Arsenal V Tottenham: The battle of midfields
Midfielders define how a team play. It’s a boring statement, but when you think about how a side functions tactically, midfield players are often the key components of a team’s strategic application.
The influx of new managers in the Premier League this year has brought with it some tactical innovations. Jurgen Klopp has inspired a ‘pressing’ revolution with his Liverpool players out-running teams like never before, Jose Mourinho has binned Louis Van Gaal’s previous desire for ball retention, Antonio Conte has found fertile soil at Chelsea with a 3-4-2-1, while Pep Guardiola has tried his hand at any tactical innovation which will allow his side to dominate possession.
With Chelsea, City, United and Liverpool all transitioning to new tactical ways, Arsenal and Tottenham have adapted naturally under their existing managers. Mauricio Pochettino installed his aggressive, front-footed, dynamic pressing style at Tottenham upon his appointment years ago, while Wenger has seemingly finally bowed to pressure and invested in some midfield steel.
But it’s interesting that the changes made to both teams has been implemented by midfield ‘tinkering’. Both Wenger and Pochettino have always setup with three midfielders. But it is their application of those midfielders that couldn’t be more polarised.
Wenger is dogmatically married to technical brilliance and aesthetically entertaining football. He has, at times, set up with three ‘passers’ in midfield (for example, an Arteta-Denilson-Rosicky), whose sole aim was to control games.
In previous years, its been the fundamental criticism that you can levy at the Frenchman. His teams are too unstable; they lack physicality; they crumble under pressure. We’ve heard it all before too many times.
Pochettino’s ideals couldn’t be more dissimilar. His ideals resolve around dynamism and athleticism, not panache and elegance. Instead of setting up with ‘passers’, he’ll refer to ‘destroyers’ or ‘shuttlers’; physical ‘powerhouse’ midfielders who can close out spaces instantly while dominating games with their strength (think Dier, Wanyama, Dembele).
Where, until this season, Arsenal were too creative and brittle, Tottenham are now too one dimensional and rigid.
Just as Arsenal tend to lose when a side can withstand their passing, Tottenham are in trouble when opponents can withstand their pressing. This was evident in their 0-1 loss to Leverkusen in the Champions League, where they failed to grow into a game that they might have expected to control- particularly if the game had been at White Hart Lane and not Wembley. Some midfield guile might have made all the difference.
In turn, both approaches expose themselves in different ways. While Wenger’s midfielders will help setup attacks but are at risk of being overrun, Pochettino is at risk of stifling his attackers while over-compensating for midfield power. That best explains why Tottenham remain unbeaten in the league this year, but have only won six of their 12 games.
Pochettino’s system is ultimately effective providing Harry Kane can spearhead attacks to find the killer blow. But in his absence, they are waring down teams with little end product. The Argentine clearly won’t flirt with playing a no.10 at the expense of a dynamic midfielder, so Christian Erikson and Eric Lamela have to provide creative impetus from out wide. True, Dele Alli does provide attacking impetus, but he’s more of the Lampard or Gerrard mould; a powerful midfielder with an eye for goal, as opposed to a genuine no.10 who can dictate games and pull apart defences.
But it’s an ironic problem for Tottenham to face. Spurs have too much of what Arsenal have always lacked, while Arsenal possess what Tottenham need. Granted, the acquisitions of Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka have re-addressed that imbalance at Arsenal, but Wenger will never steer his head away from Mesut Ozil starting as his 10.
Meanwhile, Tottenham are crying out for a creative midfielder to act with the positional freedom to break down opponents.
In the end, it would be fascinating to see Pochettino and Wenger’s ideals morphed into one to create a hybrid midfield. Imagine: the positional discipline and nous of Eric Dier, coupled with the outstanding (and underrated) dynamism of Moussa Dembele, fronted by the creative guile of a roaming Mesut Ozil.
While Arsenal will pass, Tottenham will press. If both could only emulate their counterpart slightly more, the results might be devastating.