Premier League 2022/23: How Antonio Conte can pull off a tactical masterclass in the North London Derby this weekend – tactical preview
It’s been a long time since Arsenal went into the North London Derby at Tottenham Hotspur’s ground leading the pack. In fact, you’ll have to cast your mind back to April 2004 when Arsène Wenger’s side played out a 2-2 draw to clinch the Premier League title at White Hart Lane.
But that’s exactly how the fixture will look ahead of this Sunday. The Gunners are sitting pretty at the summit of the table, while Spurs are holding onto a cliff’s edge for dear life.
Circumstances are different now than in April 2004. Spurs are a different animal from the one that was led by David Pleat, but there is still a toothless nature about the Londoners, like a lion with no teeth.
Tottenham have conceded two or more goals in seven of their last eight league games which is a truly horrendous showing for a side that want to challenge for silverware this season.
Antonio Conte, an Italian pragmatist, glorified for his dogmatic defensive structures at Juventus, Italy, Chelsea and Internazionale, has been unable to solve Spurs’ defensive issues thus far.
With the Gunners firing on all fronts despite the loss of Gabriel Jesus, Mikel Arteta’s men are the last side Conte and co. would want to face right now.
Arsenal have the potential to kick their bitter rivals while they’re down as Spurs are currently spinning around in a dark room, looking for the light switch. However, as Bono once said, ‘the dark is where you learn to see’. Even a toothless lion will pounce when it’s backed into a corner.
This weekend’s game is the perfect opportunity for Tottenham to get back on track, gaining a massive three points, and clawing their way back into a top-four battle, all the while putting a colossal dent in their rival’s title hopes, with Manchester City breathing down Arsenal’s neck.
This tactical analysis piece will be a preview of the tactics in the North London Derby ahead of this Sunday’s massive fixture. With Arsenal dominating the league right now, this analysis will focus on three ways that Conte can mastermind a victory over Arteta’s army.
Formations and lineups
Formations will be quite easy to predict for this clash. Since Conte’s arrival at the club back in November 2021, Spurs have almost always set up in a variation of the 3-4-3.
The 3-5-2 has been a solution at times for Conte if the Italian wants to congest the middle of the park a little more while having an extra man up top to press the opposition’s defensive line.
Nevertheless, for the most part, Spurs are almost guaranteed to line out in a 3-4-3 formation. Often, this will resemble a 3-4-2-1 with the wingers playing close to Harry Kane up top. On other occasions, the wingers will play a little wider, and when Tottenham are defending deeper down the pitch, the shape will look like a 5-4-1.
After some woeful performances recently, including a 2-0 home defeat to mid-table Aston Villa, it’s likely that Conte will stay with the same side that thrashed Crystal Palace 4-0 at Selhurst Park over a week ago.
Oliver Skipp started in the double pivot with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and the duo worked quite well together, flanked by Ivan Perišić and Matt Doherty as the wingbacks, with Clément Lenglet, Eric Dier and Cristian Romero as the three centre-backs.
Further up the pitch, Bryan Gil has started the last few matches and seems to be the preferred option to Dejan Kulusevski for Conte right now. Gil could start in the front three alongside Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son.
Like his counterpart in the dugout, Arteta has rarely shown any flexibility regarding formation changes. To be fair to the Spaniard, the Gunners have been so scintillating this season that there has been no need to change the shape of the team.
Arsenal always play with a 4-3-3 or a variation such as the 4-1-4-1 with the wingers lower on the pitch.
The 4-2-3-1 has also been an option for the league-leaders but this is mainly the case out of possession. Even if Granit Xhaka begins in a double-pivot with Thomas Partey, the Swiss international will always push up between the lines and create a 4-3-3 with Partey as the lone pivot in possession.
Arteta’s side play a little similarly to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in possession as the wingers hold the width while the central midfielders play in the halfspaces. As such, expect Bukayo Saka to get the nod once more on the right with Gabriel Martinelli on the left.
Given the absence of Jesus through injury, Eddie Nketiah will start up top with Martin Ødegaard completing the rest of the front five.
Kieran Tierney and Oleksandr Zinchenko have competed for the left-back berth and so it’s anyone’s guess who Arteta will go for in the derby, but they will be accompanied by Gabriel and William Saliba in the heart of the defence, with Ben White acting as the right-back.
