Olivier Giroud was the difference maker in Arsenal’s slender North London derby victory.
Arsene Wenger made three changes to the side that cruised past Fenerbahce in their midweek Champions League qualifier. Giroud, Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott formed an attacking three, while Tomas Rosicky replaced the injured Lukas Podolski, and formed a midfield trio with Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere. Kieran Gibbs started at left back, and Laurent Koscielny returned from suspension to form a centreback partnership with Per Mertesacker.
Andre Villas-Boas made several changes to the side that dispatched of Dinamo Tbilisi in midweek Europa League action. Roberto Soldado, Andros Townsend and Nacer Chadli led the attack in Villas-Boas 4-3-3, while Moussa Dembele, Paulinho and Etienne Capoue formed a midfield three. Erik Lamela started the match on the bench, while new signing Christian Eriksen was unavailable.
Arsene Wenger learned from previous mistakes in the last North London derby, which proved to be decisive, in a match that contained a few tactical features.
An interesting feat in this match was always going to involve how both sides were aligned without the ball. In last season’s derby at White Hart Lane, both sides played extremely high-lines. Arsenal suffered due to the pace of Bale and Lennon, along with the space available between the lines for Gylfi Sigurdsson and Scott Parker to exploit. Spurs were able to get behind the Arsenal centre back pairing of Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaelen, which proved to be the difference.
Wenger learned from last season’s outing that nearly jeopardized Arsenal’s Champions League spot, and ordered his side to sit a bit deeper. Wenger’s men dropped into a 4-5-1 that sat off and minimized the space between the lines. In particular, Ramsey was one of their better players on the defensive end, as he thrived in Arsenal’s midfield five.
It’s key to point out that the constant pressure that Giroud and Rosicky applied on Jan Vertonghen and Michael Dawson. Both men were able to push forward and play positive forward passes last year, and Wenger instructed his the duo to close them down, when possible – limiting their influence on Spurs’ attack going forward.
However, Spurs played a high-line, but were unable to replicate last season’s success. Arsenal looked most threatening on the break, where they could expose Spurs’ high-line. Their main outlet was Walcott – his pace troubled Danny Rose at times, and it was from this element of attack that handed Arsenal the lead. Ramsey broke forward and played a pass wide to the unmarked Walcott, and the Arsenal winger’s ball met Giroud’s run at the near post and the Frenchman tucked the ball under Hugo Lloris.
Arsenal was conservative without the ball, whereas they took a page out of Villas-Boas’ strategy last season, to harm their North London rivals.
The midfield battle proved to be the decisive factor in the result. Spurs fancied their chances due to their physical superiority, but Wenger replicated his decision in the second half of last season’s tilt at White Hart Lane – where Arsenal significantly improved – Cazorla was the main man, drifting centrally to overload the midfield.
Cazorla helped Arsenal push forward in attack – he provided a spare passing outlet in midfield, and also disrupted Spurs’ approach in midfield. Now Tottenham had to worry about the tricky Spaniard drifting infield, and Villas-Boas’ midfield three were constantly dragged out of position. Cazorla was allowed freedom to play key passes in the final third, and was often the distributor in majority of Arsenal’s legitimate goal-scoring opportunities.
Wenger acknowledged the threat Spurs posed in midfield, so the inclusion of Cazorla was logical, based on its success last season and the numerical advantage his side gained.
For all of Arsenal’s success in the middle of the park, Spurs did enjoy some freedom in wide areas. Villas-Boas instructed Chadli to take on the inexperienced Carl Jenkinson, and in the opening moments of the match Jenkinson was being exposed as Rose got forward to create overloads. Unfortunately for Spurs, Chadli didn’t maintain his impact on the left flank, and can be criticized for not assisting Rose cope with Walcott’s threat on the counter.
On the other flank, Townsend looked to be the most influential Spurs player in the opening minutes of the match. With Cazorla tucked in, Walker surged forward, which allowed Townsend space to cut in and take shots from distance, forcing Wojciech Szczesny to make a few saves. It was a recurring theme in the opening 30 minutes, but as the match wore on Cazorla began to track back to provide Gibbs cover.
Roberto Soldado has been somewhat of a saviour for Spurs since his arrival from Valencia. In fact he’s scored the winning goal in both of Tottenham’s Premier League victories, leading up to this derby, which is why is performance was pivotal to Spurs’ success. Unfortunately for Villas-Boas, Soldado was marked excellently by Koscielny and Spurs’ midfield lacked guile going forward to provide the Spaniard the service he required.
While Soldado was often an isolated figure, it leaves one to question Villas-Boas’ decision to leave a player like Lewis Holtby or Sigurdsson on the bench. It’s evident that Eriksen will play an integral role as Spurs no.10, but Spurs have lacked a link in between midfield and attack this season – and Soldado needs ample service to perform at the highest level.
Arsene Wenger learned from his mistakes in last year’s North London Derby at White Hart Lane, and modified them this year, which gave his side the edge over Spurs. Overloading the midfield, pressing the Tottenham centre backs and sitting deeper as a unit, were key factors in their victory at the Emirates.
Spurs will be disappointed with the loss, and it will take time for Villas-Boas’ men to hit full gear. With several new arrivals, the Tottenham manager and supporters will have to wait for this newly assembled side to find form. They’ve added the pieces over the summer to challenge for a Champions League spot, and despite the loss, are still favourites to achieve that feat.
As for the Gunners, they were able to slip past their North London rivals, continuing their great run of form. Despite purchasing a world-class talent in Mesut Ozil on deadline day, they still possess a thin squad. Injuries, loss of form and suspensions will all play a factor over the course of the season, and if they intend on challenging on four fronts, the squad available isn’t enough. However, they displayed that they still have a lineup capable of showing up for a big occasion – a North London derby – and they did get the better of Villas-Boas’ men.