A NLD Arsenal scouting report: Sp*rs

Right then. Derby time. Spurs travel to the Emirates for a ridiculously early high noon Sunday kickoff. The sides come into this game in different form. Tottenham remain unbeaten in the league but 5 draws from 10 matches have them in 6th place. They’ve not won since their impressive 2-0 defeat of Manchester City, a run of six matches that includes three consecutive league draws to West Brom, Bournemouth and Leicester. By contrast, Arsenal have won the last two and are on a 15 match unbeaten run that stretches back to the opening day of the Premier League season August 14.

But for all of the good performances Arsenal have put in lately, form and league position tend to matter less in these fiercely contested derbies. What will be of considerably more importance is which players with injury doubts will be available for both sides.  

In his press conference following their Wednesday evening defeat to Bayer Leverkusen, Mauricio Pochetinno said it would be difficult for Harry Kane to play from the start. The Tottenham striker suffered ankle ligament damage against Sunderland in mid September and hasn’t played since. Spurs initially appeared to be coping fine with Kane’s injury. They won 4 straight in the games immediately following the injury, including the 2-0 defeat of Man City, and scored 10 goals. However they’ve not won since and have scored just 3 goals in the 6 match winless run.  Based on comments Pochetinno made Friday Kane has recovered well and will definitely at least be in the squad. He said there is a 50-50 chance he’ll start.  

However, crucially for Spurs they’ll be without Toby Alderweireld in the center of defense. Despite hopes he could be back for the derby, Pochetinno said Friday the Belgian center back will be out until after the international break. He’s been out with a knee injury suffered in Spurs 1-1 draw with West Brom last month. Alderweird’s partnership with Jan Vertonghen was a huge reason Spurs had the joint best defense in the Premier League last season having conceded just 35 goals against and boast the best defense so far this season, having conceded just 5 in 10 matches. Both players are capable of playing the high line Spurs will employ when they press high up the pitch but Alderweireld is the pacier of the two and is therefore more capable of making recovery runs when the opposition get in behind. Alderweireld also rarely makes mistakes, a key attribute in these tense derbies. He’ll likely be replaced by Eric Dier. Dier is a very good player but is still quite young and has a tendency to switch off and be a bit rash in the tackle. Arsenal would do well to get him on a booking early.

Mousa Dembele is in contention to return from injury while it looks like Erik Lamela is certain to miss. Moussa Sissoko is serving the final match of a ban for his elbow to the face of Harry Arter.

As for Arsenal I’ve yet to find a reliable source that’s been able to definitively say whether or not Cazorla, Walcott, Monreal, Gibbs and Bellerin will be available. Whoscored.com has listed all five as doubts. From what I can gather it seems highly unlikely Santi will play but the other four have a decent chance of featuring.

Spurs boast best defensive record

Pochetinno side’s have become synonymous with pressing and tremendous energy off the ball. They completed the third most tackles per game last season (21.1) behind only Liverpool (22.9), another side known for its all-action pressing under Klopp, and Leicester (22.9), the league champions, en route to their joint league-best 35 goals conceded.

It’s interesting then that Spurs’ tackles per game total is down to 17.1, just 14th in the league and less than Arsenal’s 17.1 tackles per game, despite them still having the best defensive record in the league. They also have the fewest interceptions per game in the league at just 9.7, behind Liverpool’s 10. It would make sense that pressing sides get fewer interceptions because the opposition likely has less controlled possession in their attacking half where they’re more likely to take chances playing passes that have a higher risk of being intercepted. When you’re being pressed in your own half you’re more likely to launch the ball long out of immediate danger than to try a risky pass that could be intercepted and spring a counter deep in your own half.

Still, I was surprised Tottenham aren’t completing more tackles. I took a look at Tottenham and Arsenal’s tackles and interceptions against opposition they’ve had in common this season- Leicester, Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Liverpool. In those four games Arsenal and Tottenham have completed a similar number of total tackles, 69 for Arsenal to 64 for Spurs. The number of tackles in the opposition half is also similar, 22 for Arsenal to 21 for Spurs. There’s a major difference in interception stats. Arsenal have 68 total interceptions over the four games to 32 for Spurs. Arsenal have 18 interceptions in the opposition half, double Spurs 9 in the opposition half. I’ve done a game-by-game comparison you can view by clicking here. More importantly however Spurs conceded just 3 goals from the 4 matches and collected 8 points while Arsenal conceded 5 goals and collected just 5 points (the data is certainly skewed by the 4 goals we conceded against Liverpool when we were forced to start Rob Holden and Calum Chambers at center back).

This is all a roundabout way of highlighting my surprise Spurs have such an impressive defensive record seemingly without completing many defensive actions. I put it to fellow Soccermetrica contributor Dan Moskowitz where Spurs defensive dominance might show in the data. He pointed out that Spurs play more long balls (75) in the league than anyone but Burnley, Crystal Palace, Everton and Middlesbrough (Arsenal play the fewest in the league with 48). Their 30.7 clearances per game is the second most in the league (Arsenal have the fewest with 19.2). This was fairly surprising and Moskowitz pointed out it may highlight that Spurs take fewer risks playing out of the back that may lead to chances for the opposition to win the ball back high up the pitch and counter. Instead they’re looking to get it away from their goal into the opposition half quickly.

Their propensity to play it long might also go some way to explaining why Spurs have scored far fewer goals (14) than fellow rivals for the title Man City (24), Liverpool (24), Arsenal (23) and Chelsea (21). Everton have also scored more with 15. Perhaps the more long balls are indicating less controlled build up and fewer clear-cut chances. Spurs take the fifth highest percentage of shots outside of the box in the league (46%) behind Hull (51%), Leicester (49%), Watford (47%) and Burnley (47%). What do those four other sides have in common? They all rank in the bottom six in average possession. Spurs take an awful lot of shots outside the box for a team with the third highest possession total in the league (56.3%). Spurs are currently the only team in the top six of the league table that are also in the top 10 in terms of shots outside the box per game. This indicates those other sides (Man City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton) are creating shooting opportunities from a closer range with a higher chance of scoring or creating a chance off a rebound. Arsenal and Chelsea shoot the lowest percentage of shots outside the box with 36%.

Last weekend against Leicester many of Spurs' long balls were big diagonals from the center backs to the opposite-side fullback as opposed to just hopeful hoofs forward. Vertonghen and Dier looked to get it wide to the advanced fullbacks Walker and Rose with Leicester defending with a narrow midfield four. Rose and Walker are fine attacking center backs but Tottenham's midfield five created very little. They had little by way of meaningful goal scoring chances. Their goal came from a penalty but their only other chance coming to mind was Vertonghen’s late thumping header off the crossbar from a cross from Georges-Kevin Nkuodou.

Moskowitz also pointed out Spurs commit the third most fouls in the league with 13.3 (Arsenal commit the fewest with 9.5). Pochetinno’s side will commit lots of niggling tactical fouls to break up play and prevent counter attacks. Referees tend to be lenient in these sorts of high-tension derby fixtures but hopefully cynical tactical fouls aimed at breaking up our rhythm will be punished with early yellows so Spurs can’t continually foul to stop countering opportunities. I believe it was one of the Chelsea fixtures last season when Jose Mourinho’s side were quite clearly strategically fouling us high up the pitch to break up the game and they were never punished.

Final thoughts

Like every NLD this will be a highly-charged battle where it will be vital we stay switched on and also keep our heads during frantic passages of play. It will be sloppy at times but we’re the better footballing side so if we match Spurs’ intensity and minimize mistakes our quality should eventually show through.