their toes. Another player with a useful contribution to the nerve-settling fourth goal.
Podolski: Got a bit of luck for his goal, but the first-time assist was superb. Played much of the game as the second striker in the box and his presence played its part in the first and third goals. Made some noteworthy defensive contributions as well. Didn’t see too much of the ball – received only 22 passes in his time on the pitch – but showed the impact he can have when he receives the ball high up the pitch.
The front three didn’t see much of the ball in the early exchanges but they were able to make telling contributions once Arsenal gained control of the match. All-in-all the Gunners did well to convert promising situations into chances and chances into goals even if there were a few disappointing misses.
Subs: Ramsey provided extra work rate and played a couple of eye catching passes. Oxlade-Chamberlain looked lively and hungry. Santos provided useful cover late in the game.
Wenger: Has to find the right balance in midfield so that Arsenal can play past the pressure in the central third. Arsenal’s trademark attacking game is returning and hopefully that will now be enough against teams that cede the centre and drop deep or leave spaces at the back. It’s good to see goals from crosses, from goal-kicks, and such avenues but without consistency these will just be singular pleasant memories. Am I right in thinking that in two games, without being anywhere near their best, his side have put 10 goals past teams managed by AVB – a manager who was touted as the right choice to take over from Arsene in order to take the club forward!?