Two different formations, and two very different styles of play, but plenty of quality on show – this game has potential to make sparks fly.
Being more aggressive in a low block
Last season, Tottenham Hotspur conceded 40 goals in the league across 38 matches which roughly equates to just over one goal per game, although 16 of these were under Conte’s predecessor Nuno Espirito Santo.
From when the Premier League-winner took over at the helm through to the end of the campaign, Spurs conceded 26 in 28 games, less than a goal per match. The side’s defensive improvement under Conte was stark.
Nevertheless, this season, this solidity at the back has been lost and the fifth-placed club have conceded 1.39 goals per game, or 25 in 18 which is a worrying regression.
One of the reasons behind Spurs’ poor defensive record is that the team can be quite passive at times, especially when sitting in a deeper defensive block on the pitch.
In the 2022/23 campaign, Tottenham’s Passes allowed Per Defensive Action averages out at 11.15 which is the eleventh-highest in the division. With PPDA, the higher the number, the less a team is actively pressing the ball.
In the reverse fixture back in October, Spurs sat incredibly deep on the pitch which can be seen from the side’s average defensive line height. Most defensive actions and interceptions were also in their own third on the field as well.
Conte knew that Arsenal were going to dominate possession, as is the style that Arteta has implemented into his team since day one, and so Tottenham were perfectly fine with dropping off and forming a 5-4-1 low block, staying compact centrally.
The further Arsenal progressed the ball, the lower Spurs would fall until the block was right inside their own penalty area which was really risky by Conte. The Gunners were constantly looking to pin their rivals into these positions as they were able to create structured positional attacks to try and break through the block.
One way that Arsenal do this really well against these types of defensive blocks is by using wide triangles. Arteta commands his players to form triangles out wide, placing one in the halfspace, one holding the width and one sitting deep.
The purpose of this triangle is so that one player holds the width on the flank to stretch the opposition’s block horizontally, another sits in the halfspace, pinning two of the opposition defenders into deeper positions, while the other sits deep and acts as a backward passing option for possession to be recycled if the block is impenetrable on this side.
In the fixture back in October, one thing that Arsenal did extremely well was find the player in the deepest position who could then receive the ball, quickly get it out of their feet, and try and loft it into the penalty area.
When Ødegaard and Xhaka are in these areas, it is the most dangerous for opponents because of the duo’s creative ability.
As can be seen from Ødegaard’s shot assists map from all competitions this season, the former Real Madrid man creates quite a lot of his chances from these types of ranges. Three of his four assists came from the right halfspace.
Nevertheless, the trio can be flexible with who is positioned in whichever corner of the triangle. Normally, the wingers hold a wide position, the central midfielders sit in the halfspaces, and the fullbacks position themselves deeper, although these three can rotate and interchange on the pitch, providing the triangle is still maintained.
Here, White was holding the width on the right, while Saka pushed inside into the halfspace. Meanwhile, Ødegaard was operating as the nadir of the triangle.
Saka and White had pinned back Spurs’ defenders on this side which meant that, when the Norwegian midfielder received the ball, he would have an extra second or two to pick a pass to the back-post where the visitors were exposed.
This was a move that Arsenal attempted on numerous occasions against Tottenham and one which worked really well for them. It even led to the opening goal of the game.
Once more, the triangle between the right-back, right winger and the right central midfielder is evident, pinning Spurs’ defenders deeper on this side.
Instead of trying to loft the ball to the back-post, White simply squared it Partey who was situated outside the penalty area, screaming for a pass in space. The Ghanaian whipped it goalward with thunderous ferocity and opened the scoring for the three-time Premier League champions.
One thing that Tottenham failed to do was step out quickly enough. This was the only time that Conte’s side were punished by Arsenal’s wide triangles in the first half, but the warning signs had popped up several times.
Spurs needed to be quicker stepping out from deep, rather than allowing themselves to be pinned back, and were too happy to take a passive approach in this phase before being duly punished.
Arsenal will play in this exact same manner in the North London Derby this Sunday once more, but Tottenham need to be ready this time and be far more proactive out of possession, looking to get out to the player before they cross or shoot outside the penalty box.
Stifling Arsenal’s progression
In the previous section, we discussed how Arsenal will look to break down Antonio Conte’s dogged 5-4-1 defensive block on Sunday.
