Arsenal put an abrupt end to Tim Sherwood’s honeymoon period as Spurs manager on Saturday evening.
The home side began the game in their usual 4-2-3-1 shape, with four changes from the midweek victory over Cardiff. Lukasz Fabianski started in goal in place of Szczesny, with Tomas Rosicky in the number 10 position, behind Theo Walcott. Promising youngster Serge Gnabry was on the right flank. Club captain Thomas Vermaelen partnered Laurent Koscielny in defence. Per Mertesacker, Mathieu Flamini and Lucas Podolski dropped to the bench.
Spurs set out in the now de rigeur 4-4-2, making one change from the victory over Man Utd. Defensive midfielder Etienne Capoué dropped out with 19 year old Nabil Bentaleb taking his place.
This proved to be a mistake. Arsenal had a 3 vs 2 on paper in the centre of the field, and with wide players Cazorla and Gnabry both coming into the pockets behind Dembele and Bentaleb respectively, Spurs were often overwhelmed in that area (even with left sided midfielder Eriksen coming narrow to assist). Compounding this problem was the fact that Spurs were nowhere near compact enough from back to front. They have fielded a much deeper defensive line since the departure of AVB, but this has often meant a large gap between defence and midfield when the latter press. So it proved in this encounter. Arsenal opened the scoring in the 12th minute, when Serge Gnabry drifted infield into the acres of space behind Bentaleb, He moved left, drawing right back Kyle Walker out of position to confront him. This left Cazorla free on the left of the area, who powered home Gnabry’s through ball.
Bentaleb really struggled in the first half, as the deeper of Spurs two midfielders. He made three fouls in the first period, all necessary to compensate for allowing Rosicky/Wilshere into the pocket behind him. Wilshere again showed his ability to carry the ball in possession, making three successful dribbles forward and drawing 4 fouls, all in dangerous areas outside the box. As a box-to-box type, he doesn’t possess the goalscoring or the tackling prowess of Ramsey but this is one area where he compares favourably. He is what Jonathan Wilson et al are calling a carrier/surger and he completely outshone the archetypal example that the opposition possess in Moussa Dembele.
It was the cliched game of two halves in terms of pressing. Arsenal began the game with a very high block, pressing the centre backs and preventing Spurs from playing out from the back. Gnabry and Rosicky were vital in this regard, making two tackles apiece in the first period. In the second half, however, Arsenal were happy to sit deep and only press in their own half, confident that Spurs would be unable to penetrate. Arsenal went from 55% possession in the first half, to 37% in the second. Rosicky was still keen for running however – he dispossessed Danny Rose on the halfway line on the hour mark, before running on and finishing impressively by lifting the ball over the onrushing Lloris.
Spurs were playing a lot higher up the pitch, and could have been caught out on more than one occasion were it not for the poor timing of Theo Walcott. He was caught offside 5 times in the game, and when you consider that on 2 of those occasions Michael Dawson was the last man, you have to conclude that he was moving far, far too early. Very few strikers at this level would fail to outpace Dawson in a footrace.
Spurs never really looked like capitalising on their second half territorial dominance. Immediately after the second goal, they withdrew striker Soldado and introduced Nacer Chadli on the left, moving Christian Eriksen into the centre behind Adebayor in a 4-2-3-1. When asked after the game if this was an admission that he had made an error in his initial selection, Sherwood cited an injury to Soldado as the reason for the change, saying “we didn’t lose the game because we were outnumbered in the middle of the pitch”. I would strongly disagree.
Credit to Wenger. He responded to Spurs’ change by introducing Flamini, sticking him on Eriksen, in a 4-1-4-1 shape. Even when striker Theo Walcott was taken off injured in the 83rd minute (reducing Arsenal to ten men), they never looked like conceding. Laurent Koscielny was immense on the day, making 7 interceptions and 11 clearances, dealing manfully both with attempted through balls and crosses into the box. Gnabry, however, was unquestionably the game’s standout player. He created 6 chances, including 1 assist and exemplified Arsenal’s energetic approach to the game by completing 5 tackles. Expect to see him get a consistent run of games in the league before the season’s out.