Premier League Tactical Preview: Arsenal v Tottenham

Saturday's early kick-off is this season’s first North London derby. The gap between the two rivals has begun to close over recent years, with both teams vying for that all important fourth place finish this season. Spurs lost 5-2 at the Emirates last term, despite taking the lead, but they have a decent record in this fixture in recent years: they won at the Emirates in 2010 and have won three of their last six matches against Arsenal. It’s also worth noting that the last time AVB and Wenger went head to head we witnessed a 3-5 classic at Stamford Bridge.

Potential line-ups

Both sides will set up with a variation of a 4-3-3 formation, albeit with contrasting styles. It looks likely that Walcott will play from the start for Arsenal again this Saturday, having recorded two assists against Fulham last week. The big selection dilemma for AVB will be involve his front two; whether to start Dempsey or Sigurdsson, as well as who to play up front. Adebayor did well against City and will probably get the nod for this game, especially as he tends to relish controversial returns to former clubs..

Two contrasting midfield styles

The big news for Spurs is that Moussa Dembele is still out injured. The Belgian has been sorely missed in recent weeks, with the Spurs midfield failing to dominate against Wigan or City. Dembele can move the ball effectively, and is also Spurs' top tackler this season with 3.8 per game, demonstrating his ability to win the ball and turn defensive scenarios into attacking ones within seconds.

This heat map from Dembele's last game against Villa highlights his role. He sits in front of the back four, hovering in the Spurs half in order to win the ball and instigate attacks. The Belgian is more than just an anchor-man, though, as he can also surge forward at pace and influence attacking proceedings: he is Spurs' second top passer with 50.4 passes per game (at an accuracy of 87%). His role on Saturday (assuming he does make it) is absolutely crucial: without him Huddlestone is simply unable to have the same impact, only recording 1.8 tackles and 0.9 interceptions per game. Huddlestone, whilst a good ball player, is nowhere near as mobile as Dembele, which negatively impacts on Spurs' overall style and approach.

Huddlestone’s heat-map is below.  His heat-map, which shows him in more attacking positions, suggests he will struggle to contain Arsenal’s dynamic midfield trio in the same way.

Arteta and Wilshire, who will sit at the base of Arsenal's midfield, are technical ball-players, not natural ball-winners. Both of them will want to pick the ball up off the back four and dictate the play, something that Spurs do a lot less, being a more natural counter-attacking unit. Arteta has completed on average 90 passes per game, compared to Dembele's 50.4. Dembele and Sandro in contrast look to tackle and intercept, moving the ball out wide, rather than spending too much time on it themselves. 

With this contrast it will be important for Dempsey to assist his two holding players, or Arsenal could enjoy a lot of possession in the midfield. The American has struggled since moving to Spurs and will need to pick his performance up if his side are to get anything from this tie. If he fails to track back, Dembele and Sandro could be two versus three in the midfield, with Cazorla exploiting the extra space in this area. The Spanish midfield maestro will look to get forward and dictate the tempo in the attacking third but may also have a responsibility to track any potential runs forward from Dembele.

Battle out wide

Both North London clubs will set up with wingers. The style in which they play is somewhat different, though. Spurs' wingers play like we'd expect in a 4-4-2, working hard to track back as well as sticking relatively wide. Bale does venture into central positions in the attacking third but he also works very hard to track back down the left and provide cover:

A lot of his movement is in his own half, as we saw late on in the City game, when Bale worked hard for his side to cover the forward runs of Vertonghen. Bale can also look to link up with Adebayor/Defoe when his side are in possession by driving into central areas, as he did so well against United earlier this season.

This left side for Spurs is even more important when we consider that it'll be up against Theo Walcott, who is playing like a man with a point to prove, having scored twice and recorded three assists in two league starts. Vertonghen has been very solid this season, but the big Belgian defender is more suited to playing at centre-back, meaning that Walcott could get at him with his pace. Vertonghen is a smart defender, though, and will likely limit his own forays forward in order to nullify Walcott. Walcott himself plays high up the field, as does Poldoksi, in what is a very conventional 4-3-3, with neither player covering their full-backs that much:

Walcott's movement is focused around the half way line with only limited defensive contribution. Consequently Bale might have joy getting in behind Walcott and running at Sagna. The Welsh wizard is one of the most dynamic dribblers in the Premier League and will have a massive role to play if Spurs are to get a result of any kind. Walcott and Podolski will equally be a threat, as they offer both width and assistance to Giroud. Both players will look to link up in more central positions with the full-backs certain to provide width on the overlap. Again Bale and Lennon will have to track these runs.


Being at home, Arsenal possibly have the edge in this encounter, but they are a bit shaky at then back, meaning that Spurs will fancy getting a result. Spurs might look to get at Arsenal using balls into the box towards Adebayor, who would be the perfect out ball if he starts. This will be a big game for Clint Dempsey, who has so far failed to impress in a Spurs shirt, with that attacking midfield slot looking relatively weak at the moment. The American will have to work hard for his team to help Spurs dominate in the midfield, or they could risk being over-run. The loss of Dembele is also a massive blow to Spurs, whose shape has to change slightly without him in the side.
The major battlefields will be out wide and the contrasting styles in midfield. Arsenal will try and dominate possession in this area through their three technical central midfielders, while Spurs will look to win the ball and quickly counter-attack through Dembele supplying the balls out wide. This will certainly be a fiery encounter with both teams desperate for three points to keep pace with Everton, who are sitting in fourth. With one point between the two clubs it is difficult to predict the outcome, but hopefully we’ll be in for a Saturday afternoon treat.