For now, Tottenham Hotspur can hold their horses. In the lead up to the North London derby, all the chatter was about the enlarging gap between Mauricio Pochettino’s side and Arsenal. By the end of the fixture on Saturday afternoon, it was Arsene Wenger who had regained ground.
Spurs may yet again finish above the Gunners but the North London derby is not a foregone conclusion yet. Arsenal had last defeated its arch-rival in the league over three and a half years ago. But its first win in seven encounters over Spurs was worth cherishing.
Only for the third time this season, Alexandre Lacazette, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez started in attack. Lacazette’s omission against Liverpool and Manchester City had caused much hand-wringing. On Saturday, Wenger decided to put his best three offensive players on the pitch and the result was fantastic.
Arsenal’s supremacy was unchallenged. Matching Spurs’ 3-4-2-1 formation, the Gunners bossed the proceedings thanks to their attacking intent and energetic play. In recent seasons, a subdued Arsenal has been a common sight when faced with a superior side on paper. However, the derby brought the best out of Wenger’s men. No longer did Arsenal seem embattled.
In fact, it was Spurs who failed to match their opponent. Second to the ball, Pochettino’s side was passive throughout; a hallmark of its away performances against big teams in the league. Under the Argentinean manager, Spurs have won just once and lost ten of their seventeen away matches versus the top six (if you were to replace Leicester with Chelsea for the 2015-16 season). This record includes Saturday’s defeat and the underwhelming display against Manchester United last month.
The inability to get results on the road against teams of similar standing has been a running issue for Pochettino. Even last season when Spurs were overwhelming their opponents, they drew at Arsenal and Manchester City while Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United inflicted losses when the Lilywhites visited.
Yet, Spurs were the favourites going into the clash on Saturday. No other Tottenham manager had made Wenger wait so long for a win in the Premier League. It helped the French manager, though, that Spurs stuck to the style that they have preferred this season. No longer does Pochettino set his team out to control the ball, especially when it plays a strong opposition. The emphasis, rather, is on counter-attacking football.
However, Arsenal’s 11th straight win at the Emirates was a consequence of only one team sticking to its plans. While the Gunners pressed and ran with intensity, Spurs’ players seemed to be recovering from their international exertions. A somnolent display was put up; Harry Kane’s partially fit avatar only exacerbated the situation.
With Ben Davies and Kieran Trippier chosen as wing backs ahead of Serge Aurier and Danny Rose, there was a decidedly defensive look to the Spurs eleven than usual. Unfortunately for Pochettino, it translated into inferiority. After the match, though, he claimed that his team had matched Arsenal; it was more like an attempt to reduce the pressure on his players. Uncharacteristically, Pochettino focused on the refereeing decisions.
“I think it’s so obvious what happened I don’t need to say. It’s not easy to accept because we lose the game. But I think everyone who was here knows what happened.”
It was worth stating that both Arsenal goals were borne out by contentious calls but Spurs deserved no better. Pochettino must have been left worried by his third league defeat this season; the side did not lose as many matches last term until February. Now, with a third of the campaign over, Tottenham sits 11 points behind City and only a point above Arsenal.
For the Gunners, the win on Saturday would have also left a bitter taste in the mouth. It is not that this result does not matter; rather, it is the fact that such victories do not come often. Despite their doubtful futures, Ozil and Sanchez delivered a display more in line with their abilities. The former, particularly, has been the subject of bad press as it is often claimed that he does not work hard.
That might be an unfair charge. On Saturday, anyway, Ozil covered immense ground to make his presence felt on both sides of the pitch. In some senses, he is the current-day Juan Roman Riquelme. When Ozil is good, he is quietly brilliant. When he is poor, his peripheral presence is mistakenly used to explain the team’s other ills.
Arguably, Arsenal’s biggest weakness lies in the midfield pairing of Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka. Before Saturday, they were considered lightweight in comparison to the Spurs midfield. But both Ramsey and Xhaka acquitted themselves well in the encounter. The inclusion of Shkodran Mustafi lent a further layer of stability.
While the victory may not be the panacea for Arsenal’s ills, it does assuage some of the concerns around the team. It also left a few delights for the club’s faithful to sample.
Early in the second half, Ozil led a counter-attack by winning the ball in his own half. A quick exchange of passes followed as the Gunners attacked in numbers. Although a heavy ball by Sanchez meant that Ozil could not complete what would have been one of the goals of the season, the move was reminiscent of Arsenal at its peak in the early noughties.
For that minute and the rest on Saturday, the red corner of North London stood head and shoulders above Tottenham. Spurs are known to be fantastic but there is work to do still.
Before the derby, Pochettino had brushed aside criticism of his team for its inability to win silverware when compared with Arsenal’s recent FA Cup conquests. Instead, he argued that Spurs are focused on challenging for the big trophies – the Premier League and top continental honours. However, if Saturday and all the other away games against major domestic opposition are a worthy indicator, the lofty glories lie somewhere in the distance.
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Updated Date: Nov 19, 2017 10:14:20 IST