Goals in Arsenal vs. Tottenham draw tell a tale of two teams
Coming onto this north London derby, we wondered which side was more desperately in need of the victory. In the end, a draw was a face-saving result for both, and an uneventful game offered both managers lessons for the future.
While Arsenal dominated for long periods, Tottenham will be more disappointed they failed to win the contest, having gone ahead in the second half through Nacer Chadli.
Chadli is a peculiar footballer, someone who could be termed a "system player" -- he's rarely likely to be the star, will never have a side based around him, but will nevertheless always be useful because of his positional intelligence. He knows where to be; which runs to make, which opponents to track. He's from the same school as Pedro Rodriguez of Barcelona, for example, not remotely the best attacker the Camp Nou has witnessed in recent years but the most tactically disciplined.
Chadli has generally played from the left so far under Mauricio Pochettino, playing the role Pedro does for Barcelona, making runs from out to in, popping up unannounced in goal-scoring positions. He has been given license to rotate with Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela, but those two are generally more involved in build-up play. Chadli was something of an outsider.
At the Emirates, Pochettino handed him a central role, in support of Emmanuel Adebayor, and in a purely tactical sense, he played excellently, acting as half-midfielder, half-forward. Pochettino instructed him to mark Mikel Arteta (and then his replacement, Mathieu Flamini) before spinning off him to become a second striker. As ever, his positioning was excellent, but before halftime, he was repeatedly let down by sloppy touches, both from himself and teammates not feeding him at the correct moment.
Chadli persevered, however, and eventually his chance came. He opened the goal scoring in the 56th minute and would have been a deserved match-winner, not because he was the game's best player, but because he epitomised Spurs' approach -- they were organised, disciplined and controlled.
Arsenal's equaliser meant Spurs' opener lost some of its symbolic significance, but it's nevertheless a perfect example of what Pochettino demands. There was the high pressing, something Arsenal struggled with at various points, with Eriksen robbing Mathieu Flamini deep inside the opposition half. Some Tottenham fans have complained about Eriksen's work rate, questioning whether he has the stamina, aggression and discipline for this pressing game, but this was a fine riposte.
Next, and much more crucially, Spurs made the key decision once possession was won. In the first half, Spurs continually wasted promising counter-attacking situations because they played the wrong pass -- Eriksen, Lamela and Adebayor were all guilty, and often 3 vs. 3 situations faded into nothing because of poor choices. This time, Lamela took the right option. It wasn't a difficult pass, a mere 10-yard ball into the path of Chadli, but it was the right decision, and equally crucial, it was an immediate decision.
The finish was also simple, but smoothly taken by Chadli. He'd again positioned himself intelligently, drifting out in behind Arsenal's left-back Kieran Gibbs, and waiting for a short diagonal ball. It was the type of goal Pedro has made a career out of. On Monday morning, Pochettino should be showing his players a video of this goal -- that summarises his philosophy better than words: press, turnover, pass, finish. Pochettino confirmed after the game that this was the intended strategy, to stay compact, win the ball, then use it quickly.
In fact, the tactical situation in this game was neatly summarised by the goals. If Tottenham were organised perfectly, Arsenal's approach was disappointingly cautious, with Alexis Sanchez only on the bench despite a superb goal in the midweek Capital One Cup defeat to Southampton. Arsene Wenger insisted after the game that this was not for fitness reasons -- Sanchez simply wasn't considered in the first XI.
Instead Wenger, beefed up his midfield. Arteta, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere were supplemented with Mesut Ozil -- drifting inside from the left, rather than starting as a number 10 -- and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who plays much deeper and narrower than Sanchez, more a midfielder than a forward.
Throughout the first half, Ramsey, Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain -- energetic, ball-carrying midfielders -- were doing roughly the same job, or at least the job of two men rather than three. Arsenal lacked variety, and when Danny Welbeck came short -- as he always does, very intelligently -- they lacked someone making the opposite movement to retain some depth to the play.
Wenger introduced Sanchez relatively early, after 63 minutes, once Spurs had gone ahead. It was his third substitution, having lost Arteta and Ramsey to first-half injuries, but it galvanised Arsenal. Sanchez started from the left, and immediately Arsenal's play flowed down that side -- his trickery continually dragged two defenders toward him, opening up space for other attackers.
Sanchez didn't score the equaliser, but he was involved in the buildup. Lamela and Kyle Naughton were both occupied, which meant Younes Kaboul was forced to move over, and Jan Vertonghen was unable to cope with two men at the far post. That allowed Oxlade-Chamberlain the freedom to slam home the equaliser. Arsenal have often struggled to find the right balance between possession and penetration- - not only can Sanchez provide the latter, he's arguably better than most of his teammates at the former, too.
Ultimately a point isn't particularly helpful for either side in terms of the league table, although it was a decent compromise considering both teams currently seem somewhat uncertain, with supporters not entirely sure whether the team is offering promise, or retaining old bad habits and failing to progress from last season. "They [Tottenham] made a great result today," said Wenger, pointing to the fact his side had the majority of possession. Pochettino agreed, for similar reasons. "Yes it was a good point, when we analyse the game we see Arsenal have more of the ball."
The focus on possession says a lot about both managers' mentalities.
Both teams can learn lessons from the goals they scored: Spurs must continue to press and ensure they make the right decisions, while Arsenal need Alexis to provide an extra attacking threat. Football matches are about more than goals, but today the goals told the story.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.