Every possible significance of this game – points, pride, confidence, etc. – has been discussed by many so I’ll stick to the relevant points about the nature of the football and the players involved.
Spurs are getting results this season where in the past they’ve usually faltered. While the common theory seems to be greater mental strength, I put it more down to the decisive contributions of Bale. Last season, Van Persie made the difference for Arsenal at times when no path to points seemed viable. The Welshman is doing the same for Tottenham this year.
In terms of their overall football Spurs have been good but not exactly special. Often they seem to lack ideas and potency in the final third before Bale finds a way through almost all on his own. That doesn’t mean one should jump to the other extreme and label them a one man team. Just like Arsenal weren’t a single weapon army last season, there is more to Tottenham than Bale, but the vital decisive moments have been coming from the Welshman’s left foot.
I expect Spurs will come out strongly in the opening 10-15 minutes. In that period of high energy, the hosts are likely to press high up the pitch with purpose and cohesion. If Arsenal make mistakes in that period they will pay the price just as they’ve done in some of the recent meetings between the sides when the Gunners have conceded the lead. And in this period, Bale alone won’t be a threat. Transitions from the centre of the pitch or counters from deeper positions can put any of Adebayor, Defoe, Holtby, or Lennon in good positions to score.
After a while, I’ll be very surprised if Arsenal don’t have periods of dominance in midfield. Spurs might ease off a bit after scoring or they might just slow down after a high energy initial burst. In this period the key factor will be the discipline and structure that Tottenham can display to protect their goal. Equally, Arsenal’s ability to combine and produce slick, high-tempo football will be a major aspect of the game. The visiting attackers will have to find ways to link with each other and the midfield. There are times when the Arsenal front three play as three isolated nodes. AVB will want his defence to keep them apart because once they come together some of Arsenal’s football can be electrifying.
Even during such a phase of midfield dominance, counter-attacks and set-pieces will continue to worry the Gunners, particularly if Bale is allowed to drift into spaces in front of the central defenders. As the stats zone piece on Arsenal.com points out, Arteta’s role can be significant but I don’t think he can do it alone. Ramsey will have a big defensive role to play if he starts, and the central defenders will have to take more responsibility. Their tendency to drop back early creates big vertical gaps on the pitch at times. That’s exactly the kind of situation AVB will want to see developing and will play right into Tottenham’s hands.
As a unit, I think Arsenal have a more potent attack with different types of combinations and goalscorers. Spurs are still a work in progress on that front. But in terms of defensive structure, decision making, and individual reliability – and despite the goals conceded tallies of either side – it’s the hosts who have the upper hand. There are just too many unforced errors in Arsenal’s game at the moment. It’s linked, at least partly, with the confidence of the players and they have to find a way out of a negative cycle.
Wenger’s team selection for this game will be interesting. Hopefully, he won’t go with Walcott in the middle. Although the temptation to try it against Tottenham’s predictable initial burst of pressing (read high line) is undeniable, the odds of such a tactic succeeding are fairly low.
Arsene might also consider playing a midfielder on the right to support Jenkinson. In theory, it’s a tactic that makes sense but given the tendencies of the midfielders at his disposal, I don’t see it as a balance-fostering approach.
Walcott on the right with Jenkinson staying back seems the best option. The young full-back will have a tough time and will undoubtedly need support. Bale will fancy taking him on and attacking Mertesacker by cutting in from the left if Arteta and Co. do a good job of denying him space and time in the middle. Jenkinson’s ability to maintain the right spacing with Bale and his choices as regards closing down and dropping off will determine how easy or tough it is for the Welshman to express his talents.
In general, Arsenal’s inability to effectively block/close down shots from outside the box can be a constant source of concern.
On the other flank, Lennon V. Monreal can be an interesting battle. This could be the first major speed test for Arsenal’s latest signing. I don’t think the Spaniard is as quick as the Englishman so his decision making and positioning will be worth observing.
I think the Gunners will have to stay very compact vertically or the defenders will be woefully exposed.
We might see,
Szczesny – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal – Ramsey, Wilshere, Arteta – Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla.
Diaby could add greater presence in midfield but he also has a tendency to completely switch off on occasion. Ramsey’s propensity to dawdle on the ball can be risky when Spurs are pressing intensely.
The Gunners have won only once in their last seven League visits to the Lane and are winless in their last four visits. The last Arsenal win in an away NLD (not counting the League Cup) came way back in 2007. It’s not a stat that can be dismissed easily. On the other hand, Tottenham have won once in their six games against the top six sides this season. Admittedly, four of those were away games, but even at home they could only draw against United and lost to Chelsea.
Interestingly, Tottenham are one of the few teams who have more away points than home ones. The difference is marginal and it’s partly down to the extra away game they’ve played, but when compared to the home and away form of other teams the difference is noteworthy. Spurs have only scored 20 goals in 13 home games. 10 other teams have scored more including the likes of Reading, Fulham, and West Ham. However, that might also be down to the fact that their attack doesn’t get as much space at home as they do in away games. Against the Gunners they should find enough opportunities to create chances.
A couple of Bale moments and/or unforced errors from Wenger’s side could hand this tie to the hosts. On the other hand, if they play to their potential the Gunners can take a point or three. Unfortunately, based on current evidence, the odds are likely to favour the former possibilities and it will be up the Arsenal players to prove people wrong. Can they do it again?Follow @goonerdesi