Tottenham have the chance to put daylight between them and their neighbours Arsenal as the two face off in a high-octane, season-defining encounter at the White Hart Lane on Sunday.
Spurs are unbeaten in their last 11 league games, a run stretching all the way back to early December away to Everton. Since then they have amassed 25 points from a possible 33, conceding only seven in the process. Impressive? Which sadly is also a word scarcely used to describe Arsenal in recent times.
The Gunners have, in comparison, gone only five unbeaten since the away defeat to Chelsea in late January. They have, however, won four of these five matches, including squeaky-bum wins over Stoke, Aston Villa and Sunderland. They have also been dumped out of the FA Cup (and at home too) by Championship side Blackburn Rovers, and are seemingly down and out in Europe after a 1-3 home reverse against high-flying Bayern Munich.
In contrast, Spurs secured progression into the last 16 of the Europa League after a 3-2 aggregate win over Ligue 1 bigwigs Olympique Lyon. This all makes for grim reading for Arsenal fans - hardly the stuff to warm the hearts of nations.
It is easily conceivable then that Spurs go into this as firm favourites, and Arsenal have it all to do on Sunday. If it is of any help however to the aggrieved Arsenal fans, it's worth noting that Spurs have gone into the last two North London derbies as favourites, and went on to lose both (heavily) by identical 5-2 score-lines.
It might be worth mentioning that these were both at the Emirate though. You have to go back to September 2007 for the last time Arsenal beat Tottenham away in the league.
So what must Arsenal do to achieve the seemingly unachievable?
Of the 52 goals Arsenal have scored in the league, five have come on the counter-attack. It is an avenue that the Gunners may have to exploit on Sunday.
As the home side, Spurs are expected to be on the front foot, spurred on by their home fans. In between spells of Tottenham pressure however, opportunities may present themselves for Arsenal to break on the counter and we all know what the pace of a certain Theo Walcott can do to you.
And not only him, it will depend on a few other factors too like the ability of Olivier Giroud (or whoever starts in his position) to hold the ball up and bring others into play, and the ability of midfielders like Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla to quickly get up and run beyond the ball to create havoc for Spurs.
The Gunners would be best advised to tread with caution, however. Arsenal are the joint best counter-attacking side in the division, with five goals coming on the break…alongside Tottenham. This suggests then that Arsene Wenger’s men will have to choose their moments wisely, and make them count too. Maybe also not go “gung-ho” all-out attack, and have one or two hold the fort at the back…call it an insurance policy if you will. Proceed with caution boys, proceed with caution.
Arsenal have in the past been accused of being “brittle, devoid of confidence and self-belief”. With all the negativity surrounding the club in recent weeks, they need nerves of steel and brave souls as they go into this one.
In all honesty (and in my humble opinion) Spurs aren’t a better side man-for-man than Arsenal…at least not in all departments. Take the midfield for example; compare the preferred combinations of Arteta-Wilshere-Cazorla to that of Parker-Dembele-Holtby for Spurs.
The latter contribute towards an average possession per league game statistic of 52%, with Mousa Dembele (statistically) their best passer with an average pass success rate of 91.3% (55 passes per match). In comparison, Arsenal’s preferred midfield three can account for an average possession per league game rate of 59%, with Mikel Arteta their best passer with an average pass success rate of 92.6% (87 passes per match). Of course midfield dominance does not always translate to wins (ask Barcelona) but at least we all know Arsenal are more than capable of dominating this match.
In fact, with all the less-than-endearing comments with regards to Arsenal’s defensive frailties, they still have conceded two less and scored five more than the Lily-Whites. It will take strong character and determination, but if they show the grit they did away to Sunderland then it is more than possible to beat Spurs away. All you have to do is to believe.
3. Tighten Space
A recurrent feature of Tottenham’s midfield is the preference to run with the ball as opposed to passing it about in the middle of the park. In the 3-2 win over West Ham on Monday night this was very apparent.
This can be read in two ways; one is that Spurs counter a lot, which is true. Second is that they thrive a lot on the spaces in between the midfield and defence, and thus like to drive at the opposing defenders. Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon also like to cut inside and make runs through the middle which then allows Kyle Walker and Benoit Assou-Ekotto/Jan Vertonghen to create an overlap on the flanks.
With this in mind then, how do you stop them from playing? Arsenal’s midfield will have to maintain their shape and organisation, and not leave little pockets of space for the likes of Lewis Holtby to thrive on. Minimal space between the midfield and defence lines would also be highly recommended.
Should Arsenal play a high line? Well it's one way of restricting the space in which Tottenham can manoeuvre, but is also a high-risk strategy with Spurs’ speedy wingers to watch out for, so I’d say no. Arsenal’s wingers will also have a lot of tracking back to do against their opponents’ marauding fullbacks, but it can be done. Once the Gunners suffocate the space in the middle, they can go on to dominate from there.
4. Eliminate Errors
I cannot emphasize this point enough. It is hard enough to defend against Bale and company, and the last thing they would need is to hand the game to Spurs on a silver platter.
Arsenal have made 13 errors that have led to goals in the league this season…13! That’s a league high. And yet their defence statistically remains the second-strongest in the division, joint-second (with Chelsea) only to Manchester City.
One can only imagine, then, how much better things would have been were it not for their error-prone ways. The cost of a single individual error can be catastrophic, something better left imagined than experienced. An error-free performance then would go a long way to producing the goods at the White Hart Lane.
5. Gareth Bale?
I leave a question mark at the end of that last statement with good reason. How do you stop him? As much as Tottenham fans would hate to admit it, their metamorphosis into a one-man team is well and truly complete now.
With the latest instalment of “The Gareth Bale Show” producing a brace for the Welsh Wizard, he has now scored 15 of 47 goals for Spurs. No need for a calculator boys, that’s 32% of their goals scored in the league. Only Liverpool’s Luis Suarez (37%) and Swansea’s Michu (40%) have scored a higher percentage of their team’s goals this season. With Emmanuel Adebayor misfiring upfront, Bale is clearly stepping up to the plate. So, what to do?
Bale in particular likes to drive at the opposition, and will cut inside from his left wing. He will also be looking to get the ball on his left foot in and around the box at every opportunity, so Arsenal would be best advised to keep him out wide for a start.
Not that he can’t cause damage from there, but it would definitely be far less telling a contribution. Theo Walcott would also have to put in a good defensive shift to help out his fullback Bacary Sagna in taming Bale. He would also have to be closed down every time he so much as glances at Wojciech Szczesny’s goal…the defenders would have to put their bodies on the line to do this.
Arsenal’s midfield may also have to work extra hard to protect their back four. And yet with all this, they still will probably need Szczesny on top of his game and a bit of luck to keep Bale out of the action.
Can the Gunners do it? We’ll find out Sunday!
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