The abduction of Mourinho’s golden goose

Jose Mourinho’s comments prior to the North London derby were nothing out of the ordinary for the Portuguese manager. Taking a slight dig at the opponent, and not any opponent. Arsenal.

The irony in the comment “I look up, I don’t look down. If Arsenal was seven points ahead of us I would look to them but because we have seven points more than them, I don’t look down.” is that on the field of play Tottenham Hotspur weren’t looking up. The approach as expected was reactive, and when Tottenham tried to find their golden goose they were nullified.

Mourinho’s reactive approach has worked this season before, as seen against Manchester City and Arsenal. It frustrates the opponent and allows Harry Kane and Son Heung-min to attack on the counter. Add Gareth Bale to the equation and Mourinho’s eyes were probably lighting up.

The last sentence in particular might give an introduction to Tottenham’s failed approach on the right side at the Emirates. Bale was clearly not tracking back and positioned more centrally to prepare for the counter, leaving Matt Doherty to move up and face Kieran Tierney while one of Tanguy Ndombele and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg dropped to track Emile Smith Rowe.

That meant that Smith Rowe had vast amount of space to attack behind Doherty, while dragging either Ndombele or Hojbjerg away from the central area.

Even from static positions, one of Hojbjerg or Ndombele moved out wide as Bale was further ahead, ready in case Spurs retrieved the ball.

Accordingly, once Arsenal got past Doherty and either of his assisters there was space in-front of the six yard box because one of Hojbjerg and Ndombele moved out initially to the right hand side. That was the case in this attack, Hojbjerg initially moved out to the touchline to stop Smith Rowe, but the young Gunner dribbled past him before playing the cut back into Alexandre Lacazette. The French striker missed but he was in the correct position, as was Martin Odegaard. Seeking to exploit the space in-front of the six yard box that was created due to Spurs’ defensive approach.

Smith Rowe kept making the same move behind the Spurs defence. When Doherty was moving out, Smith Rowe attacked the space behind him and Ndombele was always one second late as he had to move from central midfield to the right channel.

Tierney and Smith Rowe were going through the Spurs lines like a hot knife going through butter. With the latter attacking the space behind Doherty, Tierney found him as Ndombele froze in his position.

Ndombele now dragged to the right channel, again left Hojbjerg alone with Lacazette and Odegaard attacking the second six yard box (area in-front of the six yard box). Weirdly, Lacazette dummied Smith Rowe’s cut back in hope of a later runner. The runner came in the form of Cedric Soares and his shot struck the post.

Arsenal’s first goal was coming and it’s no surprise that it came from the same attack down the left. Smith Rowe dragged Ndombele to the edge of the penalty box, as Tierney powered through Doherty near the touchline.

Once Tierney had a clear cross, he played the ball into Odegaard who was smartly attacking the correct space in the box. Ndombele was out of position to track Smith Rowe, leaving Hojbjerg helpless as he has the whole central area to cover.

The Arsenal players saw the spaces and utilized it correctly. Tierney and Smith Rowe kept attacking the space behind Doherty, moving either of Ndombele or Hojbjerg wide. Which as a result created space centrally for Arsenal to attack. Lacazette and Odegaard smartly positioned themselves in the box, offering the cutback option in the vacant space in-front of the six yard box.

Mourinho’s plan backfired and Arsenal’s left side was a constant source of the threat throughout the first half. In the second half Mourinho had to abort, so he introduced Moussa Sissoko in place of Bale and moved Erik Lamela to the right wing position. Contrary to Bale, Lamela dropped to support Doherty keeping the midfield pair — now Sissoko and Hojbjerg — in their place in midfield.

Mikel Arteta on the other hand, had a plan to stop Tottenham progressing the ball up the field. A flexible approach to neutralize the Tottenham players dropping into midfield to offer passing options, notably Kane.

Firstly, Granit Xhaka moved up the field to mark the Tottenham player dropping to assist with Tottenham’s build up while Lacazette and Odegaard pressed Tottenham’s center backs.

Behind him was Thomas Partey playing a sweeping role to pick up any balls behind Xhaka. In this example, Partey collects the loose ball and plays it across the field into the feet of Smith Rowe who strikes the bar.

Xhaka’s marking wasn’t strict and it depended entirely on whether Kane is dropping to support Tottenham’s build up or not. Here, Xhaka is closer to Hojbjerg….

….then as Hugo Lloris plays the ball into Davinson Sanchez, Xhaka spots Kane dropping.

So he alters his position by dropping slightly deeper to block the passing lane into Kane….

….forcing Sanchez into a long ball which David Luiz collected easily.

Whenever Kane dropped, Xhaka moved his attention away from Hojbjerg to Kane. Leaving the task of nullifying the dropping Spurs midfielder to Lacazette who pressed Sanchez while blocking the passing lane into Hojbjerg in this example.

Another example shows Lacazette pressing Sanchez and this time it’s Ndombele who is in the cover shadow of the French striker.

That’s because Xhaka was marking the dropping Kane. No passing options for Sanchez meant that he had to go long and Arsenal managed to retrieve possession.

Even when it wasn’t Kane who was dropping, Xhaka was always scanning to prevent Tottenham from progressing through the center of the pitch. Here, he is close to Sissoko…

….then spots Lamela trying to go inside and overload the central area, so he moves away from Sissoko.

Leaving Spurs to build up easily with their two holding midfielders free….

….but it meant nullifying their two players trying to go inside and overload the central area. Xhaka and Partey’s positioning blocks the passing lanes into Lamela and Lucas Moura respectively, resulting in Partey intercepting Sissoko’s pass into Lucas.

Complementing Xhaka’s role in stopping Kane were Arsenal’s center backs, David Luiz and Gabriel. When Xhaka was busy pressing Hojbjerg and Partey was wide….

….Arsenal’s center backs moved forward to prevent passes being played into Kane. Here, Gabriel moved all the way to the central circle to be closer to Kane as Xhaka and Partey were far from the English striker.

Another example is in the build up to Arsenal’s second goal. Tottenham were trying to progress by using a long ball into the dropping Kane while Lucas pinned Cedric preventing him from moving forward. Xhaka and Partey’s central positioning here makes them unable to track Kane. However, David Luiz was glued to the striker and had Nicolas Pepe not intercepted the long ball, David Luiz was there.

Until Lamela’s sending off Tottenham were unable to progress smoothly up the field due to Arsenal’s excellent marking scheme. It was flexible, giving priority to marking the advanced Tottenham players while still halting the build up.

Mourinho’s initial plan enabled Arsenal to play through their left side in the first half and it could have been more than one goal for the Gunners. Add to that Arteta’s flexible marking scheme which resulted in the abduction of Kane, and Tottenham were helpless.

The Tottenham players tried looking up, but there wasn’t any option available.

English Football. United