Premier League: Tottenham Hotspur's solid display against mediocre Arsenal exposes Arsene Wenger's safety-first approach
Arsenal's defeats, in the marquee clashes at least, could be explained by the manner in which Arsene Wenger approaches teams of similar or better pedigree.
In the end, Arsenal could have drawn level. It would have been a difficult case to make for the points to be split, but there arrived a glimmer of hope. Eventually, just like Arsenal’s challenge, it was snuffed out. Alexandre Lacazette’s shot slid past the post and Gunners’ challenge for a top-four spot gasped for air. Another season without Champions League football seems like a real prospect now.
Saturday’s performance suggested that Arsenal are way off the required pace. The match could have easily ended in an embarrassing defeat for the Gunners but Tottenham Hotspur’s profligacy in front of goal kept the scoreline respectable. In the presence of the highest ever attendance for a Premier League game, Wenger's men – who had finished on the winning side the last nine times they had visited the venue – failed to maintain its glorious record at the Wembley Stadium.
Yet, against Spurs, they brought mere disjunction. It was remarkable that the host held not just the physical argument; Mauricio Pochettino’s side out-thought the Gunners too. Arsenal’s troubles with the Spurs’ offside trap brought the linesman’s flag out six times. Four of those instances arrived in the final half hour, with substitute Alexandre Lacazette guilty thrice. Arsenal looked clueless.
In the injured Aaron Ramsey’s absence, Wenger had sought to lend defensive solidity to his team. So, in a 4-3-2-1 setup, Granit Xhaka, Mohamed Elneny and Jack Wilshere were entrusted with the duty of putting Spurs on a leash. Yet, the hulking presence of Mousa Dembele alone overwhelmed Arsenal. Spurs may not have had the numerical advantage in the centre of the park, but it held a tactical edge.
The first half was almost like a period of reconnaissance for Pochettino and his men. The host spent the opening 45 minutes sussing the opposition out. But once the key was found, Arsenal crumbled. Harry Kane’s seventh goal in as many Premier League clashes against the arch-rival separated the sides on the scoresheet but in reality, the gulf was much wider.
Spurs, through their skill and discipline, ran streets ahead of the visitor. They brushed past Arsenal with immaculate ease; it was a surprise that Kane did not finish the afternoon with a hat-trick of headed goals. He could have added a volleyed strike to his tally as well but goalkeeper Petr Cech helped his team avert a catastrophic scoreline.
In the face of Spurs’ onslaught, Wenger became increasingly desperate. In order to awaken his charges, he took Elneny and Mkhitaryan off for Alex Iwobi and Lacazette. But there was no change in sight. Even though Arsenal were chasing the game, in theory, it was not until the final five minutes that its challenge found waking life. It was not too late by then but a draw would have embarrassed Wenger and his men. They deserved nothing after being played off the park.
It has been three years and 17 matches since Arsenal won away against a top six side. The contrast between their home and away form this season is in the vicinity of a crisis. Arsenal have picked up only 13 points from 14 matches on the road; at the Emirates, the total stands on 32 in 13 games.
It is not just the creaky defence holding the Gunners back. For all their attacking effervescence, only 15 away goals have been scored. These numbers usually belong to a mediocre side; Arsenal increasingly looks like one, having lost all of its last four matches on the travels.
The defeats, in the marquee clashes at least, could be explained by the manner in which Wenger approaches these games. He is averse to putting the whole range of his side’s attacking riches together. The trouble is that Arsenal does defend well either. So, in the attempt to seek the middle path, the Gunners get nowhere.
This is why Wenger’s safety-first approach on Saturday did not work. Arsenal got outplayed. Spurs played like a side which has not lost since mid-December, providing a steady contrast. For all his recent manoeuvres towards speed and offensive exuberance, Wenger seems rather unsure of the way he wants to combat teams of similar or better pedigree.
It is worth making the argument that the visiting side could have offered more by fielding its best attacking unit. Yet, Lacazette was benched and we did not get to see the much-discussed front four in action together. Wenger deployed the handbrake and all he got was stop-start football.
Spurs never really had to contend with the relentless pressing which led to their comprehensive defeat at the Emirates earlier this season. The host played on the front foot, certain that its on-paper superiority will win the day. Yet, it must worry Pochettino that his players did not put the game to bed. They nearly paid for it in the end, as they invited pressure upon themselves.
However, after a period in which Spurs have faced Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, seven points out of a possible nine represents a remarkable return. The club’s Champions League hopes have received a boost and it will be a surprise if the Lilywhites do not make a return to the elite competition. For the red corner of North London, though, it is a dream which seems rather distant now.
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