Tottenham pressed, passed and timed their runs better to win a remarkably simple tactical battle against Arsenal
Although André Villas-Boas and Arsène Wenger had met in a north London derby in November, this game was more similar in style to their previous clash – Arsenal's 5-3 win over Villas-Boas's Chelsea last season. With two extraordinarily high defensive lines, the game becomes almost entirely about balls in behind – and whereas Chelsea's defenders were physically unsuited for the task and apparently unwilling to change their methods last season, Villas-Boas has created a much more cohesive unit at White Hart Lane.
With both sides pushing up, the play was squeezed into a narrow band either side of the halfway line, making the game congested and scrappy in the opening minutes. Gradually the tempo dropped slightly, but the defensive lines remained aggressive – and both sides realised the quickest route to goal: through-balls to meet quick runners.
However, neither starting XI was perfect for this situation. Villas-Boas would have preferred Jermain Defoe – not 100% fit and therefore on the bench – to sprint in behind, although at least Emmanuel Adebayor's movement towards the play tempted Arsenal's centre-backs even higher, creating spaces for others to break into. At the other end, Olivier Giroud lacks speed: after ten minutes a tremendous diagonal pass from Santi Cazorla found the Frenchman behind the defence, but despite a good first touch, Jan Vertonghen caught up and made a fine tackle. Here, Theo Walcott in his preferred centre-forward role would have been preferable.
But Tottenham were superior in the three key factors involved in this type of match. First, their pressing was better; Gareth Bale moved forward to join Adebayor and helped close down the Arsenal centre-backs, preventing them from playing dangerous forward passes. The rest of the side stayed compact, and moved up as a unit, squeezing the play but putting pressure upon the ball. In contrast, Arsenal's pressing was less vigorous – Jack Wilshere remained deeper and Giroud lacked the mobility to close down both centre-backs, so Spurs' defenders were allowed to carry the ball forward into midfield.
Second, the defending from Spurs' back four was more assured – in particular, they knew when to drop deeper as Arsenal broke towards them. Michael Dawson is far from the league's quickest defender, but got himself into good positions to make covering runs, while Vertonghen's reading of the game was superb throughout. Meanwhile, the full-backs played narrow – in particular, Benoît Assou-Ekotto tracked Walcott inside, as Arsenal's right-winger realised his speed was needed up front.
Third, Tottenham were more effective at combining neat passes with intelligent runs, which is how they scored both goals. Arsenal had their chances in this respect – after 18 and then 21 minutes, Wilshere found space between Tottenham's defence and midfield, but his passes were overhit and collected by Hugo Lloris, a goalkeeper who is proactive with his positioning and quick off his line, extremely useful in a contest like this.
Although Spurs' goals were identical, their architects varied. For the first goal, Gylfi Sigurdsson got space when moving inside from the left because Walcott had been in a centre-forward position, trying to break in behind. There was no pressure upon the Icelandic midfielder, so he constantly looked up in possession and waited for Bale's run – the Welshman enjoyed such space in behind the Arsenal defence that even he couldn't quite believe he was onside.
Two minutes later, it was déjà vu. Scott Parker played the ball and Aaron Lennon provided the finish, but the angles were identical: both passes bisected Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaelen, both runs were made from between Vermaelen and Nacho Monreal. Two simple goals, as Spurs triumphed in a remarkably simple tactical battle.