* We will ask again: Has somebody p***ed in the Premier League trophy? Nobody wanted it enough in January to spend money on the players that might have made a difference and nobody wanted it on Wednesday when Leicester left the door ajar only to see it kicked shut in cack-footed fashion by Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City. And now on Saturday, Arsenal tried desperately to Arsenal up their chance of hunting down the league leaders but were then out-peaked by some classic Spursy panicking. In the end, both emerged with a point that neither would have wanted. Credit has to be handed to Arsenal for rescuing a point with ten men when total collapse seemed a possibility but credit does not win the Premier League title. Which is a massive bloody shame for West Ham.
* It was an absorbing match that must have caused many a painful bladder but the quality was alarmingly low. Neither side recorded a pass completion rate above 75% and Tottenham contrived to lose the ball 22 times through a poor touch. When you have a one-man advantage for 35 minutes of the game, that statistic is preposterous. If Wednesday night’s defeat to West Ham did not damage their confidence then this really should. They dominated but lacked composure and creativity until Arsenal scored, then panicked, then were handed the gift of Francis Coquelin’s stupidity, took advantage while Arsenal re-grouped but then lacked the quality to kill off the game. In the end, Arsenal looked the more likely team to score. Oh and Eric Dier should have been sent off; more on that later.
“We showed that we were better,” said Mauricio Pochettino and when you see that David Ospina made the most saves of any Arsenal goalkeeper in a Premier League match since 2009, you may feel inclined to agree. But how many were saves you would not expect a Premier League goalkeeper to make? I would argue no more than two – the first-half reaction stop to deny Erik Lamela and the save that prevented a Harry Kane goal by less than a centimetre. It’s a statistic that suggests a bombardment of the Arsenal goal but this was no Alamo. If you go 2-1 ahead against ten men at home in the 62nd minute, anything other than a victory makes any claims of superiority sound very hollow indeed.
* The (hyphenated) word of the 55th minute was game-changer, but it was more than that: It was potentially a season-breaker. Francis Coquelin’s decision to hack down a slowing Harry Kane by the touchline was utterly ridiculous. Braindead. Stupid. And it could cost Arsenal the Premier League title. At that juncture, Arsenal were 1-0 up and level on points with Tottenham. Seven minutes later, they were 2-1 down and six points behind. Seven minutes. A six-point swing. Coquelin had patently learned no lessons from Arsenal’s August win over Crystal Palace when he somehow got away with three bookable fouls. Referee Michael Oliver looked at the Frenchman with a look that screamed both pity and bewilderment as he showed him a second yellow and then a red at White Hart Lane.
It’s easy to say that Alexis Sanchez rescued Coquelin with his equaliser but he only rescued a third of the points that Arsenal were holding at the time of his brainfade. Neither Sanchez’s goal nor Dier’s escape from his own red card should detract from the kind of decision that reminds you that Coquelin has played less than a full season of Premier League games since his recall from Charlton. In football terms he is still a puppy, and puppies p*** on the carpet.
* At that point, Arsenal looked comfortable at 1-0, the benefactors of Tottenham struggling to turn their first-half dominance into anything approaching a cacophony of clear chances. Too often the final ball was poor or the first touch around the edge of the box was heavy. By half-time, the out-of-sorts Dele Alli had lost the ball six times purely through his own poor control. He was so ineffective in a central position that Pochettino pushed him wide after the break. And Alli was not alone – neither Christian Eriksen nor Eric Lamela had the vision to cut through an Arsenal defence that emerged through a panicky opening 15 minutes almost completely unscathed.
There was space – Danny Rose predictably being allowed to gallop forward by the roaming of Aaron Ramsey, while Mousa Dembele was free to play with the basic laws of physics as the game stood still every time he glided effortlessly with the ball. And yet one diversionary shin from Lamela was the only time they truly tested Ospina in a dominant opening half-hour. I must have said “Tottenham need to score here” roughly 17 times; history tells us that Arsenal would not stay dormant for 90 minutes.
* For all Tottenham’s early ball possession, Arsene Wenger’s personnel changes looked narrowly justified. Arsenal were far more disciplined in midfield with the neat, athletic Mo Elneny finally given the chance to partner Coquelin, Ramsey being punished for a series of ineffective performances by being pushed into a wide position he clearly does not relish. After being forced into four tackles in the opening ten minutes, Hector Bellerin must have felt like the one being punished.
