NLD Breakdown: 12 Things We Learned From Arsenal vs. Spurs
Recently, the North London Derby hasn’t been a source of pride, never mind points. Disappointing results have been the result of disappointing performances, and truth be told, Arsenal have looked completely comfortable when faced with the task of beating us. This season, however, that changed.
In the most complete performance we’ve seen in the Pochettino era so far, those Tottenham players raised their game for the occasion, and came away with a well earned and richly deserved point. Individuals came together as a team, and that unit combined to deploy a game plan a cigarette paper width away from being absolutely perfect.
The players picked and the management team behind them can be unbelievably proud of such an achievement so soon in to the process of implementing a tactical philosophy and ideology, especially given the level of negativity from the fans heading in to the game. Written off and counted out before a ball had been kicked, they sensationally proved their detractors wrong.
That said, here are the twelve biggest lessons we learnt from the match, and what they mean for us going forwards.
1 - Hugo Lloris is undeniably world class
This man could not be any more important to Tottenham if he tried. Consistently fantastic performances and his ability to lead by example resulted in him being handed a share of the vice-captaincy, and rightly so. His greatest gift is his temperament, and even when his teammates may be losing the running battles at stages in games, his level-headedness never wavers.
In the derby specifically, he made one absolutely unbelievable save from a header on the line, and as the time ran on, he organised and marshalled his box with aplomb. Arsenal attempted several high balls in to the box and lofted through balls, but Lloris judged each and every one of them perfectly, taking the pressure off his defence completely. If we could keep him at the club for the rest of his career, we’ll have done fantastically well.
2 - Kyle Naughton and Danny Rose can perform well when coached properly and given a game plan
Naughton and Rose are, occasionally deservedly, nothing more than figures of fun. Both have their limits as players, and while they’re never going to develop in to Roberto Carlos and Cafu, the qualities they do have are extremely useful when utilised properly. In the derby, given tactically specific roles with little need to advance forward in adherence to a pinpoint game plan, they both thrived. At stages in the match, Naughton had both Özil and Sánchez attacking down his side of the pitch, and although he has the tendency to look like he’s never seen a football before in his life, he kept close to £80m worth of attacking footballer relatively quiet, and neither came close to embarrassing him in the slightest.
Danny Rose did an impressive job too, not only having to mind Oxlaide-Chamberlain, but also track the runs of Chambers, who was breaking forward at every opportunity. It may be a coincidence that both had one of their finest performances in a Tottenham shirt on the same afternoon, but I really don’t think that’s the case.
3 - Younès Kaboul and Jan Vertonghen could be back to their best
Kaboul, had you asked most Tottenham fans around a fortnight ago, was “finished”. His recent injury record and subsequent performances did little to prove his critics wrong, and further doubt was cast in his direction when he was then named club captain. Written off, against Arsenal he was like a phoenix arisen, and used his passion and ability to lead his side by example, and was man of the match by some distance. Appropriately feisty in the faces of Arsenal players, jubilant in celebration when Tottenham scored and damn near faultless in defence, he was suddenly back to his best, and we were reminded of just how good a defender he can be when fit and in form.
Vertonghen, likewise, has come in for his fair share of criticism. His apparent attitude problems did little to endear him to fans, and when his performances began to suffer, he found little sympathy heading in his direction. In truth, the fact he’s had to form makeshift central defensive partnership after partnership hasn’t helped his cause, and the less said about his time at left-back, the better. Back alongside a resurgent Kaboul, the confidence we once associated with Vertonghen’s defending had returned, and he was once again the ball-winning, ball-playing defender we came to know and love in his debut season. The longer that continues, the better.
4 - Étienne Capoue’s form and fitness helps justify the sale of Sandro
The sale of Sandro was one that provoked a prolonged debate. While his injury record was a large reason behind his departure, the emergence of Capoue as a viable replacement in the midfield’s first-band defensive role was also a factor to consider. He may not be as ‘all action’ as his predecessor, his defensive game is slightly more reserved, excelling more when reading passes and intercepting and going shoulder-to-shoulder with runners, rather than timing slide tackles and throwing himself in to every challenge he makes.
Another string to his bow is his distribution of the ball in transition, and the speed at which he achieves this. A concern with Sandro was his passing, and his tendency to dally on the ball and slow attacks from progressing. The same, however, cannot be said of Capoue, who’s first instinct when he’s won the ball is to get his head up and zip a pass in to the feet of a more attack minded player in the midfield band ahead of his own. Pochettino was ready to spend up to £20m for Morgan Schneiderlin in the summer, but in Capoue, he has a player that if coached properly, can become just as effective in the same role.
