This afternoon The Emirates Stadium hosted its first really big match of the season. The Old Enemy, and our current closest rivals. The fixture on the list with the red ring round the date.
Pre-match Theo Walcott stated the obvious:
”It [the north London derby] means so much to players and fans. They are always played at a very intense level. Both teams have a lot of respect for each other. We know how good they are but we’re very good.”
After a decade and a half of being for local bragging rights only, the North London Derby has now became a game representing a far wider battle for success and dominance. A combination of slightly declining standards at Arsenal and significant development and planning at Spurs have brought the two neck and neck, and the infamous ‘gap’ between the two is now paper thin. This adds an incredible amount of pressure to a fixture that already carries great significance, and for Arsenal at least, that was even greater than normal today.
With the two clubs enjoying such contrasting summers in the transfer market (what’s £100m between friends?), and Arsenal’s opening day misfortune against Villa, there has fairly universal talk, even among sections of the Arsenal fans, of a shift in power. Certainly, Villas-Boas has addressed many of Tottenham’s weaknesses in the transfer market, whilst largely re-modelling the side.
Right from the kick-off it was noticeable that this was probably the biggest Tottenham side physically that I can remember. Eight of the visitors starting eleven were six foot or above, and two of the other three were still 5″10 or above. Arsenal had five over 6 foot, and in Ramsey, Rosicky and Wilshere had a midfield that collectively were a couple of feet shorter and a few stone lighter than the Spurs trio of Capoue, Paulinho and Dembele. Comparing Cazorla and Chadli only heightened this miss-match. So it was largely going to be a battle between power and guile, and I felt strangely confident that Arsenal’s greater mobility would prevail. My prediction with my mate in the pub was 2-1.
This feeling was strengthened by the feeling that there was a lack of balance in the Spurs starting 11, with a lack of obvious subtlety and creativity in midfield, and the assumption that four new starting players and two others that had been out on loan would lack the understanding of a well oiled machine. This was an obvious contrast to an Arsenal side that, for the first time since we last won a trophy, didn’t part company with any players that could make an argument for being first choice.
Arsenal, with a point to prove, started much faster out of the blocks, and my pre-match prediction of Rose and Vertonghen struggling with Walcott’s movement was in evidence straight away, with the England man winning a free kick that Cazorla put under the wall and about 6 inches wide of the post.
After a couple of other near misses on through balls, a move involving Mertesacker, Cazorla, Ramsey and Rosicky found Walcott bending an in-to-out run behind Rose, and his near post cross was brilliantly flicked into the smallest of near post gaps by Olivier Giroud. A goal very reminiscent of several scored by RVP in his last 18 months in North London, and one that I suspect the Frenchman would not have scored last year – as Wenger commented after the match:
“The difference is he came to a new league that’s a level up here and it took him some time to adapt and in the second season he is more comfortable. He’s a fantastic guy, he has great charisma and a very positive attitude. On that front, he is fantastic.”
Within minutes Walcott was denied by Lloris with a smart save at his near-post, and then again with a brilliant (if risky) tackle outside his box when a beautiful Cazorla through ball found another great diagonal run from Theo. It looked the route time and again, and in the second half Lloris once again just beat our road-runner to the ball in the box, and then made another good save from the same man. I know many find Theo frustrating, and with his lack of tight dribbling skill, comparative physical weakness and his still occasionally erratic decision making, it is easy to see why, but today illustrated how vital he is to the team tactically. He didn’t really play well, but set up the goal, forced two good saves, and was denied two other clear chances by excellent goalkeeping. That said, it was pleasing that Cazorla took over direct free-kick duty from him today. Seeing as the last one I can remember us scoring was Podolski against Southampton last year, its safe to say that I hope any new faces we do see will improve us in this area.
Apart from a couple of shots by Townsend, Spurs showed very little before the break, and the only real concern for Arsenal was the enforced substitution of Wilshere, replaced by our returning French bulldog, Matthieu Flamini. As it turns out any injury concerns about Jack’s troublesome ankles proved ill-founded. He was merely sick with a bug that has been going around, also taking Sagna with it.
