Arsenal Tactics: Tactical Analysis of the Arsenal-Spurs Game

H Andel@Gol Iath @gol_iathAnalyst IIIFebruary 28, 2012

Arsenal were as classy as their mercurial front man.
Arsenal were as classy as their mercurial front man.Clive Mason/Getty Images

In the following I state a few reasons behind Arsenal's transformation from a well-beaten side that we saw in the Milan and Sunderland FA games to the scintillating side that left a very strong Spurs side in the dust.


Apologies to my readers for the recent drought in analysis. Two reasons are responsible for that.

First, Arsenal's run of bad form has meant I had to dedicate my energies defending the manager and players, whom a section of fans have dismissed as clueless and dung, respectively.

Second, analysis normally take me longer to write than many of my other articles, with a number of exceptions of course.

Plus, I like to be as detailed and as coherent as possible in my analysis, so that when I find that I'm not able to do that, I chose not to churn out nonsense.

The following analysis is brief. I wanted to write more, but I don't have the time. I therefore strike only the most salient points.

Question: What Made Arsenal Different in This Match?

Take a look at the following diagram. What do you see?

Compressed area of skirmish in the Arsenal-Spurs match.


First, consider the big yellow box. It represents the approximate area of skirmish in the Arsenal-Spurs match.

Notable is Arsenal's high line (Arsenal are presented by red circles).

The high line was a tactical strategy that collapsed the space in the middle where Spurs' midfielders could control play through Luka Modrić and Niko Kranjčar, and where Gareth Bale, who no longer plays the classic left winger role for Spurs, could drift in to pick possession or cause havoc.

Why Was it Necessary for Arsenal to Do This?

Playing a high line and collapsing the playing space in the middle meant that Spurs couldn't play out from the back, which is how they've dominated their opponents this season. It is why they retain Ledley King whenever he is fit, because of his steadiness and ability to anticipate play.

They pick up possession from the back, then expand the back four to create space—also forcing the opponent to cover a wider area in their attempt to regain possession—and then knock the ball around through pinpoint wide passing.

Scott Parker pivots from attack to defense, collapsing as the extra man in defense to form, now a back four and the next moment the middle three or a middle five so that Spurs' 4-4-2 is constantly modulating.

And here is the genius of Arsenal's high line:

By pressing high and congesting the midfield, Spurs, again, couldn't play out. In other words, it meant Arsenal took out Spurs midfield. The back-four didn't know what to do with the ball when they had it, because Parker was tightly marked, same as was Modrić and Kranjča. 

It is why Emmanuel Adebayor resembled an orphan in the match, the result of being so starved of the ball as to become practically useless.

I have provided a close view of the midfield in the following diagram.

Arrows indicate how Arsenal pressed their opponent.


What is lacking are the names of players, but I think it will suffice.

Note how Arsenal players are positioned. (This approximates the real life situation of the match.) What is interesting is that Harry Redknapp chose to play without wingers.

It was a mistake.

Niko Kranjčar

But realize that it makes a great deal of sense strategically.

It shows that his intention was to control the midfield by playing Kranjča in the Iniesta role (although Iniesta hasn't played in the is position in recent times).

That is, although positioned on the right, he wasn't expected to play the role of a winger but that of the classical inside right.

It means his tendency would be to collapse inward and diagonally to pressure Arsenal's holding midfielder, and at the same time, link up with Spurs' front two.

Gareth Bale

"Gareth Bale has license to roam," is the word out at Spurs, but that hasn't seem to produce fruit.

It didn't at Arsenal.

So would he have been more effective sticking to the left winger role? Debatable. It could have worked by virtue of Arsenal's high line.

So one can say it was a mistake from a tactical point of view to have Bale constantly drift infield to pick up the ball instead of having him press Arsenal's Bacary Sagna.

But realize that the key to Spurs' approach this season is Modrić. With him unable to link up attack from defense, Bale, as likewise Adebayor and Louis Saha, were effectively marked out of the game.

How Did Arsenal Control the Midfield?

Kieran Gibbs and Sagna were key.

By having them press Kranjčar and Bale high in Spurs' half, it meant that Spurs' danger men—in terms of linkage with the front two—were neutralized. 

It also meant that Arsenal's central defenders didn't have to worry about a four-point pressure in their own half. That is, pressure from Kranjčar, Bale, Saha and Adebayor.

