Ever expect to see the day where a Jose Mourinho led team would be seen as infinitely more exciting and easy on the eye than an Arsenal team? Well if 2020 wanted to turn the world upside down, it has most definitely succeeded. As mentioned in our recent preview of the United 0-1 Arsenal game, Arteta had initially succeeded in making the Gunners a resolute side which does not get beat easily. However since that encounter we have witnessed a 3-0 loss at home to Aston Villa and a further 1-2 loss to fellow Midlands based outfit Wolves. So a team that was misfiring in attack is also beginning to look increasingly leaky at the back... dull AND ineffective? a surefire recipe for disaster...
Spurs who have been flying high, suffered a mishap in Europe this week with their 3-3 draw against plucky Lask. A result which could rather concern Mourinho as it was an insight into the depth of the team should key experienced figureheads such as Lloris, Kane and Alderweirald become absent through injury. Joe Hart was between the sticks and whilst for a moment he looked to have turned back the years, a characteristic blunder allowed the Austrians back into the game and Spurs were never able to fully control the game from then on. Bale looked a shadow of the player he was at his peak and if he does not manage to recapture that form and fitness of yesteryear, one has to question whether Tottenham have the quality in numbers to last the distance.
For Arsenal this is a must win game... a loss here could prove catostrophic for the relationship between the fans and the manager. Arteta was seen as the messiah at the start of the season, because he was proving he could get results in the big games. He proved against United, he still has that in his locker... but can he outwit the chess grandmaster that is Jose Mourinho and keep the fans onside? Mourinho does not necessarily need a win here but his record against Arsenal and his long running feud with the club makes him the ideal villian to put the final nail in the coffin of Arsenal's ambitions to achieve anything of note this season in the league campaign. It really is do or die for the Gunners.
Arsenal are 17th in the league for goals scored and 15th for xG (a measure of their ability to create genuine goalscoring opportunities). Yet in Europe the goals have been flying in at the rate of knots, 16 goals in 5 games. What is notable is that none of these games has featured Aubameyang. Has the Arsenal talisman become a hindrance rather than an asset? or is it simply a case of a weakened Arsenal lineup making hay of weak European opponents...
It is undeniable that Auba has become very one-eyed in the way he is approaching defenders and is becoming rather easy to read - reminscent of United's woes with Anthony Martial in the inside left channel. In contrast, in Europe where the likes of Nelson and Pepe have been used on the flank, there is much more flair and unpredictability which leaves opponents second guessing. Perhaps Auba should be utilised more centrally, in between these two, with freedom to roam and attack via both sides of the pitch.
At one stage, Arsenal were the best team in the league from a statistical perspective (GC and xGA). The problem with stats is that whilst they are great for telling us what has been the case to date, they are rather ineffective at times especially in football at predicting the future. In many ways, stats can be as fickle as football fans. Arsenal now find themsleves 11th in the league defensively (from an xGA perspective)... still better than Liverpool - but now behind all their rivals for Top 4. Is it a temporary blip? or a worrying sign of regression to the mean...
Well upon closer inspection, this decline can be pointed back to the moment Thomas Partey was substituted for Dani Ceballos against Aston Villa on the 49th minute. Now despite Arsenal already being a goal down and Villa by all accounts looking in the game, the xGA stats indicate Arsenal were not actually conceding many shots on goal if any. Villa only started to get going in the second half when Partey had left the pitch and by the 68th minute, they were fully in the ascendancy.
Partey was also missing against Leeds where the Yorkshire based side were dominant throughout, with 25 shots to Arsenal's meagre 9. Furthermore he was absent against Wolves, who despite an uneventful start finally began to click into gear and again edged Arsenal in chances created, managing to create 3 big chances of which 2 found the back of the net. At the moment it is a race against time as to whether he is fit for Sunday's fixture... Arteta will probably risk him if there is any chance he can play, as Arsenal have been in freefall without him.
In terms of tackles won in the final third, Spurs are 6th behind Southampton and ahead of the likes of Brighton. Whilst Jose is not quite ready to abandon his low block principles of yesteryear, it does seem he's rediscovering the importance of the high press. What is interesting is that although Jose's Spurs are applying pressure further up the pitch, their effectivness in the press is poor in certain respects.
They rank third bottom for success % of their presses (regaining ball within 6 seconds) and that indicates that this is a work in progress. Mourinho is ad-libbing and learning his craft, he is kind of halfway housing it at the moment and it is laid bare in the stats. How long he can hedge his bets in this respect remains to be seen but there are encouraging signs of a man willing to embrace new ideas.
