It’s no secret that the upcoming (and first) North London derby of the season will be Arsenal’s first big test of the season, and for many, a clear indicator of just how good – or bad – things are at the club, at least in regard to matters on the pitch.
However, despite the core of Arsenal’s squad remaining more or less the same, Tottenham have undergone a significant restructuring. Gone are the likes of Caulker, Dempsey, Huddlestone, Parker and likely Bale, replaced by Paulinho, Soldado, Chadli, Capoue, Lamela and Chiriches. With such wholesale changes being made, it’s fair to state that Tottenham’s playing style has accordingly, changed.
This preview intends to explain just that, while pointing how Arsenal might be able to take three points from this weekend’s encounter.
The defensive three
Without Bale (and thus, a star player), it falls to the entire team to make up for it, rather than one sole individual. Tottenham this season have set up with a 4-2-3-1, no different from last season – except that this time, without Bale playing in the hole, Dembele has been moved up into that zone, with Paulinho taking the vacant spot in the double pivot.
This, along with Capoue playing beside him, has resulted in a rather defensive central midfield trio – Capoue as the passer and destroyer, Paulinho the runner and ‘link’ between midfield and attack, and with Dembele playing the role of playmaker – but it is here where it breaks down.
Even before joining Tottenham last season, Dembele wasn’t known for his end product – he was a good dribbler and direct runner, while also showing his impressive passing accuracy after joining Tottenham, but when it comes to assisting or scoring goals, he falls short. Paulinho and Capoue are similar in this regard – great with defensive work and patient passing, but weak with creating chances or end product. Against Swansea, the three created only four chances between them, according to FourFourTwo’s Stats Zone:
In contrast, Santi Cazorla alone created 5 chances against Fulham (without including the assist):
Clearly, the lack of a proper playmaker at Tottenham presents a problem – although it leaves them extremely secure through the middle, albeit not without causing problems higher up, which will be elaborated on in the next point.
Currently Tottenham’s top scorer, the Spanish striker poses a clear threat, albeit one that may be lessened due to the nature of their midfield. Although he’s a striker that suits Andre Villas-Boas’s dream 4-3-3 formation, he requires inventiveness and guile in order to score – without a player like that pulling the strings behind him, it reduces his potency. Neither he is a hold-up player; he lost all five of his attempted aerial duels against Swansea, and isolated upfront, managed only one shot (which was from a penalty).
Clearly, Soldado is at his best not just as the spear tip of the attack, but also when heavily supported by creative passers – if Tottenham start without a playmaker, whether central or wide, they’re effectively blunting their attack, although Koscielny presents a potential weak link for Arsenal (should he start), having conceded a penalty against Aston Villa. As long as Soldado remains isolated though, it won’t be a problem.
With the defensive nature of their midfield, it’s likely that Tottenham will look to the flanks in order to score – the penalties won against Crystal Palace and Swansea were created by players playing on the right, the former via handball from a Lennon cross, the latter through a Shelvey foul on Townsend in the box. Of the two, it’s likely that Townsend will play – he’s far more of a danger than Lennon can be, as evidenced in his match-winning performance last week, although Erik Lamela could make a cameo from the bench as well.
Considering that Arsenal have more to lose if Tottenham open the scoring (like they have in the last three derbies), it might be wise for Wenger to play two full-backs to secure the left flank. Gibbs can play as a left winger, having done well against Fenerbahce in that role, and considering Cazorla’s ability to drift to the wings – or wherever there’s space – it shouldn’t present a problem.
On the other flank, Rose’s battle with Walcott could be vital – if he manages to keep Walcott quiet, Arsenal will lose a valuable outlet on the right, the flank a significant amount of their attacks go through (39%), according to Whoscored. Chadli’s battle with Sagna (or Jenkinson, depending on who starts there) is also noteworthy.
Both sides may have a new player come the weekend, namely Flamini for Arsenal – the news which got confirmed earlier today – and Eriksen for Tottenham – both players who may help solve their respective teams’ midfield problems.
If Flamini is eligible, he’s likely to start – although he hasn’t played a game in pre-season, he knows Arsenal’s style of play, and provides a holding option to Ramsey, who is in good form. A double pivot of Wilshere and Ramsey is simply too porous; with Wilshere constantly abandoning his pivot partner by making runs upfront, it provides too much space for Dembele and Paulinho to break into. Alternately, Wilshere could be moved into the hole with Flamini and Ramsey holding.
As for Eriksen, he could solve the aforementioned problem of Spurs’ lack of creativity. He’s a good no. 10 capable of playing incisive passes, although it should be noted that he comes from a dominant team in a lesser league, and may not start as well – although if he does, Soldado will become a much trickier player to deal with.
Arsenal should be wary of their derby opponents. Despite lacking guile, Tottenham are now a powerful team who specialize in transitions from defense to attack. The potential signings may well hold the key to who holds the upper hand in this contest; one provides a defensive base for other attacking players, the other an attacking outlet for a stable defensive base.
Even so, Arsene Wenger should play cautiously. If Tottenham score the first goal it could be all over, while Arsenal will doubtlessly have several opportunities to put it away over 90 minutes; they need only be accurate. This time around, they cannot afford to play a suicidally-high defensive line as in the last derby. Even without Bale, they have the players capable of taking advantage – a deeper defensive line is vital, and will allow space for the likes of Walcott and Ramsey to break into.
Lastly, it goes without saying that any chances of an Arsenal victory, barring the mooted signings, hinge on the form of Cazorla and a rejuvenated Ramsey – the latter has been excellent in 2013, but has yet to stamp his individual mark in an important match like this. Succeed, and we could potentially see the rise of a new Welsh star in North London – one that wears the red, instead of white.
Written by Andrew.