* Let us begin with a quote from Charlie Nicholas.
“If Arsenal are serious about winning these big games, I would go with Alexandre Lacazette and Danny Welbeck and leave Ozil out and Sanchez out. Are they two of our best players? Of course they are, but they don’t do enough in these big games.”
So to recap: If Arsenal are serious about winning big games, they need to not play their two most talented and creative players. Because of course that’s exactly how big clubs should approach home games against rivals that have not beaten them on their ground for seven years.
The sad thing is that Nicholas is not alone in this nonsense; there are plenty ready to cite Arsenal’s 0-0 draw with Chelsea as evidence of what can be achieved without Ozil and Sanchez. But the clue is in the opening sentence of that quote; if Arsenal are serious about winning, it would be ridiculous not to play a pair of footballers who create chances more often than any of their teammates (or anybody who plays for Tottenham, for that matter).
The idea that Arsenal should somehow be so cowed by Tottenham that they leave their match-winners on the bench is ludicrous. And yes, I was saying that before they contributed an assist and a goal in an effervescent performance.
* Which brings us to the accepted wisdom that there has somehow been an irreversible switch in the balance of power in north London, based on one season when Tottenham finished ahead of Arsenal. Mauricio Pochettino might say that he would not swap the Gunners’ trophies for Spurs’ progress, but all that progress has barely taken Tottenham a few inches beyond their rivals.
And still, potential signings from across the world view Arsenal as a more attractive option – money, prestige and history still lie heavily in their favour. Tottenham may have a Champions League place right now, but possession is not nine-tenths of football law; it really could be just a short-term loan.
Arsenal came into this game on a run of ten home Premier League victories while Tottenham have won just once in their last 16 away games against the top six. So why the hell did fans, journalists and pundits walk into the Emirates Stadium thinking that Arsenal were due a kicking? The north London power shift narrative is powerful, but it is built entirely on sand. The temptation to paint the Gunners as a Premier League irrelevance on the basis of one stumble from the top table should have been resisted by some who really should know better.
* So that one win in 16 away games against other members of the big six is now one win in 17 away games. Until Pochettino finds an answer to that inferiority (and it is a sign of inferiority; we cannot ignore those statistics just because the neutral is enamoured with this Spurs side with an English heart), Spurs will be also-rans who usually finish above two, three or even four of Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal and never above all of them.
As Jamie Carragher wrote in February, there is a danger of them being a carbon copy of David O’Leary’s Leeds ‘babies’, playing lovely football and gathering good will, but essentially falling short. Thankfully, Daniel Levy is not about to spend a fortune on fish and Seth Johnson.
* While much of the football world has been in thrall to Tottenham, Arsene Wenger correctly surmised that the attacking talents at his disposal – when harnessed and motivated – could be devastating. If Tottenham were not allowed time to settle, if they were not allowed space to play through midfield, if they were hurried and harried, they could certainly be worried. They had barely scraped past Crystal Palace just before the international break, after all.
From the opening minute, any notion that Sanchez, Ozil and Lacazette could not play against quality opposition was exposed as nonsense. They ran, they moved, they pressed, they combined. For all the talk of two-thirds of that attacking triptych having their minds elsewhere, there was no shortage of energy or desire to match their quality. And the latter is still the most important thing at the highest level, whatever anybody shouts about passion.
* Gary Neville picked out Ozil as his man of the match after 83 minutes of perpetual motion and moments of real vision, but he did make a point of saying that there had not been a poor Arsenal performance on the pitch. The defence – led excellently by Laurent Koscielny barring one early misjudged flight – was organised and combative, the wing-backs offered an outlet, the central midfield of Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey was tenacious while running (never walking) on the disciplinary tightrope and the forwards, well, they were a whole wonderfully equal to the sum of their parts.
Tottenham were never allowed either time or space, with Arsenal for once as aggressive without the ball as they were devastating in possession. They set the tone and tempo of the match in the very first minute and Tottenham never really recovered.
* It does of course beg the question why Wenger has been so sparing in his selection of SOL, with this only the third time they had been unleashed after victories over Everton and Swansea. Regardless of what seems inevitable next summer, the best chance of Arsenal being able to replace quality with quality is if they win enough games to claim back a Champions League place. And the key to winning games (sorry Charlie) is generally playing your best players.
Arsenal are not true title contenders but having a second XI for the Europa League means that they are free to have a whole barrel-load of fun in the Premier League; under those circumstances, there is no reason why this set of players cannot a) finish in the top four and b) be damned entertaining to watch.
And remember, even finishing sixth is acceptable as long as you win the Europa League and the Carabao Cup; add the Community Shield (already in the bag) and you are basically a genius.
* “Sloppy from Dele Alli,” said Gary Neville in the fourth minute and I chuckled, because the same thing is said every week as if this wasn’t standard fare from Dele Alli this season. He has been in woeful form that cannot be masked by one good game against Real Madrid, with sloppiness and casual, wasteful play the common theme of almost every performance for both England and Tottenham.
Against Arsenal, he did not complete a single pass until the 13th minute and when he was withdrawn after 74 minutes he had only made it as far as 19, with not a single chance created. For a player who essentially plays as a No. 10, his impact on the game was abject. And yet nobody should be surprised.
* Were Alli in scintillating form this season, then we would have offered injury as partial exoneration. But we will save that fraction of an excuse for Harry Kane, who never really looked comfortable and was too often static when balls were whipped in by wing-backs. There was a sharp contrast in the movement of Kane and Lacazette, who gave a demonstration of true centre-forward play without the ball. The Frenchman made more moves that were not spotted by his Arsenal teammates than Kane made in total.
Imagine if Ozil had the game Alli had or Lacazette played like Kane. English favouritism at it again 😂😂
— thecypriotafc (@thecypriotafc) November 18, 2017
* And yet for all Arsenal’s excellence and Tottenham’s sloppiness – spreading around the team like a particularly virulent strain of the clap – after half an hour, Arsenal were yet to muster a shot on target. Had Tottenham looked remotely dangerous on the counter-attack, you might have feared for the