Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
With a daring refusal to waver from the most characteristic of Mauricio Pochettino game-plans, Tottenham Hotspur exorcised the ghosts of November’s meek Emirates Stadium reverse.
Back then, when Antonio Conte’s counter-attacking 3-5-1-1 system was in vogue, Pochettino was an all-too-willing imitator. But initial success against gung-ho foes like Liverpool and Dortmund preceded a quintet of turgid performances, from which Tottenham managed only one victory — an extremely fortunate 1-0 win over Crystal Palace.
November’s North London derby defeat, throughout which Pochettino was forced to taste his own high-pressing medicine, fell smack dab in the middle of that run. A run that also saw the rigid system Conte himself has now abandoned draw a blank against Manchester United, draw at home to West Bromwich Albion, and lose away to Leicester City.
Defeat at the King Power Stadium finally convinced Pochettino to return to a better-balanced 4-2-3-1. A 5-1 early-December rout of Stoke City ensued, in which the natural left-sided width provided by Son Heung-min was key. Tottenham have only lost one league game since then, the 4-1 thrashing meted out by Manchester City.
Pochettino’s high-press proved disappointingly disjointed against the league leaders, but it was anything but here. The same eleven players that smothered Manchester United a fortnight ago also snuffed out Arsenal’s continual efforts to build from the back. The lessons of November had clearly been learned.
In possession, Tottenham again looked to Son, the left-wing outlet who has transformed their attacking play since December. Overloads were the name of the game, with both Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen minded to drift leftward and combine with the Korean. With Ben Davies also on the perennial overlap, far-post crosses to Harry Kane, positioned up against left-back Nacho Monreal, were the ultimate goal.
But, fortunately for Arsenal, Hector Bellerin proved more than a match for Son in one-on-one combat. The Spaniard blocked six crosses in the first-half alone, with Shkodhran Mustafi’s close proximity also proving useful on the cover. Mustafi intercepted several cross-field switches of play from the right boot of Eric Dier.
Indeed, Arsenal’s defensive shape was pretty good overall in the first-half, thanks in the main to Arsene Wenger’s decision to tweak his tactical approach. The all-out-attack 4-2-3-1 that vanquished Everton was wisely dispensed with. Alex Iwobi missed out to accommodate Mohamed Elneny’s return to the holding role of a 4-3-3.
A narrow four-man back-line, protected by a disciplined bank of five midfielders, dutifully swatted away Tottenham’s left-sided battering-ram. Only an Eriksen inswinger, from the inside-left pocket, provided evidence that Pochettino’s strategy might bear fruit. Harry Kane, free behind a sleeping Laurent Koscielny, should have headed the opener.
There was no sign of any Wenger plan with the ball, however, reducing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to a detached spectator. And, the half-hearted high-press that preceded the Gunners’ solid defensive shape suggested that too had little to do with Wenger’s guiding hand. Tottenham played through it with quite breathtaking ease.
No surprise then that Arsenal’s shape, and resolve, would break so quickly after half-time. Mesut Ozil’s re-signing suggested a dearth of suitors for the German craftsman. And, given the near-nil defensive instincts that allowed Ben Davies to tee up Kane’s opener, who could blame them?
Wilshere, too, was culpable later, allowing Dier to tee up the first of four clear-cut chances Tottenham would waste to put the game to bed. The English media’s determination to propagate the Wilshere myth is inexplicable. Until you realise that positional awareness has never been an attribute those same scribes have championed in their central midfielders. Looking at you, Steven Gerrard.
Awareness is an attribute Tottenham’s defenders possess in spades, however. The same imperious offside-trap that caught Manchester United out a whopping nine times was in effect again here. Aubameyang was the first victim before half-time, halted by the flag after running on to a Wilshere through-ball. Incredibly, the second-half brought a further five, as Pochettino’s troops stubbornly refused to switch into retreat mode.
Risky business up against Arsenal’s newly-minted pacy front-line. But Wenger’s ridiculous changes significantly mitigated that danger. Deckchairs were shuffled in the 65th minute upon Alexandre Lacazette’s arrival. But, with Aubameyang failing to mind Trippier from his new left-sided position, and Alex Iwobi stinking up the joint in midfield, the Titanic continued to sink.
Iwobi was quickly swapped with Ozil, but Wenger’s original 4-1-4-1 shape was maintained. Tottenham’s central-defensive pair continued to hold their line high, comfortable in the knowledge that only one striker was looking to run in behind.
No surprise then that Arsenal only began to threaten upon Danny Welbeck’s belated introduction, and a concurrent move to 4-4-2. Prior to that tactical tweak, five Arsenal attempts at through-balls failed to produce a single chance at goal. Although their preponderance did at least force Pochettino to switch to 4-1-4-1, and close them down at source with a Victor Wanyama-shaped reinforcement.
Arsenal’s sixth and final through-ball attempt came from deep, however, delivered along the ground by a tucked-in Iwobi. Welbeck’s presence confused Tottenham’s central defenders into letting an onside Lacazette get there first. But the Frenchman, surely not long for this club, fluffed his lines again.
As did his manager, who failed utterly to follow up November’s tactical victory over Pochettino with more of the same. A familiar story for Wenger, who has now gone 16 away games against the top-six without securing a single win. His impressive abundance of flaky craftsmen predictably failed him again in their own half. Only poor finishing spared him the hiding he deserved.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112