16 Conclusions: Arsenal 1-1 Tottenham

Date published: Sunday 6th November 2016 4:40

* Perhaps it is a measure of the general progress of both teams that Tottenham headed into this game in disappointed mood and Arsenal will leave it in a similar frame of mind. One is the only unbeaten team in the country and the other went within a point of first place after the draw. These are two clubs with grand ambitions and realistic hope of achieving them, for once. 

Mauricio Pochettino will be far happier than Arsene Wenger with the result, of course. Arsenal have now dropped seven points in six home games, an unlikely brake applied to their title challenge. Pochettino is the first Spurs manager in history to go unbeaten in their first five league games against Arsenal, and it continues the unbeaten league run. Wenger may be worried that the famed November ‘curse’, or at least their struggle to continue bright starts to the season, is happening again.

Yet neither manager can be wholly satisfied by the performance. Judging teams on their displays in local derbies played at the ludicrous time of midday is foolish, but neither Pochettino nor Wenger will believe that their side played to their fullest potential. There were too many misplaced passes, too many scuffed chances, for this to be stellar fare, high on entertainment but far lower on quality. Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son were among the game’s biggest passengers, while the stars were at full-back and in central midfield.

The goals too were reflective of that lack of quality, an own goal from a reserve centre-back and a penalty given away foolishly. As time went on, we waited for a late assault from either team that never really came. Arsenal had one shot on target after the 32nd minute; Tottenham had two in total from open play.

 

* The most interesting aspect of the team news was Pochettino’s decision to operate with a 3-4-3 system with Kevin Wimmer and Eric Dier joining Jan Vertonghen in central defence. The new en vogue Premier League formation finds a new home.

There was method behind Pochettino’s choice, even if Tottenham had only used the formation once before under his management. Arsenal overpowered Antonio Conte’s Chelsea before the Italian chose to change formation to a 3-4-3, possibly offering a warning, and it reduces the chances of Danny Rose and Kyle Walker getting pinned back. Both are vital to Spurs’ attack as they provide much-needed width, and were lacking against Leicester. Pochettino’s side can look very narrow and sluggish if both are unable to get forward.

Also, as the excellent Spurs blogger Chris Miller said before the game, when your full-backs push up as high as theirs and the holding midfielder drops as deep, it’s not actually a huge difference from the norm.

Still, there is no doubt that it was a surprise. Pochettino’s only other dalliance with the formation came against the two strikers of Watford, and the pre-match suspicion was that three central defenders to deal with one false nine in Alexis Sanchez was overkill. Would Eric Dier be sent out to sit on Mesut Ozil?

 

* While the return of Harry Kane was welcomed by Tottenham supporters, the loss of Dele Alli through injury wasn’t. Pochettino revealed before the game that Alli had twisted his knee in a training session on Saturday, and his injury would need to be assessed. Pochettino then confessed that Alli would be out for a few weeks. Walker followed him later in the match.

It indicates a wider trend, too. Tottenham enjoyed great fortune with injuries last season. Kane, Alderweireld, Hugo Lloris, Walker, Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela, Alli and Dier played a combined 285 league games out of a possible 304, missing just 19 combined. This season, they’ve already missed 15. The consequences of a tournament summer and Champions League participation are already hitting hard.

 

* Tottenham started the brighter, as if catching Arsenal off guard with their new shape. Arsenal’s attacking midfielders looked uncertain whether to press the central defenders in possession, allowing Tottenham to easily play their way up the pitch and right up to the edge of the opposition penalty area.

That was reflected in the chances in the first 20 minutes of the game, with Arsenal caught offside more often than they touched the ball in the opposition box. Son tore away down the left and crossed for Kane when he could – and maybe should – have shot, while Kane himself headed wide when given a presentable opportunity to score.

Shortly after that miss, Shkodran Mustafi was heard screaming at Alex Iwobi for his failure to stop Walker running forward. Tottenham’s wing-backs presented Iwobi and Walcott with a dilemma of how much they should track their men.

 

* Yet if Arsenal took time to understand how to combat Tottenham’s shape, they worked it out before half an hour had passed. You sensed that Pochettino’s team had to take advantage of the uncertainty in the opposition, and they failed to do so. Arsenal began finding pockets of space in behind the full-backs, with Nacho Monreal pinning back Walker and Ozil enjoying time on the ball in front of the defence.

The first chance came for Walcott, who struck Lloris’ crossbar with a rifled effort; Ozil could not direct the follow-up on target. Next came Iwobi, played in after intricate play between Sanchez and Ozil. The winger’s shot was scuffed and sent straight at Lloris.

 

* Three minutes before half-time, the goal came. Not via sumptuous skill but a central defender struggling to cope on his first league start of the season and some ineffective officiating.

Ozil’s skill in open play was displayed during his majestic winner on Tuesday, but the German’s set-piece delivery is just as proficient. A whipped free-kick left Wimmer with little choice but to try and head the ball away but, falling back, the Austrian could only direct it past Lloris and into the corner.

Any incompetence on the defender’s part was more than matched by the assistant referee, who failed to flag for offside despite two Arsenal players interfering with play and beyond the last defender when Ozil struck the ball. Wimmer would not have jumped to head the ball had Sanchez not been in front of him. To adapt the Brian Clough quote, if an attacker is a foot away from the ball and in front of the goalkeeper and not interfering with play, then he shouldn’t be on the pitch.

 

* While I’m going all ‘You Are The Ref’, can we please change the rules on head injuries? Current guidelines dictate that the game should be stopped as soon as the official notices a head injury, in order for treatment to be provided as soon as possible, vital in such circumstances. Yet if the play is not close to the stricken player, why does the physio need to wait for instruction?

