As the final whistle blew at the Wembley Stadium, Arsenal’s tally stood at eight points out of 66 on the road. In recent years, Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Tottenham Hotspur have proved to be unwelcome hosts for the Gunners in Premier League contests. On Saturday, for a long while, it seemed that the Gunners will finally break past those dark clouds. Not since January 2015 had they won away against a fellow member of the ‘Big Six’.
But familiar frustrations seem to follow Arsenal unwittingly. A draw at Tottenham is not the worst result but the match certainly should have given the visiting side more. The afternoon had begun with much handwringing over unexpected changes to the Gunners starting line-up. By the end of it, manager Unai Emery’s plan was vindicated. But you would not have sensed that from the reaction of the players and the fans.
Five changes to the Gunners eleven meant the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Lucas Torreira and Mesut Ozil were consigned to the bench. Emery, surprisingly, wanted his players to frustrate Tottenham with their defensive organisation, and reap rewards on the counter. Considering Arsenal’s long-running defensive issues, the plan was destined to fail. But to everyone’s amazement, everything went as Emery would have liked.
The Arsenal manager’s strategy entailed splitting the contest up into ‘small matches’. He recognised that the entire depth of his squad will have to influence the proceedings. By dividing the match into phases, Emery simplified the task for a side that had not kept a clean sheet on the road in the league this season. The discipline of Arsenal and the ponderous football of Spurs went on to bring comfort. The tactics even made Shkodran Mustafi at right-back an acceptable idea. As odd that move may have seemed, it was worth recalling that Mustafi had played in that position for Valencia in the past; he also made a couple of appearances as a full-back for Germany in the 2014 World Cup winning campaign.
The first small match was won by Arsenal when Aaron Ramsey ran the entire length of the Spurs half to give his side the lead. Davinson Sanchez’s error in dealing with a loose ball led to the kind of situation Emery had planned for. Alexandre Lacazette was quick to set Ramsey free and the Welshman coolly rounded Hugo Lloris to finish.
As Spurs failed to move the ball quickly and switch play, Arsenal was rarely troubled in the first half. It was only at the stroke of the interval that Bernd Leno was called upon to make a magnificent double save. However, like many others at Wembley, Pochettino was displeased by what he saw from Spurs and the manager did not even wait for the half-time whistle to leave for the dressing room.
As Tottenham chased the match in the second half, Emery had the luxury of introducing Torreira, Aubameyang, and Ozil. But he could not summon luck’s services for his team. In an all too obvious fashion, the situation went pear-shaped for Arsenal.
First, Lacazette missed a simple chance from ten yards as he sliced Nacho Monreal’s cutback away. Twenty minutes later, on a freekick, a tight offside call went against Arsenal and Harry Kane was shoved to the ground by Mustafi. The England striker responded by calmly converting from the spot and Spurs were level.
If Arsenal had a reason to feel aggrieved at referee Anthony Taylor, the complaints disappeared when the visitor was awarded a dodgy penalty towards the end of normal time. Aubameyang was barely touched by Davinson Sanchez but the referee was convinced that the he went down under duress. The Gabonese striker, though, could only retain his composure and struck a poor penalty. Lloris saved, and this was not even the most spectacular moment. On the rebound, Aubameyang looked certain to score but an astonishing intervention by Jan Vertonghen ensured the ball looped over from a couple of yards. It was not going to be Arsenal’s day.
Eventually, after 32 games without a draw in the Premier League, Tottenham shared points with the opposition. It was a point that hurt nobody in the Champions League race but Arsenal may feel that the result leaves more pressure on next Sunday’s clash at home against Manchester United. Some of the questions the Gunners failed to answer against Spurs will probably rear their head again.
The oft-repeated inability to cross the line against a serious rival was one of the reasons behind Arsene Wenger’s departure last summer. The fans and the club hierarchy had become unconvinced that the French manager could tactically match-up against the Premier League’s best minds. On the evidence of Emery’s plan on Saturday, he seems better equipped. But the Spanish manager is also in charge of a side that is unsure of itself. The absence of confidence in their ability held the Gunners back against Spurs. A more composed team would have walked away with three points from the Wembley Stadium, like Liverpool and Manchester City did earlier this season.
But the weight of history does not relax easy. Arsenal’s failure to assert themselves over the past decade continues to define the current side. Perhaps, more performances like the one on Saturday will repair the fraught belief. But unless Arsenal can acquire the skill of winning away from home against their rivals, old heartaches will lurk in the shadows.
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Updated Date: Mar 03, 2019 10:07:58 IST