An assured Arsenal side rose to the occasion and turned in their best performance of the season to comfortably dispatch a much-fancied Tottenham Hotspur side who didn’t even land a body blow.
Mesut Özil’s resplendent performance and superlative use of space and possession has deservedly taken a lot of plaudits, given the prevailing narrative of accusations of not turning up in big games and mentally checking out after supposedly deciding to wind down his contract.
Özil’s pinpoint ball to Alexis Sanchez to draw the contact from namesake Davinson led to a free kick, which the German superbly landed on the head of Shkodran Mustafi for the opener.
It was also Özil’s dummy run that created indecision in the mind of Jan Vertonghen to draw out and then freeze the Belgian for long enough to allow Alexandre Lacazette in behind. He receive Hector Bellerin’s deft through ball before crossing for Alexis to score the second shortly thereafter.
As you can see, after Özil dummies forward, Vertonghen fully sells himself to engage the German. At this point, the Belgian’s weight is fully balanced upfield.
He’s an absolute non-factor to track any run in behind him or recover in time. As you can clearly see with how the situation played out:
This was a regular pattern of play for Arsenal throughout the first half. The Gunners were looking to capitalise on the space in behind Vertonghen and Ben Davies in that channel, using Bellerin, Aaron Ramsey, Özil, and Lacazette to continue their record of excelling against a three-at-the-back system.
As instrumental as Özil was when Arsenal were in possession, Arsenal’s intelligence, intensity, and integrity off the ball was at least equally responsible for them winning them the game. To paraphrase a conversation on the way out of the ground afterwards, ‘they all turned up and they all played like adults.’
Arsenal’s positional play, compactness as a unit front to back, and lateral spacings between players when Spurs were in possession, were the best they’ve been since last season’s FA Cup final. Arsenal didn’t leave gaping chasms of space for their opponents to play through, as they had at Anfield, and as Spurs had hoped they would when picking their own starting XI.
Pochettino opted for the intelligence and powerful dribbling of last season’s gamechanger, Mousa Dembélé, and the legs and stamina of Moussa Sissoko in his central midfield pair, over the manipulative passing of Harry Winks. Spurs hoped to nick the ball off Arsenal and then cut their retreating central midfield pair and defensive line apart at pace, countering in numbers.
When Spurs had the ball, Arsenal’s unit would collectively move to engage the player in possession, whilst still maintaining spacings between one another. This was a co-ordinated team effort, and a far cry from just Alexis or Francis Coquelin charging off on their own and leaving a gaping hole for the opposition to exploit. Previously it took playing a quick triangle to take the Arsenal presser out of the equation and advance up the pitch.
But rather than collectively overcommitting and going hell for leather to win the ball back, Arsenal would apply just enough pressure and obstruct the obvious passing lanes to make Spurs check and turn to play the ball backwards. Arsenal could then fall back and retreat into their starting positions, preparing to go again when Spurs next tried to progress play.
It was an intelligent, co-ordinated form of pressing from Arsenal, with controlled bursts of intensity, whilst never compromising the structural integrity of their shape when out of possession. They controlled the spaces and allowed Spurs to have the ball in areas where they were comfortable to let them have it.
Spurs thought they were creating half chances by getting the ball to Ben Davies out wide. However, this was a deliberate tactical ploy from Arsenal, who were content to take their chances having him swing in very low percentage crosses, into an area where their three centre-backs would crowd out and outnumber Harry Kane and Dele Alli.
It’s a tactic that we’ve seen taller, physical teams, like Chelsea, Stoke, West Brom, Bolton, and Manchester United use against Arsenal for years, and it felt sweet to be on the other end of it for once.
Tottenham’s tactics were incredibly reliant on getting the game’s first goal, and Arsenal did ever so well to ensure that they didn’t give it to them. Laurent Koscielny excelled at the back and gave the sort of performance that would have earned headlines back pages and gushing from journalists on various Sunday morning television shows.
Mustasfi also excelled when picked at the heart of the defence, turning in his best performance for the club. Granit Xhaka’s judgement and discipline actually looked the best it had been all season. After being booked, some had expected him to fall off the disciplinary tightrope and be shown a second yellow by Mike Dean, but he didn’t.
It was an encouraging performance that Arsenal can be proud of, but now need to build upon. We’ve seen it too many times in years gone by that a big win can be followed by a limp draw away at a lesser side. Next week’s clash at Turf Moor against a resolute Burnley defence will prove a different sort of proposition to Spurs.