In other words, snuff out the danger, or at least confront it, as far away from your goal as possible.

Arsenal's midfield neutralized Spurs'. Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

But here is the key to why it worked:

The point of Arsenal's attack was too close to Spurs back four so that the pair of Kranjčar and Bale were constrained to be defensively aware. That is, Theo Walcott was too close to Benoît Assou-Ekotto and Yossi Benayoun too close Kyle Walker for comfort.

The two quasi wingers therefore were forced to keep one eye trained on their opposite. This, of course, didn't help Spurs' attacking cause.

Mikel Arteta

With Mikel Arteta roaming the midfield, it meant that Modrić wasn't given any space to string together cogent passes. Moreover, as you can see from the diagram, Alex Song pressed forward toward Modrić, allowing Modrić no space to work.

Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny

With Gibbs and Sagna reducing the pressure on Arsenal's back two from four-point to just two-point, it meant that Arsenal's central defenders could concentrate on marking Spurs' front two.

Furthermore, since Spurs practically played a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Adebayor dropping deeper than Saha in the first half, it meant that Arsenal's back two had only on striker close to them at a time. This allowed them recovery time whenever Spurs had the ball.

Song, of course, picked up the deeper striker whenever possible, else he focused on Modrić. Or Arteta mopped up.

Spurs' first goal resulted from a situation where, as Adebayor received the ball, Sagna, Koscielny and Song collapsed the space around him, meaning that Adebayor had nowhere to go. But where the person cannot go, the ball can. 

Saha drifted in from a deep-sitting position in Spurs' own half, escaping the attention of Gibbs (who was too far afield due to his fundamental role of pressing high) and Arteta, who should have acted as the buffer in the space Saha exploited.

Now realize that pressing high has its Achilles' heel, which Spurs exploited with devastating effect. It is the same kind of problem that led to AC Milan's first goal at Barcelona in this season's Champions League group stage. A single turn from Alexandre Pato left Barcelona's entire defense in the dust.

One should also remember that if Saha's shot had not taken a deflection, it probably wouldn't have become a goal.

Question: What was Arsenal's Other Notable Tactical Move in the Spurs' Game?

Arsene Wenger's decision to play with only one winger paid diffidence. Benayoun played the David Villa role, only deeper. 

Recall that Benayoun is a midfielder. Also recall that he played more in the middle than wide. This means that Arsenal had two attacking midfielders in the form of Benayoun and Tomas Rosicky.

Whereas David Villa would position high, Benayoun positioned deeper neutralizing Walker and Parker.

Strategically, it meant that Arsenal always had two free men in the middle through whom they could play out to the front two.

Yes, you heard right! 

Walcott was a decoy striker in this match. Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images.

Although Walcott positioned in his traditional winger role, in this match, he was a quasi-striker.

Recall that he rarely launched in any crosses, and when he did, it wasn't from the byline. Walcott rather drifted inward to go into the striking role when he had the ball. 

It resulted into two goals. The strategy could have yielded a Walcott goal in the first half had he decided to engage Spurs' goal himself instead of passing to Robin van Persie, who was tightly marked.

Question: So What was Different in This Match?

There was better linkage between Arsenal's midfield and attack. In fact, there was little difference between Arsenal's midfield and attack, since the midfielders (Rosicky and Benayoun) attacked Spurs' defense themselves.

Whenever this happened, Van Persie collapsed inward to take out Parker, and Walcott pressed forward to keep Spurs' defense under pressure, which is why Rosicky's goal and Walcott's two left Spurs' defense disoriented.

In essence, by playing a highliine, Arsenal shifted its midfield closer to the attack. But more importantly, there was no difference between midfielders and attackers.

Practically, Arsenal's formation was this:

2-1-3-3-1, where the first "two" represents Koscielny and Vermaelen and the "one", Song, the next "three", Arteta, Gibbs and Sagna, the next, Benayoun, Rosicky and Walcott, and the final "one", Robin van Persie.

That, though, is all academic, as in practice, it rarely stayed that way.

What the reader needs to remember is that it was the pressing of the midfield that proved the difference between Arsenal's previous games and this one.

Whether Arsenal will retain this strategy in their next games and whether or not it will work is left to be seen.

Celebration was in order in the end. Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

Thanks for reading.


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