North London Derby: Arsenal were crap edition

Arsenal vs Tottenham, FT 1-1

[Premier League, 08/11/2015]

After the Manchester Derby a few weeks ago, Louis van Gaal’s insomniac-healing handprint all over it, Sky executives were probably hoping for something a little more exciting. Such excitement was always likely, given past North London Derbies and the fact that both sides are currently performing very well, with systems a far cry from that of the current United side.

Both teams fielded the same centre-backs for the entire game; Mertesacker and Koscielny for Arsenal, and Alderweireld and Vertonghen for Spurs.

From the point of view of observing central defenders, the game didn’t start too promisingly. All four of them – behind a solid defensive structure, in fairness – looked like they were in pre-season, knowing that an extra or a lack of 5% of effort would have no meaningful consequences. No-one looked worried at being out of position, there was lack of awareness of runs on players’ blind sides; there was little there that was terrible, but, with hindsight speaking, there were hints at what was to come for the Arsenal centre-backs particularly.

It should also be mentioned that it was not a relentless first half hour of slightly under par defending. Tottenham’s CBs fairly quickly became very good, dealing well with the movement of Giroud around them, though the structure in front of them meant that they didn’t have much to do. The Arsenal centre-backs also exhibited instances of good positioning, though it was largely nothing special.

Koscielny seemed to have been instructed to step right up to Kane when he received the ball around the halfway line, to prevent him from turning and breaking, however throughout the match he generally failed to win the ball, often being easily and embarrassingly shrugged off by the Spurs striker.

Spurs’ goal also saw him stick to the script he’d been given, attempting to play Harry Kane offside from a long ball by Danny Rose on the Tottenham left, just inside their half. Mertesacker had been pulled forwards to cover Eriksen, who should have been covered by Santi Cazorla, opening a space between the two Arsenal centre-backs in which Kane could occupy. Probably, Koscielny should have moved back and to his right a couple of yards, but this is influenced by hindsight.

It may also be worth bearing in mind that there was a clear offside instruction as well as the proactive nature of Koscielny’s game. Naturally (in as much a way as you can use that word) he will step up rather than drop off. Unfortunately, he was off his game all match. His 90 minutes seemed to be littered by moments when, had he been performing better, he might have taken a moment to think and a step back, rather than diving in or up the field.

This was possibly not helped – or perhaps this is just another symptom – by the fact that he had quite little to do for much of the game, in terms of being physically close to an opponent forward. There were times on Tottenham attacks when he had no man to mark and he looked a little uncertain. His style being so proactively on the front-foot, this may have contributed to him taking the front foot option when he could.

As the second half progressed up until their goal, Arsenal were, to be frank, all over the place, to a greater or lesser extent, a generally poor performance that involved their central defenders too. The moments involving centre-backs went from slack to comical, Cech almost being tackled by Lamela with Mertesacker right beside him, who could have helped out more in the situation either through taking the ball or by being aware of the Spurs threat. On 65 minutes, Spurs broke, Mertesacker largely stopped while appealing for an offside, seemingly unable to run and hold his arm up at the same time, allowing Lamela to get away from him. Several times, Spurs strikers made runs in behind the Arsenal back line which neither centre-back seemed to be aware of.

It is the Arsenal centre-backs being singled out because that is where most of the central defensive involvement was. At the other end, Arsenal’s attacking and Giroud’s movement had dropped off in quality and quantity, thanks in big part to Tottenham’s good shape and pressing. On this note, Arsenal fans would probably appreciate it being mentioned that they are suffering from a fairly long list of injuries, including several starters, and it did look like they were more tired than their opponents.

The Arsenal equaliser came largely from a disintegration of the Tottenham defensive system, a cross coming from their right that left the Spurs back line with too many forwards to mark. Walker was pulled across to the centre, allowing Gibbs some space to make up for all of the chances that Giroud had missed previously. A very similar thing happened just a couple of minutes later in the 79th, Mertesacker hooking the ball to Gibbs, again, on the left, and again a minute later, where Spurs’ midfield seemed absent again on an Arsenal break.

Giroud’s movement had clearly returned to him by the final ten minutes, Vertonghen resorting to a soft hold on him at some corners, as he had in the first half to deal with the threat. This probably neither counts as good nor bad defending, as such, using a slightly risky dark arts strategy to keep his man in check.

It was certainly a better, and more exciting, game than the Manchester Derby. Neither Tottenham centre-back did anything that requires going into detail about, dealing fairly competently with what Arsenal threats did appear when those threats were to be dealt with by them. Mertesacker looked largely like the general impression I have of him: ok, sometimes genuinely good, but on other occasions dopy, and, of course, slow. Koscielny, meanwhile, was just a bit below par.

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