Tottenham’s loss against Arsenal Sunday felt worse than the 0-2 score. The team, aside from its typical second-half burst, frequently looked overmatched. While help may be on the way during this transfer window, the North London Derby showed how desperately that help is needed.
Much of the conversation before the match focused on Pape Matar Sarr, who got his first Premier League start. Fans have been anxious to see him get more time on the pitch. Throwing a youngster in against Arsenal’s stellar midfield might have been a bit of a risk, but Sarr had earned his chance, and getting his energy into the game from the start made sense.
What drew less attention was Antonio Conte’s decision to play Ryan Sessegnon over Ivan Perisic as the left wing-back. The choice – coupled with Tottenham’s underwhelming performance – would help point to the squad’s weakness in connecting personnel to tactics.
Arsenal employs an imposing three-man midfield of Granit Xhaka, Thomas Partey, and Martin Odegaard. Given that Tottenham typically has just two midfielders in the center of the pitch, that team had a couple of tactical options to help win the center. One would be to switch to their 3-5-2, but with Richarlison and Dejan Kulusevski returning, that seemed unlikely. Another option would be to pitch the wing-backs in tight, although that approach would likely hinder Heung-min Son’s attack. A third plan would be to have Harry Kane drop deep from the number nine position, a role he relishes in the build-up, but that could wear on him as a defensive measure.
The team instead, and probably wisely, stuck with its standard 3-4-3 formation and stylistic approach. To circumvent the Gunners’ overloaded midfield, the Spurs would look for quick counters up the flanks, using Sessegnon and Matt Doherty in key attacking assignments. Problems arose when neither player could pull off the job in this situation.
Sessegnon looked particularly overmatched, slipping once and hitting a memorably atrocious pass at another moment. Perhaps he was troubled by his role in defending against Bukayo Saka. The team seemed content to sit back and defend throughout the first half rather than look to press and counter quickly, keeping the ball away from Arsenal’s midfield.
Perisic would likely have had more composure and offered more of a threat from that side, but the whole game reveals the team’s fundamental weakness: its current attack relies on wing-backs, and none of the wing-backs are getting the job done. Rather than trying something different tactically, Tottenham continues to try the same approach (to be fair, bringing in Richarlison for Doherty gave the team’s structure a nice wrinkle). Conte must be willing to show more flexibility in his approach or lineup selection. The North London Derby highlighted the most significant weakness facing the team right now.
It may be that Pedro Porro or Jeremie Frimpong will soon improve the team’s play, but until something changes, something needs to change.