Banners and placards make great megaphones for airing public sentiment inside a stadium. At Rafa Benitez's first home game as interim Chelsea manager in November 2012, Stamford Bridge welcomed him with hushes, mild boos, and a placard which read "Not wanted, never wanted, Rafa out." Banners at the Emirates had been major catalysts too for the Arsenal board to break their slumber on Arsene Wenger's stay at the club. At Unai Emery's first north London Derby, there were many of these carrying his picture and encouraging words - it takes a bit to build complete trust - but one stood out. Next to his picture were the words, "To the next chapter".
Everything about this derby had a hint of change. There was a new man heading the home team. Tottenham, with victories over Chelsea and Inter Milan leading into this match, had begun to — at long last — display a new, more structured and balanced dimension to their usual high octane football. Even the tension that precedes matches of this significance, was left to the players and their side of the grass. Emery, Pochettino and their mutual respect goes back a long way. When Emery left his managerial role at Valencia in the summer of 2012, he had recommended outgoing Espanyol manager Mauricio Pochettino as his replacement. Six years on as a scuffle broke out near the touchline, Pochettino, on his way to calm his troops, shook Emery's hand and gave him a "Don't sweat, I got this" nod. The warmth in the air — before, during and after this derby — would've made a lot of old school, battle-hardened football managers, and definitely Roy Keane, gag. In the words of the current Australian men's cricket team management, there was Elite Respect on show.
The players didn't share the same tenderness towards their opposite numbers. Within the first minute, both teams had dispossessed each other once via strong tackles high on the pitch. Jan Vertonghen's reckless trailing hand gifted Arsenal with a penalty in the ninth minute, which Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang duly converted to secure a lead the home team had thoroughly deserved for their enterprise against such a strong, counter-attacking team.
The first signs of Unai Emery's intent to increase intensity and urgency levels at his new club came three minutes later. Aubameyang failed to trap a low cross from Sead Kolasinac in the six-yard box and fell to the ground in despair. Emery immediately started gesturing towards the Gabonese striker urging him to stand up and get on with the game. Arsene Wenger's more relaxed, languid approach on the touchline, even when his teams could've done with a push, had caused an immense amount of public vexation in his later years. His replacement was so amped for this derby that he nonchalantly ignored the fourth official's warnings about stepping out of the technical area multiple times. When the big screen showed Emery finally choosing to take a breather around the 80th minute, it was met with a hearty applause from the crowd.
Tottenham, true to their form and a newfound sense of calm on the pitch, never quite lost control of the tempo. In five swift minutes around the half-hour mark, they scored twice and wrested back the initiative. Both goals drew boos from the packed audience, and some of those were aimed at goalkeeper Bernd Leno for letting in an innocuous-looking header from Eric Dier. The second wave of boos was reserved for Son Heung-Min, for making the absolute most of a feather touch by Rob Holding in the penalty box. Harry Kane always scores against Arsenal. Harry Kane always scores from the penalty spot. 1-2 before you could blink. Half-time served as a recess from this ball of electricity masquerading as a football match.
This deficit in a big game would've sent a slight tingle down the spines of those with a red and white persuasion. In recent memory, Arsenal hadn't quite set the world on fire with inspirational comebacks in the biggest matches and you would forgive even an eternal optimist for fearing the worst. In this crunch moment, Unai Emery dished out Exhibit B of the new Arsenal. Alexandre Lacazette and Aaron Ramsey came on at halftime to provide more impetus in the attacking third. Emery needs to be given credit because those changes weren't desperately warranted; Alex Iwobi or Henrikh Mkhitaryan hadn't been poor in the first half by any stretch. It was the swift realisation that his best chance of getting more goals came from having another centre-forward on the pitch and attacking the rust of Vertonghen and the inexperience of Juan Foyth down the middle.
Ten minutes into the second half, Ramsey flicked a ball goalwards, and Aubameyang side-footed a finish past Hugo Lloris. Even in the new, there was this little poetic moment of old. Arsenal pushed harder and in the 75th minute, Lacazette's shot took a slight but decisive deflection off Eric Dier and went past Lloris to give Arsenal the lead. This was the point where Tottenham's paper-thin squad depth started to show and a team built on intensity started to fatigue. To have played Chelsea and Inter Milan in the week leading up to a North London Derby is hardly ideal from a physical perspective, even less so when the team couldn't strengthen at all over the summer owing to a stadium situation. There must've been more than a couple of knowing smirks going around at the home end.
The third goal sent a shot of adrenaline into Arsenal and they began to play like they were instead chasing a 2 goal deficit in a Champions League final. A hundred or so seconds on from Lacazette's strike, Lucas Torreira, the man who has symbolised the steel and grit part of the Emery age at Arsenal, ran through on an Aubameyang pass and thumped in an emphatic fourth for the Gunners, virtually sealing the match. The Uruguayan was possibly the best player on the pitch tonight, tackling everything in his eyesight that as much as moved and with each of those shin crunchers, gave his adoring fans a bigger chunk of what they had missed at Arsenal for so long.
Emery is in charge of a team in transition, recuperating from many years of mediocrity. Wins in big matches come at a premium, and he would've been justified for asking his men to take their foot off the pedal after equalising or even getting the lead. By urging his team to push forward at all times, more so after every goal they scored, he has laid bare the route he plans to take this Arsenal team on.
They are still some distance away from making a case as title contenders like some of their illustrious predecessors, but if this north London Derby was any sign, this new chapter at Arsenal is going to be greatly exciting.
Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.
Updated Date: Dec 03, 2018 11:14:01 IST