After having taken a two-goal lead at the Emirates, Spurs slumped to a disastrous 5-2 defeat. Here are some musings on the game.
1. This was an arrogant performance by Spurs. While we broke effectively to head into a two-goal lead we did not exert control on the game at any stage. The direct nature of our 4-4-2 formation undoubtedly caused Arsenal problems in the first half, but there was an underlying complacency to our play. There are a number of examples of this blasé attitude. The diminutive Rosicky was able to flash a header on target from a corner at 1-0. Moments after Adebayor’s penalty, Bale wasted a good opportunity to play in an unmarked Saha. After van Persie’s shot had rebounded off the post we fell asleep as Sagna powered in a header. Bale was responsible for marking Rosicky, didn’t pick up Sagna and should have passed to Saha. However, many other players were also guilty of a lackadaisical approach.
2. For all of Arsenal’s defensive woe, our own frailties were ruthlessly exposed by an inability to control the game in midfield. After heading into a two-goal lead, Spurs should have moved into a more organised defensive formation, or sought to dominate possession; they did neither. The 4-4-2 formation, so effective in mounting breakaway attacks, was conducive to neither approach. We were outnumbered in the middle of the park, and thus unable to dominate possession or hold Arsenal’s 4-3-3 formation at arm’s length. Bale and Kranjcar were particularly poor defensively. While the speed at which Arsenal drew themselves level is therefore surprising, that they did so is not at all.
3. It should be noted that there was a certain logic to Redknapp’s first half tactics. Fulham had secured a point by playing two up front and deploying a 4-4-2 formation at the Emirates before Christmas. Indeed, on that day Arsenal had used more defensively-minded full-backs than they did yesterday. However, Redknapp’s use of Kranjcar instead of Lennon meant that Walker had little protection on the right-hand side. In the second-half this use of the wrong personnel mixed with some incomprehensible tactics produced a disaster.
4. Redknapp’s half-time changes were baffling. Is it possible that he panicked, seeing how ruthlessly exposed the side was? If so, the effect of drastic changes he made were similar to pouring petrol on a smouldering bonfire. Spurs played their hand of a very strong bench far too early in the contest. Furthermore, it is difficult to see how the changes knitted into a coherent formation – there was precious little shape to our second-half play. I have tried to categorize our formation in the second half. Some claim it was a 4-1-2-2-1, others a 4-1-4-1. Whatever the formation we were playing (or at least attempting to play), it was far too narrow and left a huge gap between the defensive and attacking players. Sandro’s arrival seemed to confuse Parker as to whether he should partner Sandro in shielding the defence or support those further forward. Indeed, having such a (relatively) attacking line-up meant that the defence had to push up to support the midfield, or leave huge gaps that Bennayoun, van Persie and Rosicky in particular would have exploited. This in turn left acres of space behind the defence for Walcott to charge into and score the fourth and fifth goals. Both the tactics and personnel used by Redknapp after half-time did not make us any more redoubtable defensively and served to weaken our counter-attacking abilities.
5. The root of our second-half problems was the introduction of van der Vaart instead of Lennon. Lennon would have adopted a more fixed tactical position on the right side of midfield, and have been more defensively sound. This could have facilitated a move to a 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation, assuming Sandro had still come on for a forward. Personally, I would have kept Saha on the field instead of Adebayor, who was anonymous as the second half wore on. In fairness to the Togolese however, it is not entirely clear what van der Vaart’s or Bale’s positions were supposed to be. The ‘free roles’ afforded to these two are all very well against some of the division’s weaker sides, but against Arsenal they were counterproductive. On the right wing Bale is forced to use his left foot and crowded out or runs out of space. Lennon’s introduction would have given the side much more balance.
6. The nasty habit Spurs developed last season of conceding goals in bursts has not been eradicated. For Fulham, Young Boys, Inter and Arsenal (home and away) last season, read City (home and away) and Arsenal this season. Ignoring half-time, Spurs conceded five goals in 28 minutes. Similarly, we have conceded the highest number of goals in the twenty minute period after half-time of anyone in the Premier League. Both habits strongly hint at a continuing organisational and mental fragility.
7. Overall, this was as poor a performance Spurs have given under Redknapp’s leadership. In our first defeat to Arsenal since October 2009, only Walker and Friedel can be absolved from blame. Of course, had Szczesny been sent-off for the penalty incident or we held out until half-time the game could have been very different. But the result is instructive in so many of the ways outlined above. Tragically, Ledley’s knees may have finally given up on him, while Assou-Ekotto was truly atrocious. Most importantly, we must learn the limits of the ‘free role’. We must hope that this result and performance are not the start of a disturbing slump in the final third of the season, with several big games approaching.