5 - Ryan Mason has earned himself an extended run in the first team
It’s hard enough making the transition from an academy player to the Premier League in normal circumstances, but to do so in the North London Derby takes a special sort of player. The level of maturity, self-belief and confidence in the instructions he’d been handed tactically Mason showed was extraordinary. Last season’s breakthrough young player, Nabil Bentaleb, has somewhat famously failed to impose himself in the bigger fixtures, but Mason didn’t look out of place for a second in the biggest fixture of them all.
He gives a verticality to the movement from the first midfield band that is often missing, and allows Capoue an outlet close-by to feed off short passes to, so he can concentrate much more on the defensive aspects of game. Such a performance deserves rewarding with an extended run within the Tottenham side, and with the record of success Pochettino had in implementing young players in to the Premier League at Southampton, this could be a very big season for Mason ahead.
6 - Nacer Chadli is an extremely useful player to have
Much like Gylfi Sigurðsson and Clint Dempsey before him, Nacer Chadli operates in the relative wilderness of the left hand side of the Tottenham front-four. Much like those that came before him, Chadli is a largely unglamorous player, but extremely useful all the same. His tendency and ability to make piercing runs and find threatening space within the box (no pun intended) is regularly good, and his goal return this season currently stands at four, making him our top scorer in the Premier League so far.
While he’s not likely to ever be the star player within our side, the understanding he’s developing alongside the likes of Eriksen and Lamela especially, regularly exchanging positions and passes with both, could become invaluable going forwards. Competent enough in defence as he is in attack, Chadli is another who has benefitted from being given time to find his feet in the league and at the club.
7 - Erik Lamela is on the brink of recapturing the form he showed at Roma
The goodwill surrounding Erik Lamela is amazing. For a record signing constantly surrounded by an unfair rhetoric of failure, the support he’s received from Tottenham fans has been exceptional. For the first time since he arrived at the club a year ago, he’s now fully fit, and regularly playing in the Premier League in a more settled side. The fact that he’s played more already this season than he did last in a Spurs shirt should give you some idea of how far along he is in his development, but the signs are there enough to give us renewed hope in his ability. He’s never too shy to receive the ball, and actively calls for more of it, and will make run after run towards defenders, looking extremely threatening as he does so.
The lack of goals so far is a small cause for concern, but his tendency to pick the ball up in the final third and play the perfect final ball to assist a goal is hugely encouraging, and something we saw a perfect example of against Arsenal to open the scoring. He has a long way to go before he hits the heights he did at Roma, but that doesn't look as unlikely to happen as it did last season, thankfully.
8 - Christian Eriksen is a much more diverse player then he’s given credit for, and Pochettino knows it
In his time at Tottenham so far, Christian Eriksen has made his home in the second midfield band and as a vital part of the front four. We’re used to seeing him in a variety of positions within that front four; primarily as a free number ten, secondarily as an inside forward from the left, and most rarely, his tertiary is wide right, usually in a position to delivery swinging crosses from.
Throughout a match, he can be picked up in any one of those positions several times, interchanging with his colleagues, just as the above graphic shows. However, against Arsenal, he was deployed in a role purposefully different to the one he can usually be found playing in, and that change in position lead many to label his performance as “anonymous”. That summation, as far as I’m concerned, is completely wide of the mark.
Again, in the above graphic, shown in the tactics board to the right, you can see the difference in team shape to that we’re used to seeing. As part of the rope-a-dope tactics and gameplan, Tottenham largely sat off Arsenal in the centre of the field, inviting them on deep so that they would be more susceptible to the break. Not too dissimilar to the sort of tactic Mourinho often employs, Pochettino picked a system for an opponent, and did so perfectly.
Tottenham frustrated Arsenal for large parts, and only one defensive mistake lead to their equaliser, which was a huge shame given the performance. Back to Eriksen, his role usually in the front four became entirely redundant, and had he played like that, our first midfield band would have been left weaker, and given Arsenal much more time and room in the final third.
His starting position was much deeper, and he played in defence as part of a loose three with Capoue and Mason, the Frenchman the deepest lying to shield the back four, with Eriksen and Mason just ahead of him pressing the Arsenal ball players. Eriksen, much like Mason, had a role that was entirely built around speed of transition to set off breaks much more quickly, which is a much more limited and disciplined role than the one many people we perhaps expecting him to play.
From what I saw, Eriksen did extremely well, and could be seen multiple times leading the press from our own half, and aiding the full-backs in tracking wider runners. The culmination of his hard work came in the build up for the goal, which wouldn’t have been scored without him. Following the ball forward from his position, he won the ball on the edge of the Arsenal box pressing excellently, and played an early ball in to the feet of Lamela, who was in the better position to deliver an assist. He wasn’t consistently involved in our attacks, and that’s because he wasn’t supposed to be. Criticising him for not doing so, as many have, is extremely wide of the mark.
