Tottenham have now been competing on a similar level to their North London rivals for a few years now, but they have yet to secure a convincing victory in a league game. In fact Arsenal have often come into these games as the team under pressure and left with a sizable victory. The last two league meetings, both at the Emirates, are excellent examples – Tottenham taking an early lead and looking exert their authority before capitulating and losing both games 5-2. Ultimately, while performances have led to many declaring Tottenham as having usurped Arsenal as North London’s best, the derby matches often show Arsene Wenger’s side as being better equipped to perform under pressure.
This match is no different to previous encounters. Before the reverse fixture in November Arsenal were being written off whilst Tottenham under Andre Villas-Boas were gaining momentum, but an early red card for Emmanuel Adebayor ruined a gameplan and chances of victory. Tottenham, led by the increasingly brilliant Gareth Bale, continue to impress, whilst Arsenal continue to confound, although it is telling that such contrasting fortunes are only separated by four points and two places in the league.
Villas-Boas is working with limited attacking options, so Bale will continue from a central position behind Adebayor, with Lewis Holtby and Aaron Lennon offering support from the flanks. In defence Tottenham will choose between Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Jan Vertonghen at left back, with the latter also competing for a centre back position with Steven Caulker and Michael Dawson.
Wenger has a larger dilemma – does he return Santi Cazorla to a central playmaking role and field a front three of Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott, or does he keep Jack Wilshere in an advanced role to strengthen the midfield?
Tactical Comparison: 4-2-3-1 vs 4-2-1-3
Assuming both managers continue with their recent tactical choices, the two clubs have intriguingly swapped systems in recent weeks. For much of the season Tottenham have played a solid 4-2-1-3 system, with Holtby or Clint Dempsey playing in a central midfield role ahead of two deeper teammates and moving forward to support a front three. Arsenal also rearranged their side at the start of the season to field Cazorla in an advanced midfield role flanked by two wingers ahead of a central midfield pairing in a 4-2-3-1. However the form of Bale and the lack of forward options has seen the Welsh winger move into an advanced central role, turning Tottenham into a 4-2-3-1 shape, while Arsenal’s midfield fragility has seen Cazorla pushed wide and Wilshere used as a dynamic link between midfield and attack in a 4-2-1-3.
The change may be subtle but it could be decisive. Arsenal now have a theoretical midfield advantage – Bale will play close to Adebayor and is unlikely to drop into the midfield battle, whereas Wilshere will take up much deeper positions and help Abou Diaby and Mikel Arteta compete with Moussa Dembele and Scott Parker. Should this pan out Wenger would expect Wilshere and Arteta to be able to dominate possession.
However the threat of Bale should change this and force Arteta and Diaby deeper. With Wilshere also on form and Cazorla dangerous between the lines, Villas-Boas may instruct his deep midfielders to sit in front of the defence rather than move forward to engage their direct opponents. This would result in both Bale and Wilshere finding themselves against two opponents, and shift the creative responsibility onto the free man deep in midfield. For Tottenham this is likely to be Parker, as one would expect Wilshere to cover Dembele, whereas Bale is likely to focus his defensive attention on Arteta, leaving Diaby free for Arsenal. Neither Parker nor Diaby are natural distributers – both are including for their energy rather than their passing – but the Englishman is particularly week with the ball. If Arsenal successfully nullify the other parts of Tottenham’s midfield, Parker may struggle to find attacking passes into teammates.
On the flanks, Arsenal’s use of wide forwards gives them far less defensive protection than Tottenham’s more orthodox wingers. Neither Cazorla nor Walcott are particularly conscientious when it comes to tracking back, whereas Holtby and Lennon tend to afford their full backs far more protection. This will be important – both teams have pace down the wings from their attackers and full backs and a target man in attack, so a failure to defend wide positions effectively could be costly.
Tactical Adjustments: Narrow left wingers
If Cazorla is again displaced to the wing, and Walcott retains his position on the right, it will mean that both teams have a narrow left-sided attacker. Lewis Holtby is nominally a central playmaker that has moved to the left flank to accommodate Bale, just as Cazorla has done for Wilshere. Both players will naturally move infield, leaving space for their full back to overlap. Nacho Monreal has had a promising start to his Arsenal career with 1 assist already from only 3 games. Tottenham have a dilemma at left back – Assou-Ekotto is a traditional full back and will look to deliver crosses once in the final third, whereas Vertonghen prefers attacking the penalty box directly. Considering the influence the left backs may have in the game, Villas-Boas’ selection will have a major impact on the home side’s build-up play.
When Holtby and Cazorla move infield they are likely to be confronted with the opponent’s right-sided holding midfielder. Cazorla may be hustled out by the energetic Parker, but Holtby’s movement could pose Arteta – by no means a natural defensive player – problems.
Individual Analysis: Gareth Bale
Given his recent form, who else is likely to be the focal point of this match? Bale’s development in the last few months has been astonishing, evolving from an extremely quick winger with an excellent cross and an eye for goal to a central goalscoring forward.
There is nothing subtle about Bale’s play. In the past the Welshman has profited only when afforded space, especially on the counter attack, and has struggled when cutting infield into a crowded midfield area. However this season he has seemingly found a way around that – his first time passing is now crisper and more precise, but more impressively has been his ability to engineer space for a shot. Bale’s shooting has also become incredibly accurate, and his capacity to work the opposing goalkeeper with such regularity justifies the comparisons to Cristiano Ronaldo.
Arsenal will undoubtedly be wary of Bale, but Wenger is loath to making plans for specific players. Instead he will rely on the quartet of Arsenal’s centre backs and deep midfielders to shut out the space Bale will want to operate him. Unfortunately Arsenal do not defend space well – Bale will be able to exploit the weaknesses of Diaby and Thomas Vermaelen who are prone to being drawn out of position with alarming regularity. He will also want to isolate Per Mertesacker, whose lack of pace and slowness to turn has been exposed by slower, weaker forwards already this season. Wenger may be better fielding Laurent Koscielny, a more mobile defender capable of sweeping behind his defensive partner, but the Frenchman has been out of favour for a few months.
Bale has been performing at a higher level than ever before in recent weeks, although he arguably lacks a stand-out performance that will rank alongside his destruction of Inter Milan a few seasons ago. A defining role in a derby victory would certainly do the trick.
A slightly bizarre tactical contest given the two teams were playing the reverse systems only a few weeks ago. With an even battle down the flanks, the contest in midfield will be crucial. Bale offers a greater attacking threat for Tottenham, but Arsenal may profit from being more compact. Yet compactness isn’t something Arsenal are known for, and it might not sit well with the players that for once they are the side looking to stifle their opponents, especially when their opponents are Tottenham.
For the managers the game is a huge opportunity for varying reasons. The 5-2 defeat earlier in the season hurt Villas-Boas and protracted his acceptance amongst the Tottenham faithful, although he now finds himself far more secure in the role. A victory over their rivals would give the fans a result to celebrate and be another step towards securing Champions League qualification. Wenger knows a derby victory will silence, however briefly, his many critics, especially as being the strongest North London side is one of the few boasts the club can claim to. Arsenal also need to win to maintain a hope of finishing in the top three – a defeat would leave Tottenham 7 points adrift in third, and the two teams moving in very different directions.