Premier League Match of the Week: Arsenal vs. Tottenham

Premier League Match of the Week: Arsenal vs. Tottenham

This article is part of our Match of the Week series.

Arsenal fended off a late comeback by Spurs in the North London Derby to hold onto a 3-2 win, and stay in the running for the Premier League title. Arsenal took four points from the season series against Spurs, earning a draw in the early season clash and the win in the run-in. Arsenal sit first in the table with a one-point advantage over Manchester City, although the Citizens have a game in hand. Tottenham stay unchanged in fifth, holding onto a Europa League spot. 

Starting XIs

Both teams went unchanged in formation Sunday, Arsenal s with a tried and tested 4-3-3, while Tottenham stuck with their favored 4-2-3-1.

The Gunners deployed a totally unchanged XI as well, as they kept the good form rolling.

​Spurs made a few changes, starting in the attack with Dejan Kulusevski replacing Brennan Johnson on the right flank. Ben Davies came in for Destiny Udogie following his surgery on his quad while Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg came in for Yves Bissouma in midfield.

Match Facts

Arsenal stuck with many of the tactics and strategies that have worked well for Arteta's side this campaign, allowing pressure in their half while pressing the ball at any chance, keeping numbers in the back while focusing on quick breaks.

Defensively, it was the standard look for Arsenal, setting up in a flat 4-4-2 with the two forwards pressing and the other eight players staying near the edge of the box, doing all they can to prevent anything in the box. The other eight outfield players outside the forwards still tend to press, just not pushing as heavily to maintain decent spacing and close any gaps for through balls that may open up between the midfield and defense. Martin Odegaard and Kai Havertz play a major role in this setup, pressing the defense at all times to force a back pass or turnover. However, the most crucial role played is by the center-back pairing of Gabriel and William Saliba, as they completely shut down the middle of the pitch on their best days, being the lifeline of this defense when in need with their immaculate position and recognition of the game. 

When going forward, their main point of attack was through counters and quick long balls up to the front three, primarily looking in the direction of Bukayo Saka or Leandro Trossard on the wings but sometimes going through the middle to Havertz. The two full-backs accounted for five passes into the final third, while the midfielders combined for only nine despite having an extra player to account for and more advanced positioning. Odegaard lined up in more of a No. 10 role while Thomas Partey and Declan Rice were used as pivots right above the defense, staying abck and allowing the full-backs to lead the charge. 

The full-backs would fill in behind the wingers, providing help for a back pass or whipping in a cross while the wingers come in to the box to add numbers in search of a waiting attacker. However, this build-up play wouldn't lead to much due to Tottenham's defending, with the one goal coming from a counterattack. The other two goals were the result of set-pieces, corners specifically, as Hojbjerg's own goal previously mentioned was off of a corner, and Havertz scored on a header in the 38th minute after Ben White's brilliant smothering of Guglielmo Vicario allowed no room for the keeper to attempt a save. 

Tottenham had a different strategy, as the always-attacking Ange Postecoglou wanted to create more pressure while maintaining possession. 

Their defensive formation was similar to their starting formation, with the only change coming as James Maddison pushed up to the front three, creating more of a 4-2-4. The change in formation is to provide more pressure on the defensive players, trying to force the less-skilled players on the ball to make more difficult passes and move quicker than they would want. The only part of the team not to press is the back four, as they would leave the defensive midfielders to do the pressing and force movement. The back four prioritized defending their box and limiting play out wide against the lethal and pacey wingers of Arsenal. 

The strategy starts with overloading the midfield, committing the two full-backs forward, leaving only the two center-backs to defend. They then set up with the full-backs in the midfield alongside Maddison and Rodrigo Bentancur, with that line of four sitting right behind the front three while Hojbjerg sits right behind the midfield four to catch any stray clearance, leaving the formation as a strange 2-1-4-3. With a less disciplined side than most Premier League clubs that use this tactic have, Spurs get forced to lean on the freak athleticism of Micky van de Ven and Cristian Romero to get back and defend on the break, as the two full-backs are usually far too high to drop back effectively. This wound up being a point of emphasis in the match, though, as Arsenal's second goal was strictly due to the high line, leaving an easy one-on-one for Saka to finish. 