9 - Adebayor is disastrously short of form
Something we’re all too aware of with Adebayor is that he’s a player that blows hot and cold. Last season, when he had a point to prove and was enjoying the dependency Sherwood had in him, he thrived, and was often unplayable up front, both scoring and creating goals with an endearing freedom to his play. However, this season hasn’t quite been the same, and the system Pochettino is trying to put in place may not be playing to his strengths.
My concern with Adebayor is that once he’s lost heart, he often takes an extended period to rediscover it, and the signs he’s shown in open play so far aren’t that encouraging. His play, including against Arsenal, was slower, and much more languid than when he’s at his best. His contribution in the build up directly suffers, becoming much more sloppy and less purposeful, which culminates in him chasing through balls and tracking defenders with a fraction of the self-belief and determination we know he’s capable of. Going forward, allowing Roberto Soldado some time from the start with the trifecta of creative players more settled behind him might not be the worst idea in the world.
10 - Aaron Lennon still has an important role to play from the bench
Coming on for the aforementioned Eriksen partway through the second half after Tottenham had taken the lead, Pochettino once again showed his willingness to tweak the system, but we’ll come on to that more later. By playing Lennon, he knew he had an outlet on the break with plenty of pace and the experience of scoring and laying on crucial goals - his late goal against Liverpool at home in 2010 and the Crouch assist against AC Milan spring to mind - to count on, as well as a tireless contributor to the overall defensive cause.
It’s no mistake that faith in Lennon to perform a job like that has come this far in to his career, after all, he’s the longest serving Tottenham player in the current squad by some distance, and has the decision making in the moments that count that still propels him over the likes of Townsend in similar situations. Perhaps no longer a regular starter in the league, Lennon still has a big role to play as part of the squad should he wish to.
11 - Pochettino showed fantastic game management ability and opposition dependent tactical flexibility
Tottenham went in to this match with a clear game plan, and they stuck to it to a man for the entirety of the match. The credit for that has to largely go to the manager, who had clearly planned for the opposition and prepared his side perfectly for the game, showing a willingness to deviate from his preferred system, but maintaining his ideology, should the occasion call for it. In a juxtaposition to Wenger in the opposite corner, who somewhat hampered his side by stubbornly standing by a system that had clearly been planned for and nullified, Pochettino showed that an ideology can be retained under a refined system, which bodes well for future big matches.
His game management is something that has been positively highlighted in several games now, with his substitutions often on point and timed well. We’ve already discussed his use of Lennon against Arsenal, but to further illustrate the point: in the Europa League in an away tie, he brought on Lamela with time to spare and he assisted two goals to take Tottenham 1-2 ahead in the tie, scoring valuable away goals. In the League Cup against Forest, his substations again made an impact, with Mason scoring, Lamela assisting and Kane scoring the third.
It must be kept in mind, as we’ve written about previously, that Pochettino still has lots of work to do with the squad this season, and is still assessing which players he’ll want to retain going forwards, where he wants to fine-tune, and what his ideal system will be with those that are left. This result doesn’t mean that his ideology and tactical identity has now been fully understood and implemented, but does give us an encouraging sign that in the long run, it should well do. An example of what is yet to come, you’d like to hope.
12 - The board, players and fans alike can all take heart from a performance like that
A lot is made of momentum, psychology, harmony and togetherness in football these days, and rightly so. The theory that a team is likely to perform better when all aspects of the club on and off field are firing at all cylinders is one I find it hard to believe more people don’t subscribe to. A performance like this, an example of exactly what the players are capable of when managed properly by a fairly new coaching staff in heartwarming and hugely encouraging. The board, given their propensity to lose faith in managers to the detriment of the long term success of the team, should hopefully have now seen what, given time, those in the current infrastructure will be able to produce regularly in the future.
The players, who may have been undecided on the tactical direction of the new coach, will surely buy more heavily in to the newer systems and roles they’ve been handed, and the camaraderie a positive derby result can build will help team spirit no end. The fans, some of whom can be the hardest to convince, will have seen Tottenham playing in a new fashion against Arsenal, and it working positively in their favour.
Positive results in the derby will undoubtedly extend the period of grace given to a new manager, and patience while he fully finds his feet and settles completely is more likely to be afforded. Had he lost to Arsenal today, or the performance not have been as good as it was, those who favour the negative will have likely been vocal in their droves. Thankfully, that seems to have been avoided, for now.