Goals: Bale (37), Lennon (39), Mertesacker (51)
Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Jenkinson (RB), Vermaalen (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Monreal (LB), Wilshere (CM) Arteta (CM), Ramsey (CM), Walcott (RF), Cazorla(LF), Giroud (CF).
In a game of two high defensive lines, Arsenal stopped pressing the man on the ball for 5 minutes, ushered in Spurs’ midfield runners like a drunken receptionist ushers guests at a fundraiser, conceded two identical goals in 3 minutes and managed to lose the game.
First 30 minutes
The biggest question before the game was how Arsenal would go on about stopping Gareth Bale, with Arsene Wenger being mocked after saying he would not take any special precautions against the in-form Welshman. The always moronic Piers Morgan went as far as suggesting that Wilshere should man-mark Bale. Yet, Arsenal’s formation and game plan in the first 30 minutes indicated that the visitors would rely on keeping possession and holding a high defensive line to deny Bale any ball supply. With Ramsey paired with Arteta as a double pivot, Wilshere in the advanced central midfield role and Cazorla coming narrow from wide left, Arsenal did manage to press Spurs quite effectively, and controlled both possession and territory in the first 30 minutes.
This is not to say that the visitors carved Spurs open when they went forward in those first 30 minutes. Except a wonderful Cazorla ball that released Giroud behind (the French striker was slow to pull the trigger and Vertonghen’s block took the sting of his shot), Arsenal did not create much themselves. However, they almost completely neutralized the Spurs attacking threat in the opening half an hour as indicated by the charts below. The left panel of the first chart illustrates that Bale was not in the game at all in the first 32 minutes. The right panel of the same chart displays Bales’s attacking action in the remaining hour of the game.
The first half an hour looked encouraging for Arsenal not only because they were able to take Bale out of the game, but also because Cazorla and Wilshere got into good attacking positions. The second chart below compares the attacking performances of Arsenal and Spurs in this first half an hour. What seemed to be missing for Arsenal was a good run combined with a well timed through ball to breach the high Spurs line and take the lead. But it was the home side who did exactly that during a 5-minute period in which Arsenal stopped doing what they were doing to great effect.
Conceding the same goal twice in 3 minutes
With Bale switched to a central attacking position, Villas-Boas had placed Sigurdson on the wide left role. Sigurdson had almost released Bale behind in the 21st minute, but his pass was slightly overhit. That was the only instance in the first 37 minutes where Arsenal lost their concentration and allowed the man on the ball to pick a pass behind their own high line. But, given that this is the most frustrating Arsenal side in recent memory, the same switch-off happened again in the 37th minute. When the Icelander got the ball on the wide left channel, Jenkinson stood off him. With Arteta and Ramsey switching off, he looked up and threaded a ball behind the retreating Mertesacker to find the onrushing Bale who easily beat Szczesny one on one.
Before Arsenal could get their act together, they conceded the exact same goal again after 3 minutes. This time Scott Parker of all people was allowed to run unopposed through the same inside left channel. When the untalented English midfielder (whose only consistent ability with the ball is to run in circles) looked up, he saw Lennon’s run inside Monreal from the opposite flank. The Spanish left back tracked the winger, but just when Parker played his ball, he stopped and decided to execute an offside trap. Mertesacker, however, was not on the same page as he had not pushed up, and Lennon was onside. Vermaalen, who I would not even trust organizing the plates in my dishwasher let alone a high defensive line, had no idea what was happening on his left, probably because Monreal did not want to wake him up by alerting him to Lennon’s run. Lennon rounded Szczesny to score into an empty net. It was really schoolboy defending once again from Arsenal. Just like against Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Manchester City, Arsenal had constructed themselves another hill to climb, going 2-0 down again.
Arsenal quickly found a lifeline when Mertesacker headed in Walcott’s ball from a set piece at the near post barely five minutes into the second half. There was a lot of time to find an equalizer or even win the game, but I am sure many Arsenal fans did not hold their collective breath.
Arsene Wenger made an attacking switch to pile the pressure on Spurs as he replaced Jenkinson with Rosicky with Ramsey dropping back to the right back position on paper, but staying high up most of the time. With Rosicky moving to the hole, Wilshere dropped back a little. This attacking switch transformed Arsenal’s shape to a 3-4-3 and exposed Arsenal’s right flank to Spurs counterattacks which duly arrived. First, a well worked Spurs move released Assou-Ekoto on the left, but Bale missed the sitter at the back post. Villas-Boas replaced the injured Adebayor with Defoe, a change which also fit well with the home side’s game plan for the second half. When Defoe found the ball with a clever run to the right channel, he released Sigurdson behind on Arsenal’s right, but the Icelander hesitated and wasted the opportunity with a cutback.
Despite Wenger taking all the gambles he could take (Arteta was also replaced by Podolski, with the German moving to wide left and Cazorla going central), Arsenal looked somewhat toothless in attack and were easily repelled by Dawson’s aggressive defending on Giroud and Vertonghen’s good reading of the game as he intercepted a number of through balls to Walcott. Arsenal’s best opportunity to equalize fell to Ramsey after Rosicky released the Welshman on the right edge of the box, yet his shot got a deflection off Ekoto and missed the far post by a small margin.
Perhaps equally disappointing for Arsenal, as the two comical twin goals they conceded, was the lack of scoring opportunities they were able to create despite taking all the risks. Wilshere, Cazorla and Rosicky, the three most advanced midfielders finished the game with zero attempts on goal in between the three of them. Giroud was not able to impose himself and could not create much space for the midfield runners. Theo Walcott never got the throughball he waited all game long. With the lead Arsenal gifted them, Spurs dropped their high line deeper in the second half and repelled the Arsenal pressure without being really suffocated.
Arsenal are now 7 points behind Spurs with 10 games to go. Spurs have a more difficult run of games on paper, but this Arsenal side does not inject much confidence to go on a winning run, even in the mind of the most optimistic Gooner.