Michael Cox: How Arsenal failed to get a grip in midfield against Spurs

The Gunners came away with a draw from the North London derby, but their close rivals got the better of them at the Emirates Stadium...

Arsenal battled back to win a point, but the real story from Sunday’s North London derby was Tottenham’s superb organisation causing their neighbours so many midfield problems.

Interestingly, it wasn’t really because of Spurs’ two central midfielders. Dele Alli certainly played very well, and Eric Dier turned in another impressive performance in a more defensive position, but the crucial factor was the role of the three players located just ahead. Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela and Mousa Dembele dropped back and tucked in to keep Spurs compact in the centre of the pitch, and continually surrounded the Arsenal player in possession to block off passing options and regain the ball quickly.

Arsenal, however, didn’t have such performances from their equivalent players. Alexis Sanchez and Joel Campbell concentrated on tracking the Spurs full-backs, rather than dropping in to help the midfield battle, while Mesut Ozil was allowed to drift around into space to start attacking moves. Therefore, Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla – the latter substituted at half-time, apparently through illness – were often battling against three or four opponents.

Defend to attack

Comparing the defensive performances of the attacking midfielders is very revealing.

Sanchez didn’t offer his usual energy when Arsenal were attempting to regain possession, and made barely any defensive contributions in his own half

The starkest contrast was between Campbell and Lamela. Campbell is unaccustomed to playing a wide role against such dangerous opponents, and has struggled defensively against both Bayern Munich and Spurs this week. His total defensive effort was an interception and an unsuccessful tackle in his own half.

In stark contrast, Lamela was everywhere. He made 10 tackles (those crosses below), of which eight were successful – starting on the right, switching to the left, often making challenges in central positions because of Spurs’ compactness, and at one point nearly robbing Petr Cech on the edge of the Arsenal box.

He was eventually substituted because there was a danger of him collecting a second booking, and while that’s clearly not ideal, at least it summarised the Argentine’s tremendous work-rate.

There was a less extreme, but nevertheless interesting pattern in the other wide midfield role. Sanchez didn’t offer his usual energy when Arsenal were attempting to regain possession, and made barely any defensive contributions in his own half. On the other hand, Eriksen – not blessed with Sanchez’s stamina – was happy to drop back and help screen the defence,  making tackles and interceptions in wide areas.

Ozil earns

Finally, there were the men at the top of the midfield trio – Ozil and Dembele. Here, Ozil was largely free from any defensive responsibilities, although he still contributed with some tackles in midfield. Nevertheless, that didn’t really compare to Dembele’s defensive effort – the Belgian played much deeper, in the midfield zone rather than between the lines, and made an incredible number of tackles, before storming forward in possession to turn defence into attack quickly.

However, Ozil justified his tactical freedom by drifting into wide positions and creating seven chances for team-mates, including the crucial assist for Kieran Gibbs’s equaliser. This, of course, is the key – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with attacking players concentrating on attacking, but they need to be efficient in the final third or else their lack of defensive contribution becomes a problem. Ozil could afford to switch off without the ball, but Arsenal needed more from Sanchez and Campbell.

There’s a wider point here, too. On paper the 4-2-3-1 formation features four outright attackers, but it’s extremely difficult to think of any successful 4-2-3-1 formations featuring a proper No.10 like Ozil, and two forwards like Sanchez and Campbell on the flanks.

Usually you need a responsible wide player who performs a functional defensive job (Dirk Kuyt at Liverpool), a wide player who drifts inside and contributes to the midfield numbers (David Silva at Man City) or a No.10 who will drop deep and support the other two central midfielders (Toni Kroos at Bayern Munich).

Ozil made up for his lack of defensive work with yet another assist

Arsenal haven’t been outfought when using Aaron Ramsey in a narrow right-sided central midfield role, and while that system certainly isn’t perfect – mainly as Ramsey dislikes playing there – it provides the balance in wide positions that was lacking here. Ramsey, or even Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, would have tucked inside and helped out. In a game where there’s a genuine midfield battle, a 4-2-3-1 shouldn’t become a 4-2-4. If that happens, the side will struggle to get a grip on the midfield – and that’s exactly what happened.

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This piece should be titled: "How Spurs weren't able to beat an exhausted, injury-decimated Arsenal." And the body of the piece should ask why, if one looks at the statistics for the match, the Spurs dominance all the pundits have talked about is nowhere to be found. Arsenal had 55% possession, they had 168 passes in the opposition attacking third to Spurs' 116, they had the same amount of shots on target, and more corners.

And, beyond the statistics, the story of this match for Tottenham is not how they had a good run of play for 70 minutes but how all they got from it was one goal due to an individual defensive error. The even bigger story is that after an exhausted, injury-depleted Arsenal grabbed the equalizer, Spurs didn't go at them to try to win the match but folded and decided to settle for a draw. That lack of killer instinct when Arsenal were there for the taking in the last 10-15 minutes is more telling about Spurs' character as a team than the previous 70 minutes.

Given the injury-crisis and the midweek traveling to play the best team in the world, this was probably Spurs' best chance in years to grab three points at the Emirates, and yet not only did they fail to do that, they were content with the single point. Meanwhile, in the final 15 minutes, despite the injuries and exhaustion, it was Arsenal who looked the likeliest to win the match. All of this shows just how far Tottenham still are from Arsenal and how skewed the perception of Spurs' performance has been among football pundits.

Anyone who watched the match and has a molecule of honesty about them could see that Arsenal were totally dominated by Tottenham. Unfortunately there are not many honest people around .... As per the last comment.

Spurs played 3 matches in 7 days, something Arsenal supporters seem to forget. And Spurs played on Thursday night (and Monday night) - so they were far less rested than Arsenal. Arsenal were only down to key players - yes, they had injuries, but only Ramsey and Bellerin would've made the starting XI. Finally, it's easy to go on about Arsenal "traveling" to play on Wednesday night - but it was only to Germany. That's one time zone and a two-hour flight. Not a big deal.