One of the smartest tactical ploys employed by Mourinho in his second season at Spurs has been playing Kane as a false 9 of sorts and making him the creative central hub of this Spurs side. This is then complemented by the creativity out wide of his attacking full backs, Reguilon and Aurier/Doherty ensure that there is a constant source of width and more importantly, quality delivery from the flanks. But what if Kane is subdued? who is going to provide that creative thrust from central areas...
A key figure in Spurs' resurgence this year has been Tanguy Ndomble. His ability to hold on to the ball in difficult areas and manipulate it between oncoming waves of traffic has made him the most successful dribbler for a centre mid in the Premier League. He has a 75% success rate for take ons, with an average of 3 take ons per game - put simply no other midfielder comes close. In this respect he is reminiscent of a Paul Pogba as in a side which does not dominate possession he can be a pivotal player in giving the team abit of breathing space in possession and take the pressure off Kane in terms of link up play.
Where he needs to up his game is the quality of his passing and his involvement when he does not have the ball. He only averages 40 passes a game, and in terms of forward passes per game he is exceeded by the likes of Tielemans, Ward-Prowse and Pogba... for a player who has a freeish role under Jose and once managed 7 assists in a season, this is disappointing although he surpasses this trio in through balls attempted. Goal scoring is also a concern - he has never scored more than 2 goals in a season. Compare that to Lo Celso, who scored 9 goals for Betis during the 2018/19 season and you can see why Mourinho might be tempted to displace him with the Argentine now and again.
Tierney/Saka/Auba v Aurier/Bergwijn
On paper, Arsenal seem to have the edge in this battle. They have the defensive nous, superior potency and football IQ to dominate the left flank. The only way Spurs can hope to control this flank is the presence of Sissoko - who will need to drift over and ensure there is minimal outnumbering on this side of the pitch and throw himself about, thus allowing Spurs to reach parity through their marginally superior physicality on this side of the pitch.
Controlling Harry Kane
If Partey is absent, Arsenal will rely upon Elneny to keep Kane quiet in the deep lying striker role. If Artera picks Xhaka and Ceballos instead, it is hard to imagine either of them being able to keep tabs on Kane, who if he scores becomes the ouright highest goalscorer in competitive North London derbies in history.
Dier the ticking time bomb
At the heart of Spurs defence, Eric Dier has seemingly gotten away with looking like a Premier League winning centre back. Upon closer analysis, he has struggled in the air, with a paltry 54.17 % aerial success rate vs 80.95% for Kurt Zouma (another physical secondary centre back) and his huge number of clearances (47) and long passes attempted (91) suggests he lacks the composure to play out from the back under pressure... which could affect Spurs' game management when trying to hold on to a lead. With Lacazette picking up form in Europe, this could be an interesting battle to watch - as Laca has it in him to score with his head and his ball recoveries were impressive midweek.
Tottenham: Lloris, Aurier, Alderweireld, Dier, Reguilon; Hojbjerg, Sissoko, Ndombele; Son, Bergwijn, Kane
Arsenal: Leno, Holding, Gabriel, Tierney, Bellerin, Ceballos, Xhaka; Saka, Willian, Lacazette, Aubameyang
Prediction: This promises to be one of the most dour North London derbies in years with two pragmatists at the helm. In terms of who needs the result more... it is unquestionably Arsenal but they are up against a manager who has not lost a home game against the Gunners in all pevious meetings (W6 D4). It is difficult to imagine Spurs not scoring a goal and based on recent evidence they should have enough to get on the scoresheet.
In contrast, Arsenal do not have the firepower to score more than a single goal at the moment and in truth, it would be a great ask of them to do so against a Spurs side which managed to shut out a talent-laden Chelsea side. Arteta will need to go for broke if he is to win this game, as trying to counter this Spurs side will be difficult as they have conceded zero goals on fast counters this season. This paradoxically plays into Mourinho's hands... so therefore expect a tight affair in the first half before Artera begins to loosen his grip in the desire to get all three points.
In terms of overall form, Spurs have the edge, In terms of capacity to grow and improve performance, Spurs are close to full capacity whereas Arsenal undoubtedly have room to grow. As to who needs this result more, it is Arsenal. With regards to know how of how to win these type of encounters, Jose has the edge but Arteta tactically is a decent match up, as his dose of pragmatism is actually a good style match up against a Mourinho side just like it was against Ole's United. Getting a draw will not be out of Arsenal's reach - however they need a win and this could open them up to a cataclysmic defeat.
If Partey does not play... Spurs win 2-1, if he does, 1-1 draw.