While obviously lacking the ability on the ball of the man he replaced, Flamini pretty quickly reminded us of what had made him so popular in 2007-08, charging into tackles, winning free-kicks and being very vocal with his team-mates. There is also something very comforting about his no-nonsense workman-like attitude in this age of fancy haircuts, tattoos and shiny boots. His literal and metaphorical rolling up of sleeves and getting on with it brings something to a squad that already has a good attitude, and it was noticeable how quickly he gelled with his old friend Rosicky. The only downside was that this partnership (and the space behind Tottenham’s back line) made me miss Fabregas more than ever. Needless to say he got booked for an excellently timed if rather heavy tackle.
Unsurprisingly, Spurs upped both the pace and physicality in the second half, and enjoyed a lot of the ball – but didn’t create much, whilst looking vulnerable on the break. The only real danger to the Arsenal goal came when Defoe came on, and his movement, combined with a succession of soft free-kicks given by Michael Oliver, caused problems late on. Indeed it was his deflected shot that forced the save of the game from Szczesny late on. Thankfully, the referee’s sympathy for Spurs’ players falling to the floor didn’t extend to Soldado’s shameful delayed dive in the box following a slight push from Koscielny. He might get those in Spain, but you normally only get penalties for that in England if you play for Man Utd. That said Townsend won the decisive penalty with a blatant dive last week , and this is the club that launched (pun intended) Gareth Bale.
Interestingly, the visitors left having had nearly 60% of the ball, which not reflected their superior physical strength, but also the continuation of the tactical shift we have seen in Arsenal over the last 6 months. With a new found confidence in our back four and a greater discipline in midfield, we have an Arsenal team that believes it can keep clean sheets and defend a lead. As well as leading a greater calmness under pressure, it also allows us to exploit our pace on the break, which already against Fulham, Fenerbace and again today, we have seen to good effect. This greater defensive focus was illustrate by ending the game with four full-backs, although this also reflected the paucity of our midfield and attacking options to bring on. Wenger acknowledged the way we ended the game.
”I was [relieved] because in the end we did hang on and protected our score because we could not get the second goal but overall it was an intense game. Their goalkeeper was their best player which shows you the chances we had. We had to dig deep to win in the end.”
As for Spurs, Pat Nevin summed it up pretty well:
“Spurs look less of a team, and no-one in their midfield is playing that well. Arsenal have clearly shown the greater endeavour.”
Paulinho, Dembele and Capoue looked like an odd midfield three to start with, and didn’t really work. When Dembele came off for Defoe and the terribly unfortunate Capoue was stretchered off for Sandro, Spurs looked more mobile and more balanced. It became apparent that Spurs’ policy of buying the players that represented best value in positions that needed strengthening may take a while to really bear fruit. AVB doesn’t yet know his best side, and it doesn’t look like the players do either. Which of course makes perfect sense. And of course they missed the game-changing talent and confidence that Gareth Bale brought to the table last season.
This of course doesn’t excuse our lack of transfer activity. Comparing the two benches was not comforting, with both Gnabry and Zelalem dangerously close to the first team. and with both pretty obviously carrying ‘In case of emergency only’ signs. The seemingly imminent arrival of Emilio Viviano to provide competition in goal can only be a good thing, but that is pretty low down our list of priorities. Having already started the season terribly light going forwards, the injuries to Podolski and The Ox leave us horribly exposed. Rumours range from Kaka, DiMaria and Benzema to Montero, Draxler and Jackson Martinez, but remarkably we have just over 24 hours of the transfer window left, and still have absolutely no idea who our major signings will be. Not a comfortable place to be. Ultimately, adding numbers and quality to this excellent core squad could legitimately put the club in a position to challenge for major trophies. Failure to do so will probably leave us on the outside looking in, come the May Champion’s League party.
It is very rare for anything in football to actually be as black and white as fans like to see it. But in this case its hard to see it in any other way.
Fingers crossed for a good Monday…we’ll be covering it all here.
753 total views, 4 views today