Podolski's absence could prove significant in North London Derby

Arsenal's 2-0 win over Fenerbahce last night in the final round of qualification for the Champions League group stage capped off a fine week for the Gunners that seemed to restore much-needed optimism around the club after the opening day league defeat to Villa had Gooners pressing the panic button. The win secured Arsenal's passage to their 16th consecutive season in the group stage of the Champions League, a staggering achievement for Arsene Wenger given the departure of some of the club's best players in recent years. It was a third win in seven days. Aaron Ramsey scored both goals in yet another man of the match performance. Santi Cazorla was fantastic playing off of Olivier Giroud through the middle and was unlucky not to get a goal of his own. Laurent Koscielny was given a rest after his nasty head injury in the first leg of the tie and yet Arsenal's makeshift back four still managed a clean sheet. With the North London Derby looming at the weekend, Arsenal established firm control of the contest early and never had to kick into a second gear, significant given their thin squad at the moment. On the whole this was as convincing and professional a performance as Wenger could have hoped.

Yet not all was perfect. Lucas Podolski was stretchered down the tunnel early in the second half with a hamstring injury that will sideline him for three weeks. While the German left sided attacker may become more of a fringe player as first team regulars return from injury and Arsenal bring in new signings, it was important Wenger have him available for the weekend derby.

The absence of Podolski means in all likelihood that Wenger's lineup picks itself. With both Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain sidelined with injuries, Cazorla is almost certain to play on the left of Arsenal's 4-2-3-1 with Thomas Rosicky in the #10 role and Ramsey and Wilshere occupying the two deeper midfield positions. While Wenger may well have gone with this set up even if Podolski were available, the injury does enable Spurs manager Andre Villas Boas a few days to prepare for Arsenal with a good idea of exactly how they'll set up. Wenger doesn't change his team's style much regardless of his opponent or the personnel available to him so this isn't necessarily a huge advantage. However, it does give Spurs players the benefit of studying where Arsenal has tended to exploit teams when fielding this lineup and how teams have beaten this lineup.

The injury could also hinder Arsenal in that it means Cazorla will be unable to play through the middle (unless Wenger makes a surprise move to use either Gibbs or Monreal as a left winger).
Cazorla is Arsenal's most gifted player on the ball. While he typically performs well when employed on the left, he doesn't get nearly as many touches as when he plays the #10 spot and therefore can't impact the game as much as he's capable. He played in the middle alongside Ramsey and Rosicky as part of a 4-3-3 in the win over Fulham where he made crucial passes in the buildup to the first two goals before assisting Podolski for the third. He completed more passes in the attacking third than any other player (25) and created more chances (6). He was excellent again last night as the center attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1. While Rosicky is a fine footballer, I don't think he gives Arsenal quite the same dynamism in the middle of the park.

Podolski would also have provided Arsenal a good counterattacking option to exploit space in behind Kyle Walker. Walker is a very attacking right back and will consistently overlap the right midfielder to provide width. This leaves space down the right side of Spurs defense for the opposition to break into quickly when they win the ball back. Podolski has the pace to track Walker's runs forward then sprint into the space in behind him and set off counters when Arsenal retain possession. In Arsenal's 2-0 win at Anfield last season, Podolski executed this kind of movement perfectly to score the Gunners' opener. Liverpool right back Glen Johnson had pushed into the attacking third to provide width before Steven Gerrard cheaply gave the ball away 25 yards from the Arsenal goal. With Johnson out of position, Podolski burst in behind him down the left flank. Arsenal played an outlet ball to Cazorla who took a few dribbles before sliding the unmarked Podolski through on goal for the finish. Unfortunately, I can't find a decent video to the full sequence that led to the goal but you can see Johnson chasing the play in the video below.

Although Cazorla is quick, he doesn't have the same speed over distance that Podolski has and therefore likely won't be able to exploit the spaces that open up on the channels when Walker gets forward.

Most importantly, Podolski's injury means Arsenal don't really have any viable substitutes to bring on in the midfield or up top. It will therefore be vital that Arsenal keep hold of the ball and force Tottenham to do a great deal of defensive work. With Wilshere, Ramsey, Rosicky and Cazorla all on the pitch they certainly have players with the passing ability to do so. Wenger won't want an end-to-end game because Spurs will have plenty of midfield substitutes than can come on and change the game if their first 11 tire. Having still failed to bring in any new signings, Arsenal don't have the same luxury.

