* North London is Tottenham’s. Arsenal’s home victory in this fixture in November may have given their supporters belief that they can finish above their most bitter rivals and squeeze back into the top four but at Wembley, Arsenal got yet another reality check away from home. That 5-1 victory over Everton? Meaningless if you can’t muster anything on the road. That wonderful attack? Meaningless if you can’t defend. They do not deserve to finish in the top four, and they surely won’t.
The scoreline might say 1-0, but Tottenham were rampant as soon as they scored the first goal and should have scored four or five. If Harry Kane’s opener posed the question of what Arsenal had in response, the answer was absolutely nothing. Petr Cech was Arsenal’s best player in the north London derby, and he was on the losing team. One shot on target is an embarrassment.
In their last 26 away league games, Arsenal have taken 26 points. Not only is that fewer than Southampton over the same period, it is pitiful in comparison with their top-six peers:
Manchester City – 55
Chelsea – 53
Manchester United – 49
Liverpool – 46
Tottenham – 44
Arsenal – 26
Are they even peers anymore?
* Yet the first reaction when looking at the Arsenal teamsheet was ‘yes, that front four really could be very sexy’. The central midfield looked weak, but it at least allowed Jack Wilshere to operate in positions from which he could make an impact in hurting the opposition rather than stopping them.
Yet what does that say for Alexandre Lacazette, left on the bench for the second game in succession and surely now firmly second choice behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang? He will get minutes of course – this is a squad game – but no striker bought as his club’s record signing wants to be the Plan B seven months later.
Lacazette’s biggest problem is that he has had chances to impress. The goal record is generally good (although he does now only have one in his last 13 matches) and he has scored against Manchester United and Manchester City, but the Frenchman’s all-round play has been wanting.
He also doesn’t quite fit this new Arsenal attacking verve of quick passing interchanges and counter-attacks, hallmarks of Arsene Wenger’s greatest teams. Add in the understanding between Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan (although the latter was abysmal at Wembley), and it’s hard to see quite how Lacazette pushes back to the front of the queue. Finishes like the ones in stoppage time hardly help.
* On a similar note, on commentary before the game Martin Keown said that Alex Iwobi was still paying the price for his disciplinary issues by being dropped by Wenger. Now that might be true, and Keown knows Wenger better than most, but isn’t it more likely that Iwobi is merely another casualty of Arsenal’s transfer activity?
We have to be patient with young players, but you can hardly blame Wenger for moving Iwobi from centre stage and that is only partly due to his partying. He has been easy to thwart this season, given ample chances as a central attacking midfielder and on the right and left but too often running down blind alleys and failing to provide an adequate final ball. He displayed his worst traits after coming on as a substitute, three times being caught when slow in possession.
In 1,051 minutes this season before Saturday, and despite the deserved criticism, Mkhitaryan has created 31 chances in the Premier League. That’s seven more than Iwobi has managed in more time spent on the pitch. There is your answer.
* As so often in this fixture and in Tottenham home games in general, Spurs started in rampage mode. They committed players forward and looked to get Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen on the ball as much as possible, pushing the defence high up the pitch.
That reflects the strength of this team in their biggest home games over the last year. They scored in the first minute against Manchester United at Wembley, the fourth minute against Liverpool, the sixth minute against Manchester United in May and the fourth minute against Dortmund in the Champions League. Spurs landed the first punch in each fixture, and won all four.
* Yet that strategy also leaves Tottenham open to the counter-attack against team for whom that is their forte. Arsenal should have created the first big chance of the match after only a few minutes, when they cleared a Spurs corner for which the home team had piled players forward.
Suddenly, Arsenal had three on two on the counter, and only a poor pass from Mesut Ozil thwarted their chances of having Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan through on Trippier. The Tottenham right-back was able to make the interception and start a counter of his own.
* That incident epitomised Arsenal’s new look in attack, because they have transformed over the course of a week. Wenger has always liked his team to counter, but they had always gone through Alexis Sanchez and generally down the left.
Now, they have options. Ozil is the link man, collecting the ball on the edge of his own area, but from that moment Wilshere, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang all surged up the pitch to try and create an overlap. They did so at a speed that we haven’t seen from Arsenal since the days of Thierry Henry and Robert Pires.
