On the basis of the past few weeks, Arsenal boast the Premier League’s most fearsome attack and Spurs its most resilient defence. Those factors should create a fascinating derby on Sunday, but both teams must learn from their long-standing rivals if they’re to launch a serious title challenge.
Last season almost saw Spurs finish above Arsenal for the first time since 1994-95 — i.e., pre-Arsene Wenger — while the White Hart lane club are also unbeaten in the last four league North London derbies, which is Wenger’s worst-ever run against Tottenham.
In their 2015-16 meeting at the Emirates, Tottenham’s first-half performance was impressive. Arsenal were prepared for their opponents to press them energetically, but still found it impossible to cope with the relentless, cohesive, organised midfield block deployed by Mauricio Pochettino. Spurs went 1-0 up through Harry Kane and then dominated the remainder of the opening period.
Although they tired badly in the second half — Kieran Gibbs equalised and Arsenal even threatened to win late on — Spurs laid down a marker that day as the most well-organised team in the Premier League without possession. It’s a title to which they can still lay claim: They’ve conceded just five goals from 10 matches this season, which is the best defensive record in the division.
That cohesion is the envy of every other club in the division, including Arsenal. Although the Gunners boast a more solid defensive block than usual, with a fine centre-back combination and an unusually good selection of genuine defensive midfielders, Arsenal’s pressing is more sporadic.
Sometimes they harry the opposition in advanced positions, but at others they appear frustratingly passive. Perhaps this is Wenger’s greater Premier League experience showing, and Tottenham need to prove their pressing game is sustainable over the course of a season before Pochettino receives too much credit.
But in a one-off game, especially a derby, Tottenham appear better equipped to win back possession quickly, and they also use it very efficiently in the first few seconds that they have the ball.
When building from defence, though, Tottenham remain frustratingly lacking in identity, and their midweek 1-0 defeat to Leverkusen demonstrated that perfectly; indeed, both teams were so based on pressing that the match took a peculiar pattern, with Tottenham and Leverkusen appearing too tired, or too frantic, to make calm decisions after winning the ball in advanced positions.
Tottenham can point to the absence of Kane, who is in contention to play vs. Arsenal, as a crucial reason for their recent struggles in the final third; the striker is crucial for his link play, not simply his unerring finishing ability.
But what Spurs badly lack is a genuinely incisive playmaker. Arsenal boast Mesut Ozil, who is capable of opening up defences with a clever through ball or a well-weighted pass. They also have Santi Cazorla, now accustomed to a deeper role but previously a player broadly in Ozil’s mould, roaming between the lines and sliding passes between opponents.
In theory, Christian Eriksen is exactly that type of player and the Danish playmaker was one of the most cultured, intelligent, incisive youngsters around during his days at Ajax. Since moving to Spurs, though, his game has changed considerably and he’s become rather more straightforward: a hard-working cog in a pressing machine rather than a creator offering guile on the ball.
He still racks up a healthy number of assists — 13 last season — but they are primarily accrued when Tottenham have regained possession quickly with the opposition defence disorganised, or from set pieces.
But does Eriksen break down more structured sides out of nothing, either from a No. 10 role in a 4-2-3-1 or slightly deeper in a 4-3-3? Occasionally, perhaps, but probably not as much as Pochettino needs for Spurs to be a truly all-round attacking force. Offering a goal threat after long spells of possession isn’t simply about the attack, though.
Good possession play starts from deep, but with goalkeeper Hugo Lloris comfortable on the ball, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghan happy to push high up the pitch and splitting towards the flanks and both full-backs pushing forward aggressively to allow the wingers inside, it’s difficult to fault Tottenham too much in this respect. But Victor Wanyama isn’t overwhelmingly creative, nor is Eric Dier, who is set to deputise for Alderweireld in defence this weekend.
It would be fascinating to witness how Spurs would play with a true, deep-lying creator, someone capable of playing positive forward passes while also prowling midfield to contribute to the pressing. Coincidentally, in Granit Xhaka, Arsenal have exactly that type of player.
With Cazorla and Mousa Dembele doubtful to play, this North London derby could also miss a truly outstanding “transition” player; a central midfielder capable of easing past the opposition’s counter-pressing, turning swiftly and transforming defence into attack quickly.
Few are better at slaloming past opposition challenges in tight situations, with perhaps only Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan comparable. Cazorla and Dembele’s absence could mean the pressing from both sides might create a chaotic, scrappy match rather than a slick end-to-end battle.