Tomorrow Arsenal will host their rivals from down the street, not that you needed me to tell you. I know you all have had this marked on your calendar since this summer, as any real Arsenal have would. Coming into the matchup there have been a few steady points of discourse and argument around these two teams. One major point of conversation: sustainability.
On the Arsenal side, sustainability probably comes more in the form of their 2.57 points per game average to start the year. Can they sustain that clip? Probably not, that would translate to ~97 points for a full season which feels like an unrealistic leap from last season, even with the team growing another year older. But their ability to walk into any stadium, home or away, and perform as they have could be — and THAT will net you a lot of results.
For Spurs, it’s not just how sustainable is their play, but is it even slightly sustainable?
This conversation feels a bit more nuanced, and incredibly dependent on what you are asking if they can sustain. Do you mean, can they ‘sustain’ this and win the league? No probably not, but I would argue that this team’s talent ceiling wasn’t ever at “league winners”, much as Arsenal’s current side’s ceiling it not. Or do you mean, can they ‘sustain’ this performance level and be in the race for top 3? Because that feels far more plausible.
OR! do you mean, can they ‘sustain’ this play for years to create a club identity and foundation for success? Because no, they can’t, but I’m not sure they even want to, especially given the short-term nature of Antonio Conte and his contract.
But if there is one coach that has demonstrated a keen ability to sustain teams playing within this structure and find success across a campaign, it’s Conte. Maybe Jose. In the past Conte has had a better team when he’s won leagues, true, but again, “the League” might not have been a realistic aim for this side, more of a pipe dream even with Conte. Personally, I question why the club would have thought it would be any different than that and therefore worthy of this large short-term investment, but that’s on them.
When people talk about Spur’s unsustainable play they often talk about their ~40% Field tilt, meaning 6/10 touches in a final third that occur during a Spurs match happens in Spurs’ defensive third, 4/10 happen in their attacking third. Not always a great stat isolated, but it is a good measure of just how deep Tottenham play.
Many will also talk about the +6.3 over performing difference between Spurs’ xG and actual goals scored (11.7 xG, 18 GF) and suggest the over performance isn’t reliable. And while there is certainly a level of truth to that, it’s also true that their team is built around some elite striker play that papers over many cracks. It’s why you pay start strikers that much money.
What it feels like to me, is Spurs and Conte being are dismissed at unfair levels because they don’t play “good football”. Don’t get me wrong, by most definitions of the phrase, they do not play good football. It’s not controlling, it’s not dominant, it’s not elegant or artistic, and it’s certainly not enjoyable to watch.
Yet in the absence of playing “good football”, they do find themselves playing “football they are good at”, and in the one form of entertainment in which art and elegance can be tossed out the window in favor of bare naked results and still be deemed a success, that’s an important difference.
If you want to hop on a pedestal and say that style of play is beneath any team that wants to call themselves a ‘big club’, you’re welcome to, but firstly no one will care on Saturday if Arsenal can’t get a result, and second let’s remember there were decades of Arsenal Football Club playing some truly horrendous ball while Spur were known as club that played nice football. Sometimes clubs go through periods like this when trying to find their way season to season. Sometimes, you just have to do what you have to do, to win.
Now, I wouldn’t trade what Arsenal are building for a minute. Nor do I believe this style of play from Conte is the only option Tottenham have, or had. They do have the financial power to plot a project involving quality players and a coach that can bring “good football” to their side of North London, but as their “Golden Age” — or whatever they call it — is coming to a close with little to show for it, it seems like they are desperate for a sliver of a chance at results now.
So, is it sustainable? Sustainable to what degree. Long term, no, but week-to-week for the season? I think yes, it’s dangerous for opposition, and here’s why.
While Spurs are taking on an immense amount of pressure and ceding 55% of the ball, they do so happily. They look like a team that works at this style of play day after day after day. While their fans look away in stress as their side are pelted with 15 shots a game (4th most in the league), and other fans lean closer to see this ugly style of play breakdown and show its ‘unsustainable’ self, the team itself looks content, almost comfortable. Because even with all those touches and all those shots, few tip into “dangerous chances”. In fact, Spurs had conceded the least xG per shot in the league at one point this year, if they don’t still maintain that status. And it’s asking the question, can you be in control a game without controlling the ball?
Maybe, maybe not, but they are testing the idea given how comfortable they often look.
This comfortable discomfort of course leads to what Spurs really want, space to transition into and counter, counter, counter! Son, Kane, Richardson, Kulsevski — all players that have the talent and skill to wreck any team on any given day when given space.
From an Arsenal perspective, it will be a major point of emphasis, especially after putting together a fantastic performance against Manchester United only to have our high line exploited and fall apart against their transition. I don’t expect Arsenal to over correct and play a deep line against Tottenham, it’s just not a part of their game, which means they will have to be ready to drop deep when there is a turnover, and counter press up top immediately to deny the outlet ball from Spurs’ defense.
If these two points are managed by Arsenal, and few turnovers in bad areas are committed, I do believe Arsenal will leave their home ground with three points. I also believe that Arsenal’s play shows a higher level of long term sustainability and growth than previous years may have suggested we would see this year.
So when it comes to the word “sustainability” it all feels relative, comparative. What are the goals, what are the aims, what is the plan and vision? Simply saying something is or is not sustainable, might not jive with the place the team is current at. It’s all too easy to say “Arsenal’s results aren’t sustainable, but Tottenham’s are” and mean “Arsenal won’t maintain a 97 points clip, but Tottenham can sustain third place” and be correct.
And others are probably correct — there will be matches in which this style of tight-margined play crumbles and falls short. The counter attack won’t convert, the defense will let a few too many big chances through, and people will feel justified in their stances. But I can’t help but feel the vagueness of the word sustainable leads to very hyperbolic views of a Spurs team that is playing the style they are good at — ugly or not — and THAT will be a style Arsenal have to overcome to retain their own short-term sustainability.