Ozil and Granit Xhaka were the only members of Arsenal’s front six on Saturday that played in this fixture last April. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey, Sanchez and Olivier Giroud were all absent, three of those permanently. For all Sanchez’s excellence, it is intended as a compliment that Arsenal have a new attack, because the last one wasn’t working out and he didn’t want to stay. Shame it means little until Wenger makes significant changes of defensive personnel.
* Unfortunately for the spectacle of the game, Arsenal’s dangerous moments in the first 15 minutes slightly ruined the aesthetics of the first half.
Tottenham were spooked by Arsenal’s counter-attacking speed. Having failed to capitalise on their fast start and take the lead, Pochettino instructed his side to move into measured control mode. Their possession stats increased and so too did their passing accuracy, and by half time they registered at 58.4% and 85.4% respectively.
If that possession doesn’t sound particularly dominant, it’s worth nothing that Arsenal have the second highest average possession in the Premier League behind Manchester City. Had their first-half possession total stayed the same until full-time, it would have represented their lowest figure in a Premier League game since December 2016 against Manchester City.
That is not to say that Tottenham’s control is a defensive tactic, merely an alternative attacking one. By passing the ball through and around central midfield rather than down the wings, they are patiently waiting for a defensive weakness. In Eriksen, they have the perfect player to exploit one. In Arsenal, they had the perfect opponents.
* And so to the first big chance of the match, Eriksen spotting that Kane had lost Monreal and therefore crept in behind Laurent Koscielny. His cross found Kane’s head, but he could only direct it over from six yards.
At first glance, Eriksen’s cross seemed slightly high and so Kane was therefore on the stretch, but I think that’s actually untrue. Kane slightly mistimed his jump; had he reached peak height he could have got over the ball (see the goal).
Kane’s guilt at missing his chance was revealed a second after he watched the ball sail over the crossbar. When any striker looks immediately to the assistant referee in the hope of seeing a raised flag, you can be sure that he expected to take the chance.
* At full-time of the game at Anfield last week, Kane walked up to the Sky Sports cameras and joked about his first penalty miss: “You can’t give me two tries.”
So it seems with headers. Having spurned Tottenham’s biggest chance of the first half, Kane took their first of the second. The cross from Ben Davies was wonderful, but Kane’s ability to hang in the air was almost as impressive as him guiding the ball far out of Cech’s reach. It was the header of a seven foot three man and, as Michael Cox pointed out on Twitter, was reminiscent of Les Ferdinand. This boy has the lot.
Wenger complained on the Arsenal bench that Kane had fouled Koscielny, but that is absolute nonsense; Kane was simply up much earlier than the Arsenal central defender. As ever, Wenger might be better looking at his own team’s flaws rather than discussing the officials.
* And the first question Wenger might ask is what on earth happened at half-time? If Arsenal were fortunate that Kane spurned his first-half opportunity, they were hardly the defensive mess that we have seen so regularly over the last two, three, four, five, six and maybe even seven years (I will never forget Obafemi Martins’ League Cup final goal in this stadium, Arsenal’s last Wembley defeat).
A solid defence is crucial to the success of their new counter-attacking verve, because this is a team strategy. There is no point soaking up pressure to hit the opposition on the counter if the ‘soaking up’ part falls over as soon as you face a decent team or have to play a match away from your home stadium. Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United may not need many shots on target in away games, but that is because they are defensively resilient. Arsenal are the opposite.
Arsenal went into half-time comfortable, and came out for the second half in amateur (or is that normal Arsenal?) mode. They stopped blocking crosses as they had done before the break, and the lack of anticipation for Kane’s goal and subsequent chance was embarrassing.
* So it continued. Having scored the first goal, Tottenham surged on. They know their opponents too well to not realise that pushing at Arsenal’s creaking door is likely to make the entire house fall in on itself.
It is as if Wenger’s defence are temporarily stunned by the concession of every goal, sent into a daze and thus incredibly vulnerable. You’d think that they would have got used to it by now.
Arsenal did create chances in the last ten minutes, but Tottenham should have been out of sight. Eriksen had a free-kick tipped over the bar, Kane was guilty of missing another presentable header, Lamela had a shot smothered by Cech, Alli nudged wide when through on goal and Trippier half-volleyed straight at the goalkeeper.
According to Opta, Tottenham missed five ‘big chances’ as satisfies their definition. It really should have been the most emphatic north London derby league victory for Spurs since Mark Falco and Chris Hughton in 1983.
