When Tottenham Hotspur reached last season’s Champions League semi-final, winning in dramatic circumstances against Manchester City, it was seen as a measure of the ground covered under the leadership of Mauricio Pochettino. It did not matter that the tie was won on away goals or that the story could have been different if not for a last-minute intervention by VAR. The achievement, instead, relayed the sentiment that Spurs could hold their own in tense situations against any opposition. They were no longer ‘Spursy’, as past Tottenham teams were defined for their tendency to bottle the job.
But since that eventful night four and a half months ago, a malaise seems to have afflicted Pochettino’s side. Even as the run to the Champions League final and a successful transfer window helped keep appearances up, poor form was not completely disguised. After the 2-2 draw against Arsenal on Sunday — another underwhelming display that could have ended in abject defeat on a different day — Spurs’ record in all competitions since that Champions League encounter in April reads: Played 12, Won 3, Drawn 3, Lost 6.
This should not be the form of a side that dreams of winning the league title within the next two-three seasons. Of course, there are mitigating factors. Uncertainty surrounding a few of the side’s major figures has affected the start of this campaign, even as reinforcements get used to new surroundings. Now that Christian Eriksen, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, and Danny Rose are staying, perhaps Spurs will rediscover themselves over the international break. It should be emphasised that away draws against Manchester City and Arsenal are not terrible results. But it is the performance in those matches that must worry Pochettino and the Spurs faithful.
The beginning of Sunday’s North London derby, though, had suggested that a positive turn could be in store for Tottenham. Arsenal, as they tend to do since Unai Emery was appointed manager, started the big match in exuberant fashion. The Gunners had rightly identified Davinson Sanchez, in the unusual position of a right-back, as a weak link. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Sead Kolasinac found early joy on that flank.
But Spurs now approach this derby with immense confidence. The balance of power in North London has tilted towards the white and blue, and it showed in the opening half. Even though Arsenal directed the momentum, Spurs were able to turn the screws on the counter. The visitors had four shots on target in the opening 20 minutes, aided in no small measure by the direct running of Heung-min Son. The Korean threatened to cause damage every time he ran at the Arsenal defence and it came as no surprise that he played a pivotal role in both of his team’s goals.
Arsenal’s eagerness was a sore contrast to the clinical football displayed by Spurs. Stung by the early goal, the hosts wished to get back in no time. This meant that shots were snatched, passes misplaced, and tackles rushed by the Gunners. Long-serving Spurs fans would remember well that the role of the eager yet unsettled team used to belong to them for a long time. It is Arsenal who find themselves in that mould now.
Until the very end of the first half, it looked like only frustrating tunes could be got out of the home team. Arsenal had the energy and the hustle, but they were also held back by their characteristic defensive failings. Despite starting seven (nominally) defensive-minded players, Emery’s side barely convinced that they could halt the Spurs attackers every time they rushed forward.
The manager’s questionable tactics did not help the host either. Even though Emery had demonstrated the courage to start with the sharp front three of Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, and Nicolas Pepe, he missed a trick by not picking a midfielder who could link the forwards with the rest. The Dani Ceballos-shaped hole in the midfield was not filled until after the hour mark.
Even though Lacazette left soon after from what seemed like an injury-enforced departure, Arsenal were still in the game thanks to the French striker. One of the problems faced by Spurs over the past months has been a tendency to make fundamental errors in defence. A hare-brained approach to clearing the ball on the stroke of half-time had allowed Lacazette to pull a goal back after controlling the ball in immaculate fashion.
Arsenal’s attacking threat forced Spurs into rushed and not-so-clever decisions all evening. As the pressure grew in the second half, it seemed inevitable that the Gunners would score again. Spurs did not demonstrate the maturity to take the sting out of the host’s momentum, as Liverpool had done the previous weekend. That is another recent failing that must worry Pochettino. The inability of his players to counteract pressure has already resulted in many adverse results.
The introduction of Giovani Lo Celso late into the game did bring a figure that helped circulate the ball out of Spurs’ half. The visitors may have even clinched an unlikely win at the death. But they deserved no more than a point for their evening’s exertions. Going forward, perhaps, the new signings will bring new solutions. It must offer Pochettino relief that Tanguy Ndombele, missing through injury on Sunday, is already settled at the club. However, Sunday’s exhibition of poor defending in and around the box suggests there is much work to be done for a club that was celebrating its first run to the Champions League final only a few months ago. If anything, Spurs must count themselves a bit fortunate to have five points from four matches. It could have been worse if a few small incidents had gone against them.
It certainly should have been better for Arsenal. For the second week running, the Gunners must feel that they deserved more from a game against a fellow member of the ‘Big Six’. But Arsenal’s failure to make the pressure count is a story told far too often. Emery, like Pochettino, has work to do.
The Great Diwali Discount!
Unlock 75% more savings this festive season. Get Moneycontrol Pro for a year for Rs 289 only.
Coupon code: DIWALI. Offer valid till 10th November, 2019 .
Updated Date: Sep 02, 2019 08:16:09 IST