Et’s been a while since the North London derby between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal fought for the top spot in the Premier League. Both clubs have had disappointing seasons but are now doing surprisingly well in the Premier League table.
Victory in their head-to-head encounter last Saturday afternoon would have put Tottenham past their eternal rivals, but the game ended 3-1 from Spurs’ perspective – and while they remain in a solid third place in the table they have to watch, as Arsenal do ahead of champions Manchester City.
Loss to Arsenal
The game also offered little that would have made the Tottenham fans particularly confident before the Champions League group game against Eintracht Frankfurt this Tuesday evening (9 p.m., in the FAZ live ticker for the Champions League and on Amazon Prime). Coach Antonio Conte was annoyed by a hard but justifiable red card against his right-back Emerson Royal for a gross foul, which suddenly left his team with a man less on the field when the score was 1-2.
But even before the dismissal Arsenal had been the better team. Tottenham were too passive and made too many mistakes; as in Arsenal’s second goal, when Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris deflected a comparatively harmless shot forward and Arsenal’s Gabriel Jesus only had to shove the ball into the net.
It was Tottenham’s first Premier League defeat of the season, having previously won five games and drawn twice. In Champions League Group D, the team defeated Olympique Marseille but lost to Sporting Lisbon. Before the game against Eintracht, both clubs have three points, the Spurs are only ahead of Frankfurt because of the better goal difference.
“Conte’s team wasn’t pretty to look at this season,” wrote the BBC in an analysis of Tottenham’s predominantly defensive and counterattacking style of play: “But they got results.” And so the measly 35 percent ball possession against Arsenal was over From the Italian coach’s point of view, not the biggest problem, but that the “last pass” often didn’t reach the target when counterattacked.
Only Haaland is better
In England, Conte’s style of play seems outdated. Clubs like Manchester City, Liverpool FC and this season Arsenal want to dominate the game, pinch their opponents behind and use aggressive pressing to force mistakes close to the danger zone.
Tottenham, on the other hand, often leaves large parts of the field to their opponents and waits patiently for counterattack opportunities, against Arsenal with a quite illustrious attack series: alongside the Brazilian Richarlison, Harry Kane occupies the middle, third in the group is the former Hamburger and Leverkusen player Heung-min Son.
This style of play often works: Kane is currently the second best scorer in the Premier League with seven goals, but is far behind Manchester City’s Erling Haaland with 14 goals. The results are fine, there is a recognizable system and a crystal-clear plan, the Guardian wrote about Conte’s style of football: “But does Tottenham really look like they’re having fun with it?”
For the online sports portal “The Athletic”, however, the problem is less the aesthetics than the vulnerability of Conte’s tactics. In a league like the Premier League, the defense has to work flawlessly in order not to concede goals, especially against the big opponents, if you let them play largely unhindered.
Conversely, the attack shouldn’t miss an opportunity, since scoring chances – like on Saturday against Arsenal – are often a rare commodity for counterattacking teams. Conte had established a system at Tottenham “that demands perfection from the players in order to work”. As soon as an opponent controls the game through long phases of ball possession, Tottenham look “not only negative, but also fragile”.
They would not have seriously considered the Spurs’ chances of winning the championship, even if they won on Saturday. The dominance of the Manchester City team in England, which has won four times in the past five years, is too great. A good run in the Champions League is more realistic. As in 2019, when Tottenham advanced to the final for the first time, but failed there at Liverpool FC.