Last weekend’s defeat to Manchester City was disappointing for Tottenham fans for a number of reasons. Losing to a late goal always hurts, as it devastatingly crushes the hope that has been slowly building. But worse, it was the feeling that the team underperformed in a game where they needed to be at their best.
Some have argued that there may have been a slight Europa League hangover but I’m not sure I buy into that. At this stage of the season, fatigue is more of an excuse than a deciding factor and it is not as though City had the week off. Although they had an extra two days to recover, they had a mentally exhausting tie with Ajax that has all but signalled the end of their Champions League campaign. The effect of that can’t have been much different to any fitness issues at this stage.
What was most disappointing was that Spurs did not play to their strengths. It was clear early on that City realised the biggest threat against them came from the two wingers. Aleksander Kolarov was deployed on the left side of midfield to help double up on Aaron Lennon, who has looked dangerous in recent weeks. On the other side, Pablo Zabaleta initially looked extremely anxious when facing an onrushing Gareth Bale, diving in on more than one occasion.
However, Spurs failed to utilise their biggest weapons and the two wide men were very ineffectual as the game progressed. They needed to get the ball out wide as quickly as possible, to isolate the winger and their respective full-backs, but they just didn’t do it. Tom Huddlestone in particular has a very good range of passing but he seemed devoid of confidence and lacked the mobility to get on the ball enough to affect the game.
To have the best chance of victory in Saturday’s North London derby this needs to be rectified. Arsenal are strongest, both offensively and defensively, through the middle and so Bale and Lennon will potentially provide the away side’s biggest threat again. If they are to leave the Emirates with maximum points, they will need to be used far more efficiently than they were last weekend.
Despite this Arsenal side lacking the smoothness of previous incarnations, they are still likely to dominate possession, meaning counter-attacking football is likely to be a necessity at times for the visitors. And whilst Mikel Arteta has become very adept at protecting his back four in transition periods, Arsenal still have a habit of leaving their full-backs exposed to such counter-attacks, which will create opportunities for both wingers.
Should Kieran Gibbs fail to win his fitness battle, then Thomas Vermaelen will continue to deputise at left-back for the Gunners. Although he has added more stability since replacing Andre Santos, the Arsenal captain is still the weak link when stationed there. He struggles positionally and with pace, meaning Aaron Lennon should hug that right touchline and look to expose him as often as possible.
On the other side, and this is not something I’d usually advocate with him, Bale should be encouraged to tuck in when attacking. Bacary Sagna is one of the best full-backs in Europe and, while it will be an interesting battle, Bale may have a tough time getting the upper hand.
However, just inside Sagna in the right-sided centre-back position is Per Mertesacker. The big German has been Arsenal’s best defender this season but is not the quickest by any stretch of the imagination. Although he is an excellent reader of the game, raw and direct pace can still unsettle him and he should therefore be Bale’s target. He should be encouraged to make diagonal runs directly at Mertesacker as often as possible to really test him.
From a defensive perspective, the general consensus is that there are two ways to stifle Arsenal. Either you push up and press them all over the pitch to interrupt their rhythm or sit deep and just allow them to play in front of you. In reality, the ideal tactic is a combination of the two.
Theo Walcott has reinvigorated the Arsenal attack in the last few weeks, injecting the speed and directness that was so evidently lacking in their trip to Old Trafford. Assuming he recovers from the knock he picked up against Fulham, he’ll probably return to the side. Attempting to play a high defensive line will be akin to footballing suicide against him, as Spurs found out when he scored twice against them in the same fixture last season, especially given the run of form he’s currently in.
Andre Villas-Boas mistakenly persisted with a high line against Manchester City last weekend, despite the early warning signs, and doing so again would be asking for trouble. They must sit a little deeper and close off the space behind as Arsenal have the creative ball players to pick the right passes if they do.
Dropping deeper will make it extremely tiring and difficult to press Arsenal all over but Spurs don’t necessarily need to. Arsenal are not Barcelona, they simply need to be pressed in the right areas. The midfield three must not be allowed to find their rhythm as they are all exceptional footballers, with Arteta particularly important at the base of their midfield. Bryan Ruiz and Fulham did an excellent job in disrupting him in the 3-3 draw and he suffered as a result.
So while it is important to ensure they do not have the space they desire, there is no need to apply similar pressure to Arsenal’s centre-backs. Neither Laurent Koscielny nor Mertesacker are particularly effective with the ball so, within reason, allow them to keep it. Cutting off the supply lines into midfield, rather than pressing the centre-backs, will enable Spurs to sit a little deeper. As I said, it’s all about pressing in the right areas against this Arsenal team.
This derby is about as wide open as any have been for a long time, with neither team in particularly good form. Unlike last weekend, Spurs must play to their strengths to be victorious.