A second half brace from Harry Kane gave an outstanding Tottenham a 2-1 come-from-behind win over Arsenal in the North London Derby. Despite going behind from an 11th minute Mesut Ozil tap in, Spurs dominated throughout and were deserving winners. The win sent Spurs a point ahead of Arsenal and into 5th after Southampton's dramatic late win over QPR.
Arsenal adopted a similar defensively organized, counter-attacking approach to their 2-0 away win over Manchester City at the Emirates three weeks ago, an excellent performance that earned the Gunners their first away win over City, Manchester United or Chelsea since 2011. In the past Arsene Wenger has been rightly criticized for his unwillingness to adopt a more pragmatic approach to big away fixtures. The City performance seemed to suggest an evolution of Wenger's tactics and a maturation of his players. They showed tremendous professionalism and concentration, comfortably nullifying the attacking threat from City and carving out good chances of their own that they finished efficiently.
Given the effectiveness of that performance it maybe wasn't a surprise that Wenger would adopt the same approach in another big away fixture against talented opposition. Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey both dropped deep in the middle of midfield with Francis Coquelin just behind them in the hole giving Arsenal a 4-1-4-1 shape with 9 players behind the ball. It was a strategy aimed at preventing Coquelin becoming overrun in central areas in front of the back four. Both Tottenham wide players Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen enjoy tucking inside from the channels to find space between the lines. With Ramsey and Cazorla dropping deep it prevented Eriksen and Lamela from creating 2 v. 1 or 3 v. 1 overloads against Coquelin, who had a direct opponent in Spur's central attacking midfielder Mousa Dembele.
Both sides attack the same channel
With the center of the pitch crowded, the space to exploit for both sides was in wide areas. Both sides were particularly vulnerable down the same side of the pitch, Arsenal's right and Spurs left. Spurs were remarkably dangerous when they were able to quickly switch the point of attack from their right side to the left channel. Eriksen was Arsenal right back Hector Bellerin's direct opponent. With Eriksen tucking inside to central areas from the left channel, it forced Bellerin to follow him into very narrow positions, leaving space down the channel for Spurs left back Danny Rose to sprint into. Rose was able to sprint past Arsenal right midfielder Danny Welbeck, in the side ahead of Theo Walcott for his defensive work rate, and get the ball in space in the attacking third.
Rose got the ball in dangerous positions at the edge of the 18 yard box four times in the opening half hour. He delivered a poor ball in early after getting to the end line, produced a smart save from Ospina in the 14th, shot just wide of Opsina's back post in the 22nd and delivered another disappointing ball after again getting behind the defense in the 24th. Despite Arsenal being set up to defend and prevent good scoring chances for Spurs, the tactic wasn't working particularly well. Spurs inability to find the net in the first half was more a product of their lack of ruthlessness in the final third and strong goalkeeping from Opsina than Arsenal keeping them contained.
Rose's forays forward did create space for Arsenal to break into down their right and they looked dangerous in the opening half hour countering into that channel. Arsenal got their 11th minute opener when Giroud won the ball in back in midfield and it ended up at Welbeck's feet around the right channel. Welbeck took one touch behind Rose, who was high up the pitch with Spurs having just been in possession, and had room to carry the ball towards the endline. He cut it back for Giroud whose scuffed shot fell kindly to Ozil to tuck home at the back post.
Spurs press, Arsenal pinned deep
Spurs continued to dominate possession and control proceedings in the second half. The key tactical feature of the final 45 minutes was Arsenal's deep defending and Spurs pressing. With Arsenal continuing to drop deep near their own box with a defensive midfield bank of 5, Olivier Giroud became isolated up front. Spurs quickly closed down Arsenal high up the pitch when they lost the ball and the Gunners simply didn't have an outlet ball to spring counters. Their only release valve was hopeful balls towards Giroud, who was being outmanned by Spurs' center backs Jan Vertonghen and Eric Dier. The graphic below shows that the bulk of passes to Giroud in the second half were either in deep positions near midfield or hopeful long ball. Spurs won possession back quickly and created wave after wave of attacking pressure. They finally broke Arsenal's resistance in the 56th through Kane after a sustained spell of pressure.
The graphic below of where each team won tackles highlights the two sides' strategies. Spurs pressed quickly when they lost possession and won the ball higher up the pitch while Arsenal defended in deep lines around their own 18 yard box.
Tottenham got fantastic performances throughout the lineup. Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb comfortably controlled the middle of the park with Bentaleb providing the assist for Kane's winner. Eriksen put in a typical tidy performance tucking inside and linking play from midfield to attack, Lamela took a while to get going but grew into it and offered plenty of creativity in the second half. The majority of the plaudits however will rightly go to Kane. His coolness in front of goal is hardly believable given his age and lack of Premier League experience but he's also more than just a ruthless finisher. His work rate off the ball is phenomenal- he'll run in behind the defense, work the channels to get on the ball and hold up play with his back to goal.
It would be unfair to criticize Wenger for Arsenal's approach given the success a similar one brought at City but it's difficult not to wonder how this contest would have panned out had his side looked to establish a bit more authority. Spurs had Bentaleb, Mason and Dier in their defensive spine and although all three are fine players, they are 20, 23 and 21 years of age respectively and don't have a ton of big game experience. Could Arsenal have rattled their nerve with more attacking pressure?
For Pochettino and Spurs this performance should provide a platform for what they're capable of. This was an even more complete and dominant performance than their 5-3 win over Chelsea. They simply didn't allow Arsenal to get into any decent scoring positions for the bulk of the 90 minutes. The question now is can they consistently replicate this type of performance. Two seasons ago Spurs beat Arsenal by the same 2-1 scoreline at White Hart Lane in early March. The lead left them 7 points clear of Arsenal and third in the league but Wenger's side ultimately secured the final Champions League spot at their expense by a point on the final day of the season. Arsenal are the more talented side and will still be considered favorites for the Champions League but Pochettino is a very good manager and Liverpool proved last season what momentum in the second half of the season can do for a squad. With 13 points from their last 6 fixtures, including wins over Chelsea and Arsenal, they're in a great run of form at just the right time.