For Jose Mourinho and Tottenham Hotspur, playing against Arsenal may have been their easiest assignment of the season. Mourinho is a master of defending deep and springing the counter attack. It is arguably the one trick he has left as football moves more to pressing, but it’s one he deployed successfully against Manchester City, against Chelsea, and again against Arsenal. And, in fairness, it was the perfect set-up for Arsenal.
Arsenal do not create chances. They do not progress the ball sharply, quickly, or well. The domination in possession was illusionary; Arsenal could’ve played for another two hours, with another 100 crosses, and they would not have scored. Hugo Lloris would not have had an easier game all season, as he watched Rob Holding pass to Gabriel, to pass to Xhaka, to pass to Tierney to pass backwards to Gabriel, and then go back to Holding. And the minute Arsenal did pass forward, they either went into a cul de sac, lost the ball, or worked the ball wide, for another cross, because the team does not have the quality to break down any Premier League level defence.
This is what Arsenal have become under Mikel Arteta this season. They don’t shoot—they are 18th in the league in shots per 90 minutes. They don’t press: they are 19th in the league in pressures per game, something that was readily apparent when Rob Holding, Gabriel and co backed off from Harry Kane and Son for Tottenham’s opening goal. They do not tackle: they are last in the league for tackles per game, and last in the league for tackles won. Nor do they dribble: they are 18th in attempted dribbles, and 18th in dribbles. Arsenal are at least in the top 6 for one measure: crosses into the penalty area per game. None of that is down to talent. That is the result of approach; an approach that is overly cautious, and one that leaves Arsenal unable to stop opponents from creating chances, especially on the counter attack, and one that leaves Arsenal unable to put the opposition under pressure.
There is no denying that Arsenal have huge talent issues; a squad that is imperfect, and torn between a win-now approach and a win in the future approach. You don’t need to go much further than look at the midfield available to Arsenal the last time they finished ahead of Tottenham in the Premier League to the one that Arsenal fielded in the second half today. The likes of Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey, and Santi Cazorla have been replaced by Granit Xhaka, Dani Ceballos, and Alex Lacazette moonlighting as a number 10 because he doesn’t have the legs to play upfront.
But there is also a huge question of approach. The manager is searching for ideas, but nothing clicks. From playing out from the back and scoring scripted goals, Arsenal have fallen backwards. There was a moment in the second half that was illustrative: Kieran Tierney and Willian standing five yards away from each other, neither attempting to make any darting run or move, with four Arsenal players standing in the penalty box waiting for another lofted cross that would inevitably be won by a Tottenham defender. The problem for Arteta is that this is the solution he has come up with after watching Arsenal fail to score a goal from open play in weeks. For Arsenal, the concern is that Arteta is running out of finding ways to arrest the slide.