*NB: didn’t have enough time this week to write a more detailed post, so I’ve decided to put up a summary of the game with quotes.
0-20 minutes: Unai Emery stuck with the 3-4-3 he deployed against Bournemouth, including using the same personnel. At first glance, it provided a good match up against Tottenham’s diamond in most areas of the pitch – a spare man at the back versus the two strikers, the wing-backs pushing up against Spurs’ full-backs, and a potential overload up front if the attacking midfielders joined Aubameyang – however there was a danger Arsenal could be overloaded in the middle.
Early on that proved not to be the case as The Gunners used their energy to alleviate this theoretical numerical advantage. Torreira and Xhaka would push up and get tight to the Spurs midfield, whilst in front, one of Iwobi or Mkhitaryan would join Aubameyang in the press high up, and the other would drop off and mark the deepest midfielder depending on which side the ball was on. This forced Spurs to go wide, but as there was no outlet for the full-backs to pass to, they were unable to progress the ball effectively.
Arsenal, by contrast, were strongest down the flanks as, alongside breaking with pace, the wing-backs constantly had space to bomb forward. They had joy early on when Kolasinac would often burst beyond Iwobi and he was involved in three of the most notable chances in this period; whilst Aubameyang also drifted towards that side, and it was the free-kick that he won which eventually led to the penalty.
20-45 minutes: Tottenham dominated the second part of the first-half by finally taking advantage of their numerical superiority in the centre of midfield. That was in part because Arsenal had relented their press a little bit and opted to drop off to manage the match.
However, their defensive balance suffered due to this loss of intensity, and in the end, they neither employed a low block, nor were they compact enough to close the space behind the midfield. Instead, their set-up was halfway between both approaches, more a mid-block focused on anticipating and intercepting the pass through to the forwards. This didn’t work and now Spurs were more readily able to access the space behind Xhaka and Torreira which they squeezed in that first early period.
The game swung with two quick goals, both involving Son. Indeed, he had drifted behind Arsenal’s midfield for the first goal, and also, notably, to the right-hand side of the pitch where Emery admitted last game Arsenal tend to leave space behind “when we are pushing with Hector Bellerin wide.“
45-90 minutes: Spurs continued in the same manner after the break, mainly threatening from set-pieces, before Arsenal finally settled. At half-time Emery replaced both Iwobi and Mkhitaryan, the star men, at least structurally in the 2-1 victory over Bournemouth, but here their influence waned after that fast start because Spurs, dominating the centre now, were better at the stopping that pass inside.
With Ramsey and Lacazette on Arsenal moved to a 3-4-1-2. The swith eventually helped weather Spurs attacks because with the security of Ramsey now ahead, Xhaka and Torreira could get tight to Spurs midfield more comfortably. The defence also were now less overwhelmed by the runners Spurs committed and were able to mop up easily with the long balls Spurs were now playing in front.
The equaliser Arsenal scored was almost out of the blue, a superb first-time strike by Aubameyang – who by the way had a complete performance up front – but it was reward for the energy Arsenal displayed, the “freshness” that Pochettino spoke of afterwards, of legs to get up and join the attack which overwhelmed Spurs backline. Indeed, Arsenal did something similar in the 2-0 win over Everton, playing almost, with the players they had on the pitch, as a 4-2-4.
Aaron Ramsey explained his contribution to the team after in his role behind the two forwards: “I was trying to play in between the lines, trying to pull the team forward, turning in little areas and we have some strikers who are in great form at the moment. It’s easy to pick out their runs and most of the time they put the ball in the back of the net. I’m happy with the way that I performed and the way that the team performed as well.”
Indeed, Ramsey’s run and pick out helped create the second goal, and he then nicked the ball off Juan Foyth in the lead up to the third.
Mauricio Pochettino admitted afterwards that he moved to a back three because Arsenal’s energy completed overwhelmed them at the back in the second-half. Later on, The Gunners went to a diamond and dominated the middle further, and they compounded Spurs misery when Torreira broke beyond the defence to seal the win.
Pochettino on moving to a back three in the second half: “I think it was in a moment where it wasn’t effective with Dier as a midfielder and it was too open down the channels. With two strikers I think our two centre-back started to struggle a little bit to manage that situation. That was after they scored though. We tried to be a little bit safer. We started to feel that the energy wasn’t there and we wanted to be more compact. The main problem for us was to be a little bit more compact and try to be stronger in our defensive face, but in the end we made some mistakes and we conceded. That is football. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”