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Arsenal’s win vs. Tottenham in North London derby shows how rivals are moving in opposite directions

LONDON — The north London derby is not a day for underlying performances and metrics. If the Premier League’s most consistently ludicrous contest can be relied on for anything it is that good performances count for little in the pressure cooker. 

This game is not so much unpredictable as unimaginable. You could not conceive of a fixture where a former Atletico Madrid anchorman walks off the pitch when he should be defending a counterattack but that is par for the course when Arsenal face Tottenham.

So perhaps it is appropriate that this fixture’s latest surprise was that it reflected all the underlying truths of both teams’ seasons. That Arsenal have significantly improved since Christmas, even if there are occasions where that is not reflected in the final score. That Spurs do not have an underlying approach that they can deploy effectively on a consistent basis against top-tier opposition, meaning that they were as much the architects of this 2-1 defeat as their great rivals.

By rights it ought to have been Arsenal struggling to cobble their gameplan after Arteta’s late decision that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang could not be in the squad having arrived late when the team gathered ahead of kickoff. Removing the club captain and best finisher in itself is a bold decision in itself and all the more so when his replacement brings such a radically different skillset to the center forward position.

When played through the middle, Aubameyang functions as a consummate poacher. He sits on the shoulder of the last man and waits for the pass to unleash him in behind. Alexandre Lacazette’s game in recent years has been defined by his movement to the ball, dropping deep to create angles for wingers and midfielders to attack. He can put the ball in the net, especially against a Tottenham team he averaged a goal involvement per 90 against before Sunday’s game, but he is a very different forward.

That brought its challenges for Arsenal and in particular Kieran Tierney, who early on would fire crosses into the box that were simply begging for a forward to attack them. At times early on there were four Spurs defenders and not a single forward. Yet for the most part there was clear evidence of a plan from the hosts, a vision for how everything would interlink.

When Martin Odegaard went right to join Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe drifted into the space he left behind whilst Tierney pinned back Matt Doherty. There was a clear focus on the Spurs right-back, who simply did not seem able to defend an overlapping wing-back and a winger who ghosted inside, particularly when Gareth Bale would not track back.

Compare that to Tottenham, whose approach seemed to start and end at “press Cedric Soares when he has the ball”. Even that fell apart when Heung-min Son exited after 19 minutes through injury. That aside there was no evidence of a plan. There were no passages of play building towards something, no real interplay on the ball or pressing off it. Whilst Arteta was conducting the press, rearranging his players to the millimeter at times, Jose Mourinho spent much of the match shouting, “up, up, up” rarely to anyone in particular.

There was no rhyme or rhythm to Tottenham’s football. This was not a team capable of creating a high volume of shots — two-thirds of the way through this game they had had one with an expected goals value of 0.07 — nor of building lengthy passages of possession. Lucas Moura had earned his starts as Spurs’ lead presser but seemed reluctant to push up and get at the Arsenal defense. Instead they deployed an all too familiar plan that Mourinho falls back on in high-profile games, defend in numbers and prey on mistakes at the other end. 

It may be typical of how Mourinho’s side approach these games but that does not mean he was happy with it. “The only thing worse than our first half was Michael Oliver’s decision to award the penalty,” was his pithy response to his side’s performance.

Here’s the thing, though, Spurs’ plan nearly worked. That does not mean that it was the right plan, that a more expansive approach might not have allowed a team blessed with attacking talent to do more against a defense that showed in the final 10 minutes it cannot entirely deal with sustained pressure. However Tottenham nearly got away with it. 

Considering Arsenal’s recent record of handing goals to opponents you might have assumed that an error from one of their numerous error-prone players would have turned the tide in this contest. Instead Erik Lamela produced one of the great goals this fixture has seen on his one-man mission to remind the footballing world why this game is the most ridiculous derby in England. A rabona daisy cutter, a string of fouls gone unpunished and an unnecessary thump into Tierney that handed his hosts a man advantage that somehow prompted them to play like they were down to eight. As Mourinho might put it, this is North London derby heritage.

Arsenal were naturally shaken by Lamela’s goal, Spurs’ first shot in 33 minutes where the Gunners had worked the ball into good positions, played with composure and fearlessness and an understanding of the weak points in their opponent that they could hit. High-quality chances were few and far between but they nearly had a superb opener when Smith Rowe’s long-range effort cracked back off Lloris’ bar.

Odegaard’s equalizer was far less sweetly struck but it reflected a team that was learning as the game went on. Where early on the Gunners had not committed enough bodies to the box now all of the front four were in position to attack the ball, the Norwegian smartly sticking behind the play before his shanked shot deflected off Toby Alderweireld.

Arteta was learning too. A hamstring injury forced Saka to be replaced with Nicolas Pepe but it was still the right change at the right time, bringing a more direct option to the front line. Arsenal have not always been rewarded for what they are doing right but today they were as the substitute’s cross into the box drew a foul from Davinson Sanchez on Lacazette, handing the Gunners the penalty that would decide this contest.

For once Arsenal did not shoot themselves in the foot though there was little to admire in how the Gunners approached the closing stages with a man advantage. 

“For sure we didn’t [close out the game well enough],” Arteta told CBS Sports. “We managed those 10 minutes really, really badly. We put ourselves in trouble and we gave them hope. 

“After that [red card], you should have 200 passes in the opponent’s half, give the ball and attack in the right moment. It’s a big lesson. It’s great to get those lessons when you are winning. That’s the biggest lesson.”

Still, rather than a clumsy foul or pass from one of their defenders they dealt with the pressure admirably, getting their line right when Harry Kane headed in from an offside position before Gabriel’s spectacular diving header denied Sanchez a late equalizer.

It would have been utterly appropriate for this particular game if the ball had flown off Gabriel’s head and into the net or if Arsenal had contrived another ludicrous method to punish themselves. Instead this was a game where they avoided basic errors and the Arteta project shone through. They were energetic, composed and worked to a plan. All of these are qualities Mourinho’s men could do with showing in games such as this.




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