Dempsey not suited for center attacking midfield role in Spurs' 4-2-3-1

In the lead up to tomorrow's crucial North London derby, Andre Villas-Boas will certainly be concerned about his side's recent inability to effectively transition the ball forward through the middle of the pitch since the injury to Moussa Dembele.

In their last two league games Spurs were blanked at home to Wigan, a team with the fourth worst defensive record in the league, and only managed to score on a set piece header in the 2-1 loss to Manchester City, a game in which they had only two shots on target. Dembele operates as one of the two holding midfielder's in Spurs' 4-2-3-1 and has the ability to advance the ball from defense to attack with his powerful vertical dribbling.

Dembele's bursts are so important for Tottenham because, unlike their rivals for Champions League spots, they don't have an attacking midfielder/withdrawn forward gifted at playing just off the striker and linking play between deep lying midfielders and forwards down the middle. In Spurs' current 4-2-3-1, both Tom Huddlestone and Sandro stay relatively deep in their holding roles. Therefore it's crucial the central player in the attacking midfield three finds space to get on the ball in attacking positions and has the technical ability and creativity to find forward passes that dissect the defense.

Spurs have played Gylfi Sigurdsson and Clint Dempsey in this central playmaker role but neither have performed it particularly well. Sigurdsson has struggled to have the impact he did at Swansea last season while Dempsey isn't suited for this role. He's a fine athlete and a good finisher with a knack for popping up in the right position to score goals. He is not however an especially technical player nor does he have the passing ability and vision to pick apart a defense with one clever ball.

The lack of an effective center attacking midfielder means Spurs best method of advancing the ball forward has been down the wings with Aaron Lennon and Garreth Bale. They'd of course frequently utilize the incredible pace of Lennon and Bale even if they had a strong central attacking midfielder but the problem is that these two are most effective on the counter when they have space to run at defenders. When the opposition gets their midfield behind the ball it's more difficult for them to use their pace to run by defenders. This is when it becomes important to have an attacking midfielder that can find seams between opposition center backs and holding midfielders in middle of the pitch to get on the ball and create.

Villas-Boas has used Dempsey as the center attacking midfielder in the defeats to Wigan and Manchester City. Last weekend at the Etihad he completed only 8 passes in the attacking third. He completed just 4 passes in the final third the weekend before against Wigan- an astonishingly low number for an attacking midfielder.

Without a player adequately linking midfield to attack Spurs have been forced to skip over the midfield and play hopeful longballs out of the back to advance the ball into the attacking third. They completed just 47 of 99 attempted passes into the final third against Manchester City, a truly abysmal conversion rate. A large portion of those failed passes were hopeful longballs launched towards the box. The attempted longballs can be explained in part by the fact the taller Adebayor had been given the start at striker over Jermaine Defoe but Dempsey's failure to find space to get in possession was also largely to blame.

Spurs' inability to get the ball to their striker in dangerous goalscoring positions is evidenced by the locations on the field Adebayor received the ball last weekend. Of the 31 times he received the ball, only one of those was inside the box and several were near midfield or in Tottenham's defensive half. Defoe was given the start the previous weekend against Wigan. He only received the ball 7 times in the 58 minutes he was on before being subbed, none of which were in the box. In order to score goals your striker needs to receive the ball near the penalty area. Much of that responsibility falls on the central attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 and at the moment Sigurdsson and particularly Dempsey are not getting the job done.

Obviously there will be other key factors in tomorrow's North London derby, particularly the poor recent defensive record of both teams. After keeping clean sheets in each of their first 3 games, Arsenal have managed just one in their last 14. They've conceded more goals in the last 4 games than they had the first 13. Spurs meanwhile have just one clean sheet in the league this season. However, all of the leagues top sides have had their defensive struggles this season including both Manchester clubs and Chelsea. One of the major factors that currently separates these sides from Tottenham is that they all have very gifted players to play off of the forward and create goalscoring chances-Cazorla at Arsenal; Fellaini at Everton; Kagawa and Rooney at Manchester United; Harzard, Mata and Oscar at Chelsea, Silva and Aguero at Manchester City. Over the course of the season Spurs lack of a central attacking midfielder may well prevent them from securing Champions League qualification.