Right up until the moment Ramsey scored the opener, he had been exasperating. A lazy attempt to flick the ball past Rose too near to his own byline summed up his opening 39 minutes. Six times he was dispossessed and his pass completion rate hovered around the 60% mark. It became a game to see just how far away from the rampant Rose the Welshman was stood when the Tottenham left-back fired in another wayward cross.
Arsene Wenger may well have decided that his best option was to allow Rose and Kyle Walker enough of the ball to give Per Mertesacker a fighting chance against Harry Kane in the air, but it could not have been part of the plan for Ramsey to be quite so wasteful in possession. Thankfully Elneny’s presence meant that Ramsey’s mistakes were largely made out wide. But just when you were thinking that Wenger had made a massive mistake in ignoring the claims of Joel Campbell, Ramsey popped up with the opener.
* Until the goal, Danny Welbeck had toiled admirably with no other Arsenal player operating within 20 yards of his gangly limbs. Mesut Ozil had been anonymous – his four completed passes in the opening 15 minutes must be a new invisible low – while Ramsey and Alexis Sanchez were only rarely allowed past the half-way line by Tottenham’s very high pressing. Pochettino’s pressers had done an excellent job of nullifying Arsenal’s most potent threats.
There was a moment in the 23rd minute when a no-backlift ball into the feet of Elneny from Sanchez reminded you that a) he exists and b) he really is very good. A wayward attempted pass to Kieran Gibbs a minute later reminded you that he really hasn’t been very good for a while. In Ozil and Sanchez, Arsenal are blessed with two of the most wonderful five players in the Premier League, but both were embarrassed by the easy stylings of Dembele in the opening 39 minutes.
* Arsenal really do miss Santi Cazorla so, so much. What do you need when the opposition are pressing you within half a second of you receiving the ball? You need two quick feet. You need composure. You need vision. You need Santi Cazorla, a player who relishes the challenge of having no time to think. At his feet, the ball can emerge from the tightest spot. At Ramsey’s feet, the ball bobbles and then emerges stuck to the boot of Dembele.
Elneny was excellent on his Premier League debut – especially in comparison to recent performances from Ramsey – but he was neat and tidy. He favoured short passes into the feet of more naturally gifted teammates where Cazorla would have seen the run beyond the Tottenham defence from Welbeck. Nominally playing in the same role as Dembele, there is no real comparison between the pair: A sleek Rolls Royce v a very nice Volvo.
* We are massive fans of Toby Alderweireld at Football365 (Matt Stead loves him perhaps a little too much) but he should take some of the blame for Arsenal’s opener. Instead of sticking with Ramsey – who found himself unmarked a few feet from goal – he opted to head towards the far post to pre-empt a shot from Bellerin. Sorry Toby but that’s your goalkeeper’s job. Had he stuck with Ramsey, he would have forced the Welshman to take at least two touches and attempt to turn the Belgian. The chance would have likely come to nought.
* The wonderful frustration of watching Welbeck was encapsulated in those few minutes before half-time when his persistence led to him gaining possession from a Tottenham miscontrol and his selflessness saw him pick out Bellerin for the cross/shot that set up Ramsey. But then…then…a quick break, Ozil’s sumptuous ball that split the Tottenham defence, Welbeck’s chance to make it 2-0 to crush Tottenham, and he makes an absolute cock of it. He still had time for a weak header under little pressure before the half-time whistle, before walking off with the applause of Arsenal fans impressed once again with his application, his pressure, his work rate, his persistence. Bellerin was the only Arsenal player to make more tackles than Welbeck. For the record, Ozil made one.
* During those few minutes before half-time, Tottenham had completely lost their discipline. Having been so predictably well drilled for the opening 39 minutes, they suddenly looked very vulnerable. Alli was the worst culprit – guilty of pushing too high up the pitch and not adjusting to the switch in momentum – but Dembele and Dier were also culpable. For a side that have made a habit of going behind, they looked awful surprised by the development. Despite their early domination, they trudged off the pitch at half-time grateful to be only a goal down. The side with more possession and more shots were again the side needing to make a change. It has so often been the way this season for Arsenal, for Manchester United, for Manchester City and now for Tottenham.