They utilized the overload once set formation-wise, trying to work the ball across the field while opening up gaps due to their advantage in numbers. Most of the play would be focused out wide, with Dejan Kulusevski and Timo Werner (Brennan Johnson after the 31st minute) trying to work the ball inside for a shot or pass to Heung-Min Son. Although much of the attack seemed to only consist of crosses, straying away from Son, who received the least amount of touches in the match, with just 32. 

They tried a couple of through-balls on the break to change things up, which worked, shaping out some of their best opportunities in those situations. 

Spurs saw some early success but couldn't find the back of the net, leaving a 3-0 score at half. However, things changed in the second half as Arsenal started to sit back to preserve their lead. 

Arteta decided to stop having his full-backs push forward in the attack, instead sticking with the flat 4-4-2 for the remainder of the match while the only players allowed forward were the wingers and two forwards. 

Postecoglou would take advantage of this more passive footing, putting more pressure on the Arsenal defense, moving Romero into defensive midfield, allowing him to press and get in the box for crosses, as he is one of the top aerial players on the team. 

Ultimately, not much came from these changes or Tottenham's tactics, though, as both goals would come off the Gunner's mistakes. It began when goalie David Raya kicked a ball right into the path of Romero, who controlled the ball before finding the bottom left corner. The other came from a converted spot kick by Son after a reckless challenge by Rice.

Arsenal won the game with their lethal precision when given chances, as Tottenham were the more creative team statistically speaking. Spurs ended with 62% possession, 15 shots, eight corners, four big chances and 2.42 xG, in contrast to Arsenal's 38%, nine, six, three and 1.03, respectively. 

Man of the Match

Saka takes this week's Man of the Match despite more focus on the defense Sunday, as he would relieve the Gunners of much of the pressure in the defense with his swift movement forward on the counter while notching the second goal. The attacker finished the game making the most of his opportunities, only taking two shots and having 0.42 xG despite scoring. His playmaking was great as well, registering one chance created, two successful dribbles, four passes into the final third and five touches in the opposing box. 

Upcoming Fixtures

Arsenal have a very manageable schedule for the rest of the campaign, as they face Bournemouth, Manchester United and Everton, a good chance for three wins to end the season.

Tottenham have five matches to go, with their upcoming fixtures looking more difficult than the Gunners. They begin with Chelsea, Liverpool and Burnley before ending the season with Manchester City and Sheffield United. 

Looking Ahead

The road ahead is clear for Arsenal, purely focused on the Premier League title. However, it's out of their hands, as Manchester City would win the title if they can avoid any late slips in the title race.

Spurs will focus on maintaining their Europa League spot, as two wins in their final five games would likely eliminate Manchester United from contention. They still have an outside chance for a Champions League spot, although they would need Aston Villa to drop points late.

Gameweek 36

Next week, we have Chelsea and West Ham under the microscope, as they face off Sunday. The two clubs currently sit in eighth and ninth place, with West Ham holding a one-point lead. The game doesn't have significant implications, but with a defensive Hammers team facing the energetic and attacking Blues, it should be a great match.

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Will Van Dinter
I graduated from Wisconsin Dells High School and attended University of Wisconsin-Madison for one year. I support all Wisconsin sports teams, with UW-Madison athletics being the highest of my priorities while the Green Bay Packers are not trailing far behind. My whole life revolves around soccer and the highest tiers of competition in the sport. When it comes to my favorite team, there is only one thing I can say: Manchester bleeds blue. I am also a huge fan of combat sports, with wrestling holding a special place in my heart, as I truly think it is the most underrated sport in America.
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