Spurs v Arsenal Preview

It’s very tempting before such an occasion, and this really is the occasion, to get carried away with the rhetoric used by the mainstream football media. To say ‘forget tactics’, ‘it all goes out the window in the derby’, and start focussing on ‘LEADERS’, ‘WANTING IT MORE’ and ‘PASHUN’. That’s not really all there is to this though, and if I take a few seconds to slow my racing heart and compose myself I can at least try to apply some rational thought. Here’s some trying:

Addressing The Loss
There’s going to be quite a lot of simplifications here but please bear with me. A lot of football is about the balance between ‘flair’ and ‘grit’; those two attributes aren’t exclusive in individual players or in teams but they tend to lean one way or the other. Typically lesser teams are more reliant on grit and the top teams are afforded the opportunity to have more flair. Tottenham have been for some time now one of those aspiring top teams who have often got carried away with flair and been left without enough grit to support it. 

This, and to a degree last, season Pochettino has managed to find an incredible balance between these, and again apologies for over-simplification, by teaching gritty play to flair players. Poch’s Spurs put in the work equal to that of teams who’s only chance at surviving relegation is to out-work their opponents in every department and he does that on the back of an impeccable fitness regime.

West Ham have been, meanwhile, Big Sam Allardyce’s gritty grit machine of long balls and aerial duels. Bilic has come in now, and on the groundwork of Allardyce’s grit brought in flair players and flair play. Their own balance has served them well this season and they are now looking likely to qualify for European competition.

What happened on Wednesday was Bilic’s team matching us for effort and pressing and trumping us for physicality. They played us at our own game and, just like Newcastle earlier in the season, they killed us with it. Now, don’t let Jamie Fucking Redknapp or Paul Shitting Merson fool you. Bilic didn’t simply ‘motivate’ them – although, yes, that’s part of it. He didn’t just tell them to go out there and ‘want it more’ he used shape, space and phase planning to enable them to.

Despite only having two fit centre-backs and no right-backs Bilic lined West Ham up with something of a back 5 – that’s one hell of a curveball.

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This meant West Ham could outman our incredibly narrow attack, surrender our deep midfield, and press our defence all the way across. Particularly important was using wingers Payet and Lanzini to press and pin back our fullbacks who are crucial to our transitioning out of defence. Mason and Dier were, for the most part, afforded the time and space on the ball but were left with few options forward and no easy ones. Just as a side note here Eriksen showed the touch and vision that, were the team around him controlling the game, he’d have been amazing. 

I’m trying to not get too carried away with analysing our West Ham loss, this is meant to be a preview for The Biggest Game Ever(TM), after all. What I’m trying to get at is how it affects us, tactically, going forward…

Poch brought on Alli and he did a lot to help our improved second half performance. He was happy to receive hard passes into tight areas, battle for them and move them upfield. We have another player who does that even better, a player who is, within himself, a fantastic balance of flair and grit and that’s Mousa Dembele. Like I said before, this is quite similar to how Newcastle beat us and he was missing from that game too. While there is a pattern to these defeats, arguably an innate weakness to our system and squad and, yes, perhaps West Ham took advantage of the pressure of our situation, the occasion that it is for them and us saving ourselves for Saturday; I think that Dembele back in the team will go quite a long way to protecting us from this set up.

Okay I’ll Start The Preview Now
Dembele may or may not be fit enough to start or even play against Arsenal this weekend but the chances of Wenger lining Arsenal up with 3 CBs (with Koscielny out) and forsaking midfield for the purpose of breaking down our movement into the final third are laughably slim. Instead here’s something a little more likely:

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 19.15.29

Wenger faces a very familiar predicament. Stick with his underperforming, established players (Giroud, Walcott) or go for the on-form fringe ones (Welbeck, Campbell)? Campbell was probably Arsenal’s MOTM in their disappointing (ha!) loss to Swansea so I expect him to start with Walcott coming off the bench and I suspect Welbeck will be preferred for his pressing and pace on the break.

By and large Arsenal’s playstyle is obvious, it’s the same way they’ve played every week for the last 5 or so years. They want to keep the ball, they want to pass it around the attacking third before overloading a channel or playing a one-two through-ball combinations with a run from deep. Having said that, Wenger’s thrown us a few twists in this fixture over the years. Fairly recently we’ve seen Arsenal play a defensive counter-attack game in the March 2014 derby against a weak Tim Sherwood Spurs and Tottenham did the same in September of the same year (but the next season) to catch Arsenal off guard.

I struggle to see either team playing this way on Saturday. Both teams will want as much of the ball as possible but both teams will be weary of opening themselves up to each other. For two of the most attacking sides in the world there’s at least some potential here for a disappointing, cagey affair.

Obviously it has to be the strongest possible team for Spurs, it’s not only the derby but also a real 6 pointer in the [redacted]. But what exactly Spurs’ best XI is right now is a little hard to say; more so with uncertainty over Dembele’s fitness:

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 19.47.14

If Dembele’s not cleared to start then expect Mason as a direct swap. Any injury to pretty much anyone else would likely see Son come in and some moving around to enable it. Kane looked tired on Wednesday and will likely be even more so on Saturday but surely, surely he has to start?

Spurs will likely want to take back their now usual role as the physical team and battle with Arenal for every ball, especially against Ozil, Campbell and Ramsey. Injuries to Cech and Koscielny leave Arsenal defensively weakened and now their most important defensive player is Coquelin. I think Spurs faced a slightly similar situation on January 2015’s fixture against Chelsea. If Eriksen can move Coquelin out of position, like he did Matic on the aforementioned date then Arsenal will be somewhat exposed at the back.

In total opposition to that Dembele following Ozil as he tries to find space in the wide areas in a man-marking role holds potential to suffocate Arsenal.

Coquelin won’t follow Eriksen out of that protective zone with Alli and Lamela only yards away though so this could be one for Tottenham reverting to a more classic 4231 with the wide players starting nearer the touchline and only moving central or attacking the channels at the crucial moment.

Mertesacker’s lack of pace if often overstated but with Kosceilny out of the team it will be more exposed than usual and pressing that backline has now has the potential to cause Arsenal problems or force them to play long, which they will hate especially with Giroud out of the team.

I’ve said a lot about Pochettino’s in game management this season. It was worthy of criticism early in the season, picked up recently but was not enough on Wednesday night. As I’ve also said Wenger may pull out a surprise so there’s potential here for Pochettino to recognise and react to any such ploy.

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