Puffed mouth, arms up high, Jose Mourinho was in awe of Heung-min Son’s strike, as was his assistant Joao Sacramento. “In the first half of course we put ourselves in a position of good advantage..”. The type of advantage Mourinho dreams of. Now, he could flip the switch and Mourinho the game as he did against Chelsea and Manchester City.
Another defensive display, another clean sheet, and no wonder who was grinning again in the post match press conference. Mourinho’s voice oozed of confidence and control. Control which he sought from the first minute of the game till the last. The spectacle might not have been easy on the eye, but it’s the Portuguese’s wet dream.
Tottenham’s lightening transitions brought them their two goals in the game but again it was the defensive display that made the difference. The shape unchanged but a small tweak in the defensive roles was needed to adapt to Arsenal. Mikel Arteta’s side fluctuated between their shapes as is the norm, but the two defining features this time was using Alexandre Lacazette as a number 10 behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and a 3–1 build up shape.
Two features, that in conjunction made Spurs’ life easier. The use of this 3–1 build up shape with Granit Xhaka dropping to the left of the three reduced the number of players in midfield that Spurs had to mark. Accordingly, it allowed Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg to man mark Lacazette whenever he dropped to present himself as a passing option centrally.
The other reason Spurs could do this comfortably is that neither Xhaka nor Rob Holding are a creative threat in the channels. Meaning, that they would have to play either centrally or out wide.
In the first half, it was all about playing the ball centrally to find Lacazette. Hojbjerg however was on his tail.
Even when Lacazette moved to the channels, Hojbjerg either followed or made sure Moussa Sissoko picked him up.
In this example, Xhaka played it wide to Kieran Tierney whose options are nullified; Steven Bergwijn is blocking his progression, Serge Aurier is marking Bukayo Saka, and Hojbjerg is making sure Lacazette isn’t floating around freely. As a result, Tierney had to go back and reset the attack.
Hojbjerg’s presence denied passes into Lacazette and when the pass came, he was there to cause problems. The bigger issue for Arsenal however was that there wasn’t any movement centrally to help free Lacazette. A lonely sheep walking through the wolf pack.
Now that the central option has failed Arsenal, they decided to move to the wide one. In the second half, Arsenal retained their 3–1 build up structure while trying to find the full back-winger duo out wide. This was nullified by Spurs’ insistence of having three players against Arsenal’s wide duos. On the right Sissoko helped Bergwijn and Aurier….
…..and on the left Hojbjerg aided Sergio Reguilon and Son.
Arsenal’s own isolation of their wide duos again made it easier for Spurs to contain them. The only option for Arsenal’s wide players was either to cross or reset the attack, resulting in the infamous U-shaped circulation pass map.
Towards the end of the game, Mourinho wanted to further solidify his fortress by including Ben Davies. Three minutes later Arteta introduced Eddie Nketiah, but Mourinho’s insistence of having an extra man out wide and in the box, the only two areas where Arsenal’s ball flowed, paints a picture of his ideas to neutralize this Arsenal side.
Regardless of the shape, Spurs made sure to have one extra player in Arsenal’s areas of threat. Adapting their defensive roles depending on where and how will Arsenal attack them.
“In the 2nd half we accept what they did to us. When they drop Xhaka to build with a third man, we could go and press. But to go and press with one more man, we would open spaces in other areas. Why should we do that? So, have the ball, try to hurt us but it’s gonna be difficult for you because we defend very well and very comfortably.” Mourinho elaborated after the game.
These words encapsulated the game perfectly. Arsenal’s 3–1 build up harmed them more than it benefited them. Having creative defenders in the mould of David Luiz would have forced Spurs to press these players, but David Luiz was injured. Therefore, it was Holding and Xhaka on either side of the three man build up, two players who didn’t need to be pressed as they present the minimalist of threat when compared to the other Arsenal players. That’s the part Mourinho politely left out.
On the other hand, Spurs’ defensive performance earned them their third clean sheet in a row. Three clean sheets and seven points against Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal. These are the things Mourinho lives for, but it’s still early to judge whether his mastery of pressing schemes and attacking structures is near what is needed to win the title.
Darth Vader has crawled out of the lava and currently supervising the construction of his Death Star.