Let me explain. In the first half, Mustafi went down holding his head on the halfway line, ten yards away from where the physios sat. Tottenham had the ball, and continued to attack, moving away from Mustafi. What is the problem with the game continuing while Mustafi receives treatment? If play then moves over to Mustafi’s position the referee can then stop the game, and if not, so be it. It would help the game flow and ensure head injuries were dealt with immediately rather than relying on a referee spotting it.

 

* I’ve given up my campaign against players who hit the first man from corners and free-kicks, because nobody is listening to me. It’s time for a new issue, and it’s defensive midfielders and defenders shooting from 25 yards or more despite having next to no chance of scoring. I’m aware that I’m edging dangerously close to xG chat, but bear with me.

The prime example from the Emirates was Victor Wanyama’s strike from 30 yards in the first half. It’s one thing Eriksen or Philippe Coutinho shooting from distance often enough to frustrate supporters, but another entirely when it’s a midfielder like Wanyama. High and wide is the norm, shots on target the exception and goals a rarity. Stop it.

 

* Why is it that every initiative about pulling shirts and grappling in the penalty area lasts about a month before things return to normal? What is it about shirt-pulling that make referees so afraid to penalise them?

In the first half, Vertonghen clearly pulled Xhaka back over a period of three seconds from a corner, stopping him getting to the ball. It was a penalty, and I can feel my anger rising.

 

* Laurent Koscielny is one of the best defenders in the Premier League, but was responsible for letting Tottenham back into a local derby that looked to be moving out of their reach. There looked little danger as Moussa Dembele moved across the edge of the penalty area, closely guarded by two Arsenal players. Koscielny’s decision to hang out his leg was uncharacteristically brainless.

On commentary, Howard Webb described the penalty as soft but correct; only the second of those terms matters. Koscielny should know better than to risk giving away the foul. Kane scored the resulting penalty, his fifth goal in his last four north London derbies.

Incidentally, Wenger described the penalty as harsh because the foul was not deliberate, which is an award-winningly one-eyed view of the decision. Fair play to him for seeing it, anyway.

 

* I’ve been critical of Wenger in the past for his delays in making substitutions to try and change the course of a game, but he deserves praise for his proaction against Tottenham. If Wenger has previously made all three substitutions by 70 minutes without any forced through injury, I can’t remember it. Particularly not when they weren’t a reaction to being two or three goals down and rolling the dice.

Unfortunately, it just didn’t work. Wenger opted for the same plan as against Sunderland, with Olivier Giroud coming on and going up front, but Giroud missed a headed chance and failed to impact on the game. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was amusingly bad while Aaron Ramsey was in his ‘I’ll shoot from distance and then look surprised when it misses’ mood. The intention of the changes was good, but the effect was negative.

 

* I can’t leave it there on Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose cameo took him back a step after fine displays against Sunderland and Reading. It feels like a cycle he’s ever destined to repeat until he finally leaves Arsenal.

Given 20 minutes to try and change the game, Oxlade-Chamberlain attempted only six passes and completed three, including one of four in the opposition half. His shot from an acute angle rather than crossing to the waiting Giroud summed up a player whose decision-making is beyond frustrating.

 

* Kane lasted more than 70 minutes on his return, but is clearly not yet fully match-fit. Right now, a 60% Kane is better than a 100% Vincent Janssen.

That seems harsh on a 22-year-old striker, and Janssen may well come good after settling in England and the Premier League, but he’s just not giving Tottenham enough. The touches are off, the shots are scuffed or mistimed and the hold-up play was lacking at the Emirates. Vertonghen shot an angry glance in his striker’s direction after he lost the ball for the third time in ten minutes.

This is not me writing off Janssen entirely, but he has to be fit for purpose now to help Tottenham out. In Kane’s absence, the Dutchman really hasn’t stepped up.

 

* There are few more underrated players in the Premier League than Nacho Monreal, and Arsenal’s left-back was comfortably his team’s best player.

Monreal nails the balance between attack and defence perfectly. His average touch position was further back than Hector Bellerin but still near the halfway line, and he regularly overlapped Iwobi to offer an outlet. Monreal’s three crosses from open play was the highest of any Arsenal player.

Yet defending is his strongest suit, epitomised by the challenge on Kane during the second half that somehow stopped the striker from shooting at the back post and yet still avoided conceding a corner. Four tackles and seven interceptions is just a normal day’s work for Monreal, and I love him.

 

* Monreal was pipped as the game’s best player by Dembele, described as a “genius” by his manager in the post-match press conference. There are few better central midfielders in the country when the Belgian is at his best.

The most endearing thing about Dembele is just how elegant he looks on the ball when under pressure. Just watch how he moves away from his marker and glides away from challenges even in the close confines of a north London derby.

The second-highest pass accuracy of any of the 22 starters was 83.3% by Francis Coquelin, and eight players registered between 77% and 83%. Dembele’s passing accuracy was 89.1%. When you can keep your head while all others lose theirs, you’ll be a decent central midfielder, my son.

 

* Finally, one interesting thing about this Tottenham side is just how effectively they share around the workload. It’s a little thing, but the gap between the Tottenham player with the most touches (Dier – 76) and the player with the eighth-most (Wimmer – 63) was just 13. For Arsenal, that gap between eighth and first was 31, Monreal to Iwobi.

It works on sprints, too. Danny Rose made the most with 72, but the gap to fourth was only 14 (and that would have been lower had Walker not been substituted with an injury). For Arsenal, the gap was 22. It’s a hypothesis rather than conclusion, but is this how Tottenham keep up their intensity every week?

 

Daniel Storey


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