Just as disappointing as Arsenal’s initial second-half fall is that they lacked the wherewithal to resurge. If your players can’t put up a fight in a must-not-lose away game against Tottenham, then they either lack ability in comparison to the opposition or belief. Neither is particularly palatable for the Arsenal supporters leaving Wembley.
* Another week, another new reason to be impressed by Kane. His header was wonderful, and the way in which he holds the ball up and brings a teammate into play is beyond every other forward in the division. Yet perhaps Kane’s greatest ability (or maybe just one of many) is his first-time passing when receiving the ball on the run.
It is surely the hardest part of a striker’s game. Receiving the ball into feet is doable, because you slightly back into the defender or use your arm for balance, trapping the ball under your studs before moving away and passing to a teammate or turning and dribbling.
When you are running away towards your goal at pace, trapping the ball and stopping instantly becomes virtually impossible because you cannot make that shield.
Instead, the safest option is to play the ball the way you are facing to a central defender or central midfielder, immediately turning and running back towards goal. Yet Kane often manages to play a first-time pass around the corner to an onrushing Alli, Eriksen or Heung-Min Son with the perfect weight for them to collect. Not only does that take extraordinary skill, it almost always creates a dangerous attack because it is so unexpected.
* Since the beginning of 2014/15, Aaron Ramsey’s injury list is as follows:
Hamstring injury (two games missed)
Hamstring injury (two games missed)
Thigh injury (five games missed)
Thigh injury (six games missed)
Hamstring injury (five games missed)
Hamstring injury (12 games missed)
Hamstring injury (five games missed)
Calf injury (five games missed)
Calf injury (one game missed)
Hamstring injury (nine games missed)
Groin injury (one game missed and counting)
A week to (sadly) define Ramsey’s career, a wonderful performance against Everton immediately succeeded by him missing the north London derby with another injury. There is nothing quite so frustrating as stunted potential. The man deserves a bit of bloody luck.
The problem for Ramsey is that it is impossible to assess his use without including the injury record. He is in the process of playing contract cat-and-mouse with Arsenal over his new contract, with reports suggesting that he wants a significant pay rise having seen Mesut Ozil receive the same. Even if you ignore the difference in their ability, Ozil has started 87 league games since the beginning of 2015/16; Ramsey has managed 58.
* Let’s play a new game. Every time that you listen to Steve McManaman on commentary on BT Sport, pour yourself ten shots. Whenever you hear Macca do a weird half-goalgasm noise off mic for little apparent reason, drink one of your shots. You will be in all sorts of trouble by half-time.
Does he think he’s Gary Neville?
* As well as Cech, Wilshere also deserves a chunk of praise in defeat. Picked in the position that gets the best out of him (although one that England probably won’t use) with protection behind, Wilshere was charged with driving Arsenal forward. He will consider any defeat to Tottenham as failure, but on a personal level it was a success. It’s no coincidence that he had Arsenal’s only shot on target, was involved in the most duels and was fouled more often than his teammates.
Having been told by Gareth Southgate that he needed to start Premier League games in order to justify international selection, Wilshere has done exactly that. He has started nine since mid-December, his highest over any full season in an Arsenal shirt since 2013/14.
If Southgate deserves credit for motivating Wilshere, the player deserves more for stepping up to the task. He really is going to be on the plane, barring any other injury calamity.
* I was tempted to pick Kane and Mousa Dembele as the game’s best players, and the latter has now been superb against Manchester United and Arsenal in consecutive home league games. But in the end I’m going for Davinson Sanchez.
The Colombian arrived from Ajax at the age of 21 with a huge price tag, the record signing for the club that had just finished second in the Premier League. Look at the struggles of fellow Ajax teammate Jairo Riedewald at Crystal Palace to see how hard it is to acclimatise into a new league that contains plenty of proficient attackers.
And yet Sanchez has been supreme. There have been moments of uncertainty, including at Anfield last week, but he is a 21-year-old in a new team, new league and new country and he looks outrageously mature and confident. The composure to turn away under pressure belies the youth and experience, and his playing of Aubameyang was virtually flawless.
Only six players younger than Sanchez have played more than 20 games in the Premier League this season. Four of those six are domestic players, four of the six are attackers, and five of the six had already played in the league before this season. On every count, Sanchez is an exception and exceptional too.