It’s amazing how quickly things can change, how quickly the label of crisis can be passed from one club to another. Just three weeks ago Tottenham Hotspur had a 100% record under their new manager while Arsenal were rooted to the bottom of the Premier League and seemingly in the last days of Mikel Arteta.
But now their positions are reversed, Arsenal’s 3-1 win in the north London derby on Sunday putting them above Nuno Esperito Santo’s side and sending waves of anxiety through the Spurs fan base. Perhaps both situations, so quickly changed, are being treated with a little bit too much hyperbole; only a couple of rounds from now the situation may be reversed again.
And yet the extreme, explosive reactions from the two fan bases shed light on the foundations of the respective managers. Football is as much psychological as tactical, as much about a shared perspective on the narrative than an objective view of what’s going on. The sheer weight of the pessimism at Tottenham, and the sudden optimism at Arsenal, point to a season-long story.
Arteta’s vision coming together
It might have been tough to see the wood for the trees over the last 18 months but Arteta has always had a clear vision for how Arsenal should play. Following a summer of good recruits, he is finally in a place to enact his plan.
In his first few months in charge, which culminated in an FA Cup win, Arsenal showed the positional rigidity when in possession to suggest they were moving towards highly structured football in the style of Pep Guardiola. Then a series of problems – the pandemic being one of them – saw this fall apart as Arteta moved to a more individualistic, trial-and-error approach during the 2020/21 campaign. Having ridden that out, he is back to the basics of the Guardiola philosophy.
Most importantly, he finally has the tactically-flexible and technically-proficient players needed to evade the opposition press, to build in neat triangles through the lines, and to coach complex tactical instructions. On Sunday, we saw the benefits of Martin Odegaard and Emile Smith Rowe playing together as they cut smartly through a woeful Tottenham midfield, while Thomas Partey showed great forward intent from the base of midfield.
Elsewhere, Takehiro Tomiyasi‘s positional intelligence meant Arsenal could swing between a 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-3, confusing Spurs when the switch took place during periods of Arsenal possession; Odegaard operated almost as a right wing-back, picking up the ball on the outside of the Spurs midfield to dictate the game.
From the composed and cohesive press to the sharp interchanges through midfield and the excellent balance of width and depth, it was like watching Guardiola’s Man City in full flight. Arteta finally has the players for his vision to come together.
Nuno is a poor fit
Conversely, Nuno’s team look clueless on the ball. The Portuguese is, broadly speaking, in the mould of Jose Mourinho in that he prefers to work on defensive organisation in a safe midblock, with the forwards expected to largely improvise on the counter-attack. This approach is highly unusual among top clubs in the modern game, where the structured possession and pre-set attacking moves (sometimes known as ‘automatisms’) that the likes of Arteta deploy are far more effective.
It also means that when confidence is low, there is no muscle memory to fall back on; players expected to build partnerships organically will fail to do so when their minds feel shrunken. In Sunday’s game they had absolutely no idea what to do, first playing hopeless long balls forward in the first 10 minutes before being easily out-thought once Arsenal – dropping deeper after going a goal up – made them hold more of the ball.
It was smart management by Arteta who, knowing Nuno’s team prefer to counter, clearly planned to go a goal up and then sit back, forcing Spurs into an uncomfortable situation. Arsenal will not be the last team to do that this season, which is why the defensive and counter-attacking style doesn’t really work at a top club. Opponents will quickly learn to sit back.
These are early days, of course, and Tottenham’s poor performances don’t necessarily mean Nuno cannot work at the club. It will take time for his ideas to get across and, crucially, time for him to learn how to adapt to a club of this size. Spurs’ strong first-half performance against Chelsea, in which they pressed high and progressed neatly through the thirds thanks to the advanced positioning of Dele Alli and Tanguy Ndombele, suggests Nuno is still working a few things out.
But what is particularly alarming is the strength of feeling, the genuine anger among fans who know Nuno was seventh or eighth choice and who are still wounded – still dealing with flashbacks – from the Mourinho era. They simply cannot accept negative football when they still have a squad in the mould of Mauricio Pochettino.
Tottenham, then, are unlikely to halt the decline. Nuno needed to quickly win over the supporters while Arteta always had credit in the bank, the former playing an unpopular (and possibly outdated) version of the sport and the latter buying into the fans’ preference for adventurous football.
That is why they have so quickly swapped places, why Arteta has been given the time to finally see the pieces fall into place, and why Nuno’s difficult start is likely to continue. Back Spurs to finish outside the top six.