Tottenham's North London Derby Win Featured Rare Defensive Masterclass in the Age of High-Risk Football

Matt O'Connor-Simpson
Dec 6, 2020, 7:21 PM GMT
Spurs defended superbly against Arsenal
Spurs defended superbly against Arsenal | Pool/Getty Images
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They say the art of defending is dead.

Perhaps they're right. In the Premier League this season, eyebrow raising scorelines seem to crop up on a weekly basis with the high risk, high reward pressing game that most teams pursue generally leading to open encounters.

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Already this campaign the reigning champions have lost 7-2, while their supposed next closest challengers, Manchester City, have been put to the sword 5-2.

However, one man who seems hell bent on making defending sexy again is Tottenham head coach Jose Mourinho. The latest example of his side's unfashionable strength at the back came during their 2-0 north London derby win over Arsenal on Sunday afternoon.

As soon as Son Heung-min's curling effort edged Spurs into the lead inside 13 minutes, it would have taken a very brave man to bet against Mourinho's charges taking home all three points. Then, when Harry Kane finished off a free flowing counter attack just before the break, the odds of Arsenal completing a comeback got even slimmer.

After going 2-0 up, every Tottenham player knew exactly what his role was in and out of possession. It's testament to the success that their manager has had in shaping them in his own image.

Moussa Sissoko sacrificed any real creative aspirations, instead spending the game covering the overlapping runs of Bukayo Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang expertly. Meanwhile, Giovani Lo Celso defied his languid playmaker label by putting in a ferocious defensive display. The Argentine went thundering into tackles as though he was in a contest with Granit Xhaka over who could pick up the most pointless yellow card.

However, no one embodied the Mourinho way more than his trusted, on-field lieutenant, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. He was everywhere once again for Spurs, sweeping in front of the back four and racking up three inceptions in all, as well as a string of tackles and clearances.

Hojbjerg once again impressed for Spurs
Hojbjerg once again impressed for Spurs | Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

With the all-action Dane shielding them, the Spurs defence had little do in a second half in which their opponents enjoyed a whopping 76% possession but struggled to break them down.

When the Gunners did manage to breach the midfielder however, Spurs last line of protection stood firm. Serge Aurier continued to look reborn under Mourinho, making a game-high four tackles, while Sergio Reguilon - a player mainly hyped for his attacking contribution when he arrived in the summer - was also extremely solid.

Tottenham's centre-backs also deserved special praise. Eric Dier and Toby Alderweireld were positionally spot on, making just shy of half (17) of their side's 43 clearances, while both full-backs made six each. Not to mention Kane, who seemed to spend more time making defensive headers in his own box than trying to score himself.

Defending like this no longer commands the respect that it deserves, but Spurs won't mind. Their fierce rearguard action sent a strong message to their title rivals. More importantly, it returned them to the top of the Premier League table. Who cares if it doesn't look pretty?

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