Sunday was the biggest game of Arsène Wenger’s season. Taking on Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane for the very last time and trying to help Arsenal win a place in the top four.
He failed. Spurs 2-0 victory not only left them six points behind Manchester City – although they have a game in hand – but it meant for the first time in 22 years, the Gunners will finish behind their rivals in the table.
More importantly, there was somewhat of a changing of the guard on Sunday. Mauricio Pochettino tactically outclassed the French boss.
When Wenger arrived in England, everyone was playing catch-up. Le Professor changed the game. Tactically, nutrition, training, preparations… almost everything about the modern game has elements of Wenger’s influence.
Yet in the North London derby, it was the Argentine coach that became the teacher.
Against Middlesbrough, after the stunning and shocking 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace, Arsenal moved to the 3-4-3 formation that both Chelsea and Spurs have enjoyed great success with this season. It worked.
Arsenal improvements with 3-4-3
The defence looked stronger, conceding two goals in three games. It was far from perfect, but signs of improvement were there and something for the Frenchman to work on for the following campaign… if he stays.
All the build-up before the match was regarding the battle of the two formations. Tottenham’s 3-4-3 looked much stronger. Three better centre-backs, wing-backs that can attack and defend and a well-balanced midfield. Pochettino would have been confident of winning the game regardless.
Yet the former Southampton boss made a tactical change, playing 4-2-3-1 and it worked to perfection.
Going down Arsenal’s right, the combination of Son Heung-Min and Ben Davies, plus the movement of Dele Alli and cover of Jan Vertonghen had the away side overloaded.
Lack of positional understanding
GOAL!!! Dele Alli puts Spurs ahead after some childlike defending from Arsenal. Huge goal.
— JOE.co.uk (@JOE_co_uk) April 30, 2017
What didn’t help is a lack of understanding from the Gunners when in defensive situations. When Son made a good run down the flank, the defenders followed, leaving Ben Davies unmarked. Positionally, the players don’t seem to know where they are meant to be.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a transfer target for Liverpool and Manchester City, finds himself inside Gabriel, he should be the one to close the Spurs left-back down, with Mesut Özil tracking Son’s movement.
The Brazilian isn’t marking anyone, neither is Oxlade-Chamberlain, and as you can see from the second graphic, even Aaron Ramsey seems at a loss to know whether to close down the ball or hold his ground.
Davies has time and space to deliver a cross with his left-foot and when you have Alli and Harry Kane in the middle, although the Gunners have bodies covering their runs, you can’t afford to leave that much freedom.
Arsenal Failed Biggest Test
No disrespect to Middlesbrough or Leicester City, and even Manchester City from an organisational perspective, this was Wenger’s biggest test with his new formation and early on there were signs of it falling apart.
“Look, whether I believe or not, the gap is there,” responded Wenger when asked if he thought there was such a large difference between the two clubs.
“That is often in the final part of the season, that can go one way or the other without really reflecting the difference between the teams. But I know it’s a good subject for the media.
When you watch Arsenal try to play Spurs system, and Pochettino’s side are able to adjust and counter, knowing exactly what their rivals will bring. It’s hard not to see that chasm of quality.
Eric Dier was moved into midfield but he is naturally able to drop back, as is Victor Wanyama, creating a central three and that allows Spurs to both clog up the midfield and the channels.
Oxlade-Chamberlain has all the tools to be a very effective right wing-back, but he was reduced to one take on attempt – which failed.
Only one of his five crosses found its target and he was only able to attempt 11 passes in the final third.
Spurs won the battle down the flanks
On Spurs right flank, Kieran Trippier, who would be their second choice in that role, managed 15 passes in the final third.
At every opportunity, it felt like the home side had an extra man in every position across the pitch.
What didn’t help, was similar to Ramsey’s inability to close down space and pressure the ball in the opening 10 minutes, Arsenal didn’t work anywhere near as hard as their opponents. Which could be seen for the opening goal.
Although you can question the commitment from Kieran Gibbs to close down the danger before Alli’s goal and the way that Christian Eriksen dropped the shoulder and glided past Laurent Koscielny, you have to look at Granit Xhaka’s positioning.
Although he can clearly see the danger, he makes no attempt to close down the area of space outside the six-yard box.
That’s where Alli was allowed to run into and make the crucial touch and get a shot off. If the Swiss international had been aware, just having a body in that space could have been enough to prevent the goal.
Minutes after going 1-0 down, the defence switched off again and Gabriel had no choice but to challenge Harry Kane, conceding a penalty and their chance of a comeback.
Redemption at Wembley
Arsenal next take on Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United at the Emirates. If there’s one thing that the Portuguese boss can do is organise a defence. Arsenal won’t find it easy to break them down.
Regardless of what happens in the league now – and the odds of a top four finish are getting longer by the game – Arsenal’s biggest game will come against Chelsea on May 27 as they try to win the FA Cup.
One positive for the Gunners’ boss is that he can be assured that Conte won’t change from his 3-4-3 formation, so the Frenchman has just over three weeks to make sure his team is ready.
Despite some poor performances this season, Wenger must put trust in Héctor Bellerín at right wing-back. He knows the position better both in attack and defence.
Then, rather than look to use Olivier Giroud as the target-man, especially against Gary Cahill and David Luiz, you need pace and movement, perfect for someone like Theo Walcott.
Those are the two areas that Arsenal could improve instantly, and it’s up to the French boss to realise this, show that he is still able to dissect a performance and find ways to improve it.
Chelsea have shown some signs of weakness with players making runs from wide to the back post and it’s that space behind Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso that the North London team need to exploit. Spurs countered that with the back four, but Chelsea won’t do the same.
Wenger must trust in his new system, but pick the players it suits best. He failed to do that on Sunday, now he has the rest of the month to learn his lesson.