Published On: Fri, Nov 17th, 2017

North London derby: Wenger's back-3 could masquerade as a tactical triumph

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An argument can be made about the North London derby being the biggest local squabble in the division.

The Championship’s Sheffield and Birmingham rivalries can be more vicious, but, in the Premier League, the Manchester derby is still maturing after City‘s decades of underachievement. The Merseyside tussle is relatively friendly, and the south-coast meetings never ripened due to the clubs’ yo-yoing through the leagues.

Arsenal versus Tottenham Hotspur, meanwhile, has been a top-tier mainstay, and the latter’s legitimate claim to now be the area’s true heavyweight has further fuelled the spat’s intensity.

Saturday’s opener to the weekend should be a good test of the Gunners’ ability to stave off a counter-attack, and Tottenham’s ability to crack a back-three – Mauricio Pochettino’s side has only scored once in 2017-18 scuffles with the back-threes of Chelsea and Manchester United, and that solitary strike was a Michy Batshuayi own goal.

Injuries and suspensions

Danny Welbeck, Shkodran Mustafi, and Alex Iwobi face late tests to determine if they’re match-ready. Arsene Wenger wasn’t optimistic over Olivier Giroud‘s selection chances, and there’s little news on Rob Holding‘s fitness.

Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Harry Winks, and Hugo Lloris are all available following recent fitness concerns, but Toby Alderweireld isn’t expected to play until 2018. Victor Wanyama is unlikely to feature as he struggles to shake off a knee issue.

Projected lineups

Arsenal starting XI: Cech; Koscielny, Mertesacker, Monreal; Bellerin, Ramsey, Xhaka, Kolasinac; Ozil, Sanchez; Lacazette

Tottenham Hotspur starting XI: Lloris; Dier, Sanchez, Vertonghen; Aurier, Eriksen, Winks, Alli, Rose; Kane, Son

What to watch

There are few things more excruciating than a man attempting to ward off his natural deterioration by trying to be down with the kids. He might slop a wobbling mound of gel onto his hair and spike it as if he’s a stink-faced bassist from a mid-noughties nu-metal band, and he may even share tortuous tales of old romantic conquests.

Or he may stalk the latest trends, and a back-three was the fashionable configuration of the 2016-17 Premier League season.

There didn’t seem to be a great deal of tactical thought put into Arsene Wenger’s change to a three-man backline last term. It seemed like a concession that he couldn’t beat this in-vogue system, so chose to join in. To field a 3-4-2-1 formation, the dearth of ball-playing defenders in his squad was answered by resurrecting Per Mertesacker as a deep-lying sweeper, and Wenger has persisted with Granit Xhaka as his midfield grappler, even though the Swiss has been sat cross-legged picking daisies rather than pulling up trees.

He didn’t really have the personnel to comfortably adapt to a back-three foundation, and he still doesn’t. The chief standout victories when using this formation – beating Manchester City in April’s FA Cup semi-final, and then Chelsea in the final – is accompanied by the caveats of Pep Guardiola’s side having a goal incorrectly disallowed, and Antonio Conte’s men simply being rubbish on the day.

Saturday is an occasion where everything can fall in its right place for Wenger, though. Spurs’ own standout results this season – overcoming both Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid in the Champions League – have been built on devastating counter-attacks fronted by Kane’s explosiveness and Heung-Min Son‘s sheer velocity. If three men stay back for Arsenal, there is strength in numbers to hopefully expel these surges, and the pace of right wing-back Hector Bellerin could counteract Son, who tends to drift left, and Sead Kolasinac can out-muscle Serge Aurier or Kieran Trippier. It also remains to be seen whether Kane, Alli, and Winks are in prime condition after their respective layoffs.

Spurs should willingly cede the majority of possession to Arsenal, and it’s this patience that may allow Pochettino’s team to let the host drag itself out of shape – Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey aren’t the most disciplined in their positions, often over-committing during attacks – before swarming into the space between the Gunners’ defence and midfield.

It’s that gap – primarily around the middle of the park where Xhaka and Ramsey patrol – where Arsenal is vulnerable. The swinging deliveries of Trippier aren’t exactly pivotal in this fixture when the likes of Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny will be underneath them. Instead, capitalising on the inadequate defensive speed and poor positioning in the centre is where Tottenham will probably find results.

That aspect of play may see Son sacrificed for another midfielder, such as calling in Mousa Dembele to partner Winks in the heart of a 3-4-2-1. While that would reduce the effectiveness of Tottenham’s counter-attack, it ensures a midfield battle is won, and Dembele’s ability to float forward with the ball will force Ramsey or Xhaka to backpedal or try to meet him. Again, this is another tactic that can help jimmy more room in the critical area between Arsenal’s defence and midfield.

If there’s a fashionable method this season, it’s a team that’s agreeable in various tactical setups. Guardiola’s Manchester City players are often swapping positions and formation, and Pochettino will opt for a back-three or back-four after assessing the opposition’s strengths. On Saturday, Wenger’s copy-cat schematic of yesteryear and stubbornness can pay off, so he should avoid the versatility trend for now.

The back-three was originally imported after being shamed 3-0 at Crystal Palace, and introduced to stop Arsenal haemorrhaging goals. The change paid off in its early days, and, in the latest installment of the north London derby, a deep trio against Spurs is the best course of action to avoid local embarrassment.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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