Tottenham make the short journey to the Emirates this weekend as north London’s major force, having finally finished ahead of Arsenal in the Premier League last season. Has this power shift affected the tactical battle? Here are five areas where the game may be won and lost.
What is Tottenham’s approach without possession?
Upon Mauricio Pochettino’s arrival in English football at Southampton, he quickly became renowned as a manager who preaches the importance of pressing in advanced positions, an approach he continued when moving to Tottenham three years ago. But in recent months Tottenham have pressed considerably less, taking a more patient approach without the ball: they stand off and wait for the opposition to come to them.
This approach, combined with counter-attacking football through the likes of Son Heung-min, Harry Kane and Dele Alli, has proved effective in two famous Wembley victories over Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid, when Spurs effectively played like the away team despite being “at home.” (Of course, it’s not their actual home, but perhaps playing every game on the road this season has encouraged Spurs to play a more reactive brand of football?)
Arsenal are generally vulnerable to the counter-attack in big matches — they’ve been torn apart in that manner at both Liverpool and (to a lesser extent) Manchester City this season. In matches based around pressing, like the goal-less draw at Stamford Bridge, they’ve actually coped well. If Spurs can draw Arsenal up the pitch before pouncing, they could enjoy themselves.
Do Arsenal consider themselves underdogs?
For years under Arsene Wenger, the Gunners’ superiority over Tottenham simply wasn’t in doubt. Then, there was a half-decade period during which Spurs slowly crept up on Arsenal. Now, Tottenham have finally finished above Arsenal and are more likely to launch a genuine title challenge this season too. Put simply, Tottenham are the better side.
While Wenger’s classic style is simply to play every game with a Plan A, in recent years he had adjusted his tactics when playing against a team he genuinely fears. In trips to White Hart Lane he has asked his players to sit deeper than usual, or used a 4-3-3 instead of a 4-2-3-1 to accommodate an extra defensive-minded midfielder. He is capable of becoming more defensive away from home in various situations.
But at home, Arsenal usually play their default style and their record at the Emirates is excellent, having won each of their past 10 Premier League games. Does Wenger simply tell his players to play the Arsenal way? Or does he attempt more of a containing game, sitting deeper to prevent Tottenham from playing the counter-attacking football that’s been so effective this season?
Wenger usually goes defensive only when Arsenal are true underdogs, but doing so this weekend, in a home derby, may send a negative message.
Which wing-backs will Pochettino use?
Earlier in the season, Spurs seemed short of dynamism at wing-back. Danny Rose was out injured and Kyle Walker had departed, so Pochettino was left to play Ben Davies and, until Serge Aurier’s arrival, Kieran Trippier. Tottenham lacked speed and energy down the flanks, which compromised their attacking play. Suddenly, Pochettino has plenty of options.
Rose’s return from injury has been very welcome and there doesn’t appear to be much hangover from his somewhat misguided comments about Spurs’ lack of transfer activity. On the opposite flank, Aurier has largely acquitted himself well aside from the odd moment of indiscipline, while Trippier’s form has been an unexpected bonus. After a fairly average first campaign he’s been in splendid form recently, delivering a stream of fine crosses from the right.
Now Pochettino has choices to make on both flanks. Rose and Aurier are probably the better pairing, but Davies and Trippier are the men currently in possession of a starting place and haven’t done much to be dropped. Rose and Aurier might indicate an energetic, all-action performance from Spurs, whereas Davies and Trippier would provide more of a back five.
Will Arsene Wenger start Alexandre Lacazette?
Alexandre Lacazette has made a fine start to his Premier League career, netting six goals from just nine starts. But it’s the final part of that sentence — “just nine starts” — that is the cause for concern. Lacazette was omitted from the side that travelled to Liverpool, and again last time out when Arsenal visited Manchester City. Does Wenger consider Lacazette part of Arsenal’s best XI?
The France international did start Arsenal’s other big game this season, away at Chelsea, and contributed to a good pressing performance alongside Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi, although he didn’t offer a significant goal threat in that contest, which perhaps contributed to Wenger’s doubts about him.
What Arsenal need this weekend is speed in behind. Both Mohamed Salah and Anthony Martial have breached this Spurs defence with raw pace and Arsenal should be looking to exploit the space behind Tottenham’s back line. But Lacazette hasn’t run in behind too much for Arsenal so far this season, which contrasted sharply with his second goal for France against Germany this week. Arsenal’s go-to man for speed up front is Danny Welbeck, but leaving out Lacazette again will ask more questions about his position in this Arsenal squad.
Does it feel like a derby game?
Traditionally, derby matches are played in a different manner to your regular Premier League clash. They’re fast-paced and physical, with players steaming into challenges, the crowd baying from the first minute as the referee is forced to “manage the game” appropriately. Some derbies, like those in Liverpool and the northeast, are perennially played in this spirit.
Arsenal vs. Tottenham is slightly different. In recent years there have been some typical derby games: the fantastic 2-2 ding-dong battle in March 2016 was a perfect example of a genuinely intense, hostile atmosphere that matched a frenetic game. But there have also been contests that simply felt like another game, with one side standing off and the other dominating.
This match, sadly, has the recipe for something more sedate: an early Saturday kickoff, the first game back from an international break and both managers likely to play with caution. North London derbies aren’t what they used to be, especially now that Tottenham, rather than Arsenal, are the dominant side.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.