The Gunners will create these overloads out wide and try to pin their historic rivals deeper and deeper towards their own penalty area. However, there is a way for Tottenham to try and not be sitting too low on the pitch.
Arsenal always want to build their way through the thirds of the pitch with the ball on the deck. When reaching the halfspaces, Arteta’s men primarily look to play through the halfspaces, using the ball progression ability of the two fullbacks as well as Partey in the pivot role to do so.
Partey’s ball progression map from this season makes this quite evident. The former Atletico Madrid midfielder has been progressing the ball through to the halfspaces where Xhaka and Ødegaard normally are, which allows Arsenal to reach the final third with clean progression.
The centre-forward also drops deep between the lines too offer a central passing option to break through the opposition’s midfield line. Normally Jesus excels in this role, but Eddie Nketiah is holding his own whilst leading the line.
From Nketiah’s touch map since the return of the Premier League after the FIFA World Cup, we can see the striker’s role clearly which is to drop deep to receive the ball in lower areas of the pitch which means that the fullbacks and pivot midfielder have three passing options between the lines to try to progress play.
It is the role of Tottenham’s midfielders to ensure that these passing lanes don’t open up, and if they do, cut them off as quickly as possible.
This is something that Spurs did relatively well in the first half against Arsenal, but it was made far more difficult after Emerson was dismissed in the second half for a poor challenge.
Hojbjerg is an intelligent midfielder and tends to shut off passing lanes really well, as shown in the image above.
If Arsenal begin reaching Ødegaard, Nketiah and Xhaka between the lines with ease on Sunday, they could feast on an already wounded defence as they will be free to turn and drive forward. The midfield will need to stay really compact and work tirelessly to shut off these dangerous passing lanes once they open up.
Newcastle United went for a slightly different style in the side’s recent goalless draw with the Gunners at the Emirates Stadium. Eddie Howe’s men went man-for-man on Partey when defending in a mid-block and always ensured that one player was pressing the Ghana international. Bruno Guimaraes predominantly usurped this role.
As we can see from Partey’s individual ball progression pass map from the game, he completed just four progressive passes during the course of the match and was not given as much time on the ball as usual.
Perhaps Spurs will copy this tactic from Howe’s Magpies ahead of the derby, but it will involve either Kane, Son or Gil roaming freely out of possession to man-mark Partey and ensure that his time on the ball is limited.
Exploiting the flanks
As with almost all possession-oriented sides, Arsenal counterpress once possession is turned over to the opposition’s hands.
There is normally a two-pronged system to the Gunners’ counterpressing. Firstly, once the ball is turned over, the players used in the wide triangles will hunt together to regain possession. If this is broken, Partey, or whomever else may play in the holding midfield role, will step up to face the ball-carrier head-on.
Here, the wide triangle have counterpressed Rodrigo Bentancur to win the ball back for Arsenal. However, the Uruguayan played through the pressure, meaning Partey was forced to step up and be the last line of protection to the backline.
Arsenal’s rest defence system is pretty secure, which is why the Gunners have one of the best defensive records in the Premier League this season.
Nonetheless, no system is air-tight in football, and with counterpressing comes significant risk, especially if the initial waves of counterpressing are broken through.
The issue with Arsenal’s rest defence structure is that the fullbacks are positioned so high up the pitch to get involved with the team’s counterpressing which leaves the flanks exposed.
If opponents can bypass the first counterpressing wave and drift past Partey when the Ghanaian steps up to help out, they can attack the wide areas with runners. Spurs did this really well at times in the reverse fixture.
With players such as Kane, Son, Gil or Kulusevski, supported by wingbacks Perisic and Doherty, Conte’s men may be able to pose significant damage to the Arsenal backline in transition.
Given that Spurs will likely sit back and defend their own box while the visitors will attempt to dominate possession, this will certainly be the way that the UEFA Champions League look to exploit their rivals.
A lot is riding on this game for both sides. It’s not the end of the world if either lose, but a defeat would put a significant dent in Arsenal’s title race, with Man City in hot pursuit behind them, while Spurs would drop even further down the table, with Liverpool, Fulham, Brighton and Brentford waiting in the wings.
Conte is under far more pressure than his counterpart. Defeat for Arteta is a slip-up, defeat for Conte is a pattern. The Italian will be hoping to turn around his side’s fortunes by picking up three points at home, buying himself more time in the job in the meantime.