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Tactics and substitutions: how Unai Emery won North London Derby for Arsenal

Emery got the better of his counterpart, leading Arsenal to victory

Arsenal FC v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Unai Emery could afford a smile. After 85 pulsating minutes, Arsenal were 4-2 up over Tottenham and Jan Vertonghen had just been sent off. Spurs were surely finished, their fans emptying the Emirates to leave the away end almost as empty as the stands in their yet to be complete three months after it was supposed to be done high-end cheese and craft beer grift stadium. At long last, Emery had his signature victory. That it took such hard work reflects the nature of the North London Derby, the Premier League’s best derby given the level of entertainment, and the importance of the match, given that Tottenham joined the Big Six at some point around the beginning of the decade.

Emery, in fairness, would be justified in being perplexed that Arsenal went in 2-1 behind. Nevermind the legitimacy of Tottenham’s two goals (Eric Dier was offside, Son dived), Arsenal’s superiority in the opening twenty-five minutes had some dreaming of a first Arsenal lead at halftime. Utilizing the same system from last weekend, Arsenal’s wingbacks exploited Tottenham’s narrowness, with Tottenham’s advantage in midfield bypassed by Arsenal getting the ball wide, with Sead Kolasinac’s cross for Hector Bellerin’s blocked shot signifying Arsenal’s advantage. They couldn’t press home, though, and then Tottenham reacted: Son, who started on the right, moved to the left, Dele Alli stopped being so concerned with Lucas Torreira and had a more right-sided role, and all of a sudden, Tottenham pressed home their advantage in midfield, controlling the game, with a series of aimless punts by Torreira upfield exemplifying the switch. All of a sudden, Arsenal couldn’t get Iwobi and Mkhitaryan involved, and exploiting the space behind, Tottenham gained a foothold: Son went close, got fouled, and then won a penalty in a short period where he ran 1v1 against Arsenal’s outside centre back.

The second half effectively featured two periods: the first 25 minutes, where Arsenal got back into the game, and the last 20 minutes, where Arsenal got control and won the game. Emery deserves credit for his proactive substitutions. In bringing on Ramsey and Lacazette, Arsenal went for a more direct style. With two strikers, Spurs’ two centre backs were both engaged, making Ramsey’s runs much harder to track and mark. But Ramsey, in a 3412, gave Arsenal an extra man in midfield too, allowing the Gunners to fight back against Tottenham’s midfield control. A direct ball from Bellerin to Ramsey set up Aubameyang for the equalizer, and Ramsey’s movement won Arsenal a series of corners, from which Arsenal had chances to retake the lead.

The final switch came when Emery brought Matteo Guendouzi on for the injured Shkodran Mustafi. Arsenal made their third formation switch of the afternoon, moving to a 4312. This presented Pochettino with a new problem: using a 4231, he was now outnumbered in midfield, and with Ramsey’s runs and the two strikers upfront, Arsenal had the control and numbers to overload Tottenham. Pochettino, then, switched to 352 shape, using wingbacks of his own, and, disastrously, putting the clubfooted Dier at centre back, which quieted his earlier antics. With Arsenal’s shape, Ramsey pressed from the left and Aubameyang the right, and it was Ramsey who won the ball from Juan Foyth and played in Lacazette, whose shot deflected off of Dier, a man who is noted for once putting in a tackle on Sergio Ramos. The fourth goal signified Arsenal’s control: Bellerin, able to push forward now that Spurs had abandoned having wide attacking players, joined in possession play with Torreira and Aubameyang, who slipped in the Uruguayan, who was able to make a forward run because he had Ramsey, Guendouzi and Xhaka behind to cover.

The overall performance was impressive, but what was perhaps most impressive was Arsenal’s flexibility, with the Gunners keeping up a strong level of performance despite utilizing three different systems in the match. The one constant was a strong level of pressing and hardrunning, and Unai Emery’s substitutes were decisive. While Arsenal still need to add consistency in performance, against the lesser sides of the Premier League (starting Wednesday at Old Trafford), the big game approach from Emery paid off, in a commanding victory against the old enemy.