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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