Unai Emery’s defensive experiment fails as Tottenham exploit flawed system to beat Arsenal - (2021)
The first north London derby of the season was always going to take some beating. The lead exchanged three times, six goals in total, two penalties – one as a result of a highly suspicious tumble from Heung-min Son – seven cautions and a late red card all made for a heart-thundering watch for anyone invested in the game.
The crackling excitement of that match contrasted sharply with the muted build-up to this one. Whether because of the relative status of the League Cup, the prospect of heavily rotated teams or collective north London derby weariness, there was a notable lack of bite before kick off. Where raw spite has always been the defining characteristic of the derby – and there was still spite aplenty once the whistle went – there was an unusual level-headedness among both fanbases, with concerns over fixture congestion, injuries and bigger-priority competitions allowing both sets of supporters to affect a certain indifference.
Among the more considered takes on Arsenal Twitter, it was even suggested it might be better to lose the match with honour than to slog on in a competition which ended with a demoralising defeat to Manchester City in the final last season, sapping Arsenal’s effectiveness in the Premier League and Europe along the way. This was, naturally, shouted down by the derby day fundamentalists. The League Cup might be a distraction, a nuisance, a Mickey Mouse competition and all the rest of it, but there’s never a good time to lose to Spurs.
In the end, Arsenal rotated much more heavily than their opponents. Where Paulo Gazzaniga was the main fringe inclusion for Tottenham – along with Ben Davies as an improvised centre-back, an experiment Mauricio Pochettino debuted against Burnley at the weekend – Unai Emery raised a few eyebrows by deploying Granit Xhaka in the middle of a back four while also rotating in Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Aaron Ramsey, Sokratis and Petr Cech.
Arsenal’s makeshift back four didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory, Sokratis slipping at a crucial moment in the build-up to Spurs’ opener and the rest of the defence showing the maneuverability of a fleet of articulated lorries as Son sprung the offside trap to score. With Son, Dele Alli and Lucas Moura exploiting their considerable advantage in pace, Xhaka and Sokratis were given a grim time of it while Maitland-Niles – more suited to a wing-back role – seemed unsure of himself positionally. It was little surprise when Emery opted for a defensive reshuffle at half-time, with Laurent Koscielny coming on for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Maitland-Niles pushed up as a wing-back and the defence falling into a more familiar back three.
The new defensive system was not much more effective, unfortunately. While it looked like it might free up Arsenal in attack, it only took Spurs 15 minutes to rip up Emery’s plans. Having come on as a substitute not long beforehand, Harry Kane spotted a gaping hole between Sokratis and Koscielny and – ignoring an incredibly casual press from Xhaka – scooped a ball over the top for Alli to dink past Cech. As bad defending goes it was right up there with the worst of the late Wenger era, Xhaka shown up as a moonlighter at the back while Sokratis and Koscielny showed that experience does not trump speed of movement and thought.
Arsenal produced lots of clever little overlaps going forward, wrapping paper football with nothing inside it. On the whole, it was a weak performance and – along with their defeat to Southampton at the weekend – leaves them in the midst of a crucial Christmas fixture list while suffering from shaky form.
Just as Emery was widely praised for his tactical intelligence after the 4-2 win against Tottenham earlier in the month, this having made several game-changing substitutions, he deserves criticism for the confused system and failed experimentation which saw Spurs exact some measure of revenge on Wednesday evening. It was nowhere near the same calibre of game and arguably not the same calibre of competition, but neither was it a satisfactory performance from the home team.
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