The answer was to switch Eriksen and Alli but the real salvation came from Coquelin, who took Tottenham’s misfiring gun and shot himself and his teammates in the feet.
* For a few minutes after Coquelin’s sending-off, Tottenham looked irresistible. It was a question of ‘when?’ and then ‘how many?’ rather than ‘if’. The first came from Alderweireld after a corner and the second was a finish that was simultaneously emphatic and sumptuous. And this is a Harry Kane hampered by his mask? Within seven minutes of being handed a one-man advantage, Tottenham had a one-goal advantage. They looked like potential champions. Alli shook off his poor opening hour and Eriksen looked briefly like the player who is behind only Ozil in the chance creation charts this season. Arsenal were shaking. Would it be 3-1? 4-1? Something more embarrassing still? That it would end 2-2 should be as embarrassing to the home side as 4-1 would have been to Arsenal.
* I really must digress a little here on the subject of Ospina. The reaction of the media to the use of a second-choice keeper is utterly ridiculous. We saw it on Sunday with the Capital One Cup final and speculation that choosing Willy Caballero would cost Manchester City the trophy; there were even suggestions that Joe Hart should be subbed on for a shoot-out that Caballero won for City with three penalty saves. Because the richest club in England would of course have an utter clown as their goalkeeping back-up.
Nobody learns. Talk of Tottenham ‘targeting’ Ospina was risible. This is a man with 60-odd international caps who had conceded 11 goals in his last 18 Premier League appearances. He was excellent against Tottenham but that really should not be a surprise to anybody with a modicum of perspective and intelligence.
* Withim 12 minutes of Tottenham going 2-1 up, Arsene Wenger felt far enough out of the woods to bring on Olivier Giroud for Elneny – a flippant throw of the dice from a manager that knew he no longer had anything to lose. It was enough to unsettle Tottenham, who did not organise themselves quickly enough to cope with Welbeck, Ozil, Sanchez and now Giroud. As Arsenal streamed forward, Tottenham backpedalled and Bellerin found Sanchez. In truth the finish was scuffed and the attempted save from Hugo Lloris was unusually lumbering but you could argue that Arsenal deserved the equaliser for showing ambition to get back into the game.
It was poor from Tottenham, who seemed to revert to the mild panic of Wednesday night when it sunk in that they were 2-1 up against Arsenal and potentially top of the table. Some runners are not comfortable at the front of the pack and Tottenham appear to fit into that category, preferring to glide along unnoticed as somebody else sets the pace. As we reach the final bend, do they have a sprint finish? Or will they fall over a hurdle? Yes, the race in this analogy is suddenly a steeplechase. What of it?
* Oh Michael Oliver. Right up to the 79th minute you had refereed this game perfectly. This was a match that had featured more first-half tackles than any Premier League game in the last six years and you had barely got a call wrong. And then you were given one of the easiest decisions of a fractious 90 minutes and you got it wrong. It wasn’t even questionable that Eric Dier deserved a red card. Already booked, he tugged back Giroud and then scythed him down for good measure. A second yellow as obvious as the one that ended Coquelin’s match. Talk of ‘bottling’ it is nonsense – in fact, referees usually relish the chance to ‘even things up’. For some inexplicable reason, he simply got it wrong. We’re pretty sure that’s what he would say if Wenger got his wish and Oliver was forced to explain himself.
* It was so very nearly 3-2 to Arsenal. If it weren’t for Kevin Wimmer – a revelation in recent weeks – Ramsey would have been through on goal in injury-time. What a phenomenal victory that would have been; we would immediately have restored Arsenal to the status of title favourites. Which would have been bizarre at the end of a week when even the staunchest Wenger supporter had said that Wenger cannot possibly remain at the club beyond next season if he does not deliver the title. The last-ditch tackle in the box. The d***-head tackle on the byline. Small margins.
* As ridiculous as it may sound, as a Premier League neutral I want to see a team – any team – grab this title and make it unquestionably theirs. We see scruffy, anybody-can-beat-anybody, error-strewn football in the Championship and I expect and want better from the top flight. So while this 2-2 draw was enthralling – and indeed perfect for 16 Conclusions – it was also deeply disappointing. Does nobody want this enough to produce the kind of performances worthy of champions? Over to you, Leicester.