Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Mauricio Pochettino re-popularised pressing upon his arrival on English shores in 2013. Here, he was hoist by his own petard, as Tottenham Hotspur suffered their first North London Derby defeat of the Argentinian’s three-year reign.
Pochettino’s high-pressing fervour has certainly moderated since his disruptive Southampton side took the Premier League’s top-six by storm. Recent victories over such luminaries as Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund were secured in a compact, counter-attacking 3-5-1-1 system.
Pochettino opted for the same approach at the Emirates, cognisant of Arsene Wenger’s famed unwillingness to vary his own gung-ho outlook. Fast-breaks, with the likes of Harry Kane and Dele Alli running the channels, were again seen as the likeliest path to glory.
Except neither man looked fit enough to provide the necessary penetrative runs. Countless rushed percentage-passes flew over their heads for the likes of Skhrodran Mustafi to sweep up.
Arsenal’s back-three had it easy in possession too; a relief for Wenger, given how the high-blocks of Manchester City, Liverpool, and even Leicester, had discommoded his defence in recent weeks. No Premier League side plays less long-balls, and is therefore more committed to building from the back, than Arsenal, after all.
They were let off the hook on this occasion, though; unlike their opposite numbers. Arsenal’s front-three pressed high onto Tottenham’s three central-defenders from the off. The rest of Wenger’s defensive unit followed them too, boxing in Pochettino’s side in a manner the Marcelo Bielsa apostle might have admired. If only he himself had stuck to his mentor’s guns.
Playing out from the back proved almost impossible for the visitors, who finished the first-half with a season-low 69% pass-completion tally. They were simply overwhelmed here, and Arsenal were full value for their two-goal half-time lead; despite benefiting from errors committed by referee Mike Dean and his team.
Arsenal’s second, drilled home by Alexis Sanchez from close-range, underlined another folly of Pochettino’s plan. Employing a relatively high defensive-line, to deny Arsenal space between the lines, makes sense. But doing so when injuries have forced such a fragile central-midfield selection seems foolish. So it proved.
Alexandre Lacazette’s byline pull-back for Sanchez was one of at least four that Arsenal attempted in the first-half. Frequent through-passes from the wide-open spaces either side of half-fit holder Moussa Dembélé teed them up.
Meanwhile, at the other end, some uncharacteristic positional restraint from the likes Aaron Ramsey prevented Christian Eriksen from repeating his midweek antics. Ireland’s tormentor-in-chief received the ball in space between the lines on occasion, but was dispossessed frequently as Arsenal quickly recovered their shape.
Kane’s immobility wasted a handful of excellent back-post crosses from wing-backs Ben Davies and Kieran Trippier, but Tottenham’s one genuine first-half chance did fall to the England striker.
Although Petr Cech ultimately held Kane’s tame effort, its origin — an aerial mix-up between Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny — contained a lesson that Pochettino failed to heed. Fernando Llorente’s eventual, 75th-minute, arrival was enacted too late to save Tottenham’s embarrassing efforts to bypass Arsenal’s press.
To that end, Tottenham instigated only four aerial duels in the entire first-half; an incredibly low figure. Poorly-executed channel-balls continued to pervade, even after Arsenal dropped off at the beginning of the second-half. Definition of madness, and all that.
Kane was the man belatedly hooked in favour of Llorente. Neither he, nor Alli who was simultaneously replaced by Heung-min Son, deserved to last that long.
Wenger, meanwhile — hardly famed for his in-game management — fared a lot better with his surprisingly well-judged substitutions. Francis Coquelin’s introduction shored up central-midfield, allowing Sanchez to break at will from a centre-forward position.
The Chilean missed two late clear-cut chances to further punish Tottenham on the counter-attack. Both he and Lacazette shamed Tottenham’s misfiring front-line with their movement, offering a consistent, dual, on-the-shoulder threat. Sanchez, for example, was caught offside five times, underlining the forward’s determination to run in behind.
Aside from the route-one half-chance Llorente’s head teed up for Son, Tottenham never looked like piercing Arsenal’s second-half low-block. Wenger’s charges looked just as comfortable sitting off as they had pressing high before half-time.
Whisper it quietly, but this was a rare comprehensive tactical victory for the old campaigner; gift-wrapped by a promising young up-and-comer who stands at serious risk of earning the same ‘big-game bottler’ tag.
Memories of that high-pressing Southampton side vanquishing the league’s heavy-hitters are fading fast. Pochettino’s away record against the top-six, since assuming the White Hart Lane helm — one win, six draws, ten defeats — makes for grim reading.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112