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Spurs v Arsenal tactics: How will Villas-Boas handle the north London derby?

Arsenal's Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla (right) Arsenal's Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla (right)

Thursday, February 28, 2013
11:57 AM

Some of the biggest stars in the Premier League will go head to head in Sunday’s north London derby between Spurs and Arsenal, but the showdown will be underpinned by differing systems which will be just as important as the players operating within them.

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Arsenal have been playing in a 4-2-3-1 system for the last few years, while Spurs’ natural width has generally meant they have been more suited to 4-4-2, or 4-4-1-1 with a deeper-lying second striker.

That has created an intriguing tactical mismatch over the last few years, and is possibly one of the reasons why this derby has become such a high-scoring affair.

It may have also contributed to the pattern which has emerged in the last three meetings, in which Spurs have gone ahead but been pegged back.

Last season, Harry Redknapp opted for a simple 4-4-2 formation against Arsenal at White Hart Lane, going all-out by fielding Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor up front – and his ambition was rewarded as Rafael van der Vaart gave the Lilywhites the lead in the 40th minute.

However, Arsenal’s system gives them an extra man in the centre of midfield and, like all numerical advantages, that factor becomes more important as the game progresses as Spurs’ central duo begin to tire.

The Gunners went on to dominate possession early in the second half and levelled through Aaron Ramsey six minutes after the break.

Redknapp was forced into a reshuffle, introducing Sandro in place of Van der Vaart to match the visitors in the centre – and the game was ultimately won by a long-range Kyle Walker strike.

The return fixture at the Emirates followed a similar pattern, with Redknapp going gung-ho and picking both Adebayor and Louis Saha up front.

Such an aggressive approach immediately paid dividends as Spurs went 2-0 up inside 34 minutes, with both forwards scoring – although Adebayor’s strike came from the penalty spot.

But again Arsenal were able to wrestle control of the game and by the end of the first half they were pouring forward in waves, scoring two quickfire goals and going on to triumph 5-2 against their shellshocked visitors, who never recovered or reorganised.

Spurs fans criticised Redknapp for his naive approach to the game – the events that followed in the ensuing three months only added to their frustrations – and it was expected that Andre Villas-Boas would introduce a more cultured 4-3-3 system at the Lane.

The Portuguese started the season with a 4-2-3-1 system, but abandoned it after a series of toothless displays, reverting to 4-4-2 and seeing a rapid improvement in Spurs’ goal threat and results.

The switch actually came at the Emirates as Jermain Defoe and Adebayor started a Premier League game together for the first time under Villas-Boas – a move which caught everyone by surprise in such a difficult away game.

But, once again, Spurs started like a house on fire against the Gunners, going 1-0 up inside 10 minutes as the front two combined, with Defoe seeing his shot saved into the path of Adebayor.

We will never know what would have happened if Adebayor had not been dismissed eight minutes later – whether Villas-Boas’ ambition would have paid off or whether Arsenal’s extra man in the middle would have gradually shifted the game back in the Gunners’ favour – but the rest is history as Wenger’s boys triumphed 5-2 again.

Now the two sides are on a collision course again, and there is little sign that either coach will abandon the tactics that have served them so well in the Premier League recently – both sides have won their last three top-flight fixtures.

Wenger has one decision to make, which will affect the balance of his team. He could play Aaron Ramsey alongside Mikel Arteta, with Jack Wilshere further forward and Santi Cazorla on the left of the attacking trio. On the other hand, he could pair Wilshere with Arteta and field Lukas Podolski on the left – a more attacking option.

It is likely that Wenger will err on the side of caution at White Hart Lane and opt for the extra solidity of Ramsey in front of the back four – and that would probably be a good call.

For all of the artistry of Arteta, Wilshere and Cazorla, none of them are holding players, and that has often left them exposed on the counter-attack – a weakness that Aston Villa exploited at the Emirates on Saturday.

Tottenham will be even more dangerous if they can get the ball into the space between the Gunners’ midfield and defence, particularly now that Gareth Bale has moved into the second striker role.

The thought of Spurs’ unstoppable talisman running at the backpedalling Per Mertesacker will be giving Wenger nightmares this week, so he would be well advised to deploy his own Welshman into that space.

Meanwhile, Villas-Boas will have his own concerns, mostly involving the vision of Arsenal’s central trio running rings around Mousa Dembele and Scott Parker, who have appeared to be labouring in recent weeks.

Again, Bale will be a key man in that respect, and his willingness to drop in and help his midfielders could be a key factor.

It promises to be a fascinating afternoon, and the tactical battle between Villas-Boas and Wenger could go a long way towards deciding the result – and potentially who finishes in the top four.

Follow me on Twitter @BenPearceSpurs

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Tottenham Hotspur

Nickname: The Lilywhites.

Ground: White Hart Lane (capacity 36,310).

Founded: 1882.

Honours: First Division (until 1992) and Premier League: 1951, 1961

Second Division: 1920, 1950.

Southern League: 1900.

FA Cup: 1901, 1921, 1961, 1962, 1967, 1981, 1982, 1991.

League Cup: 1971, 1973, 1999, 2008.

Uefa Cup: 1972, 1984.

Cup Winners’ Cup: 1963.

Leading goalscorers: Jimmy Greaves, 379.

Leading appearances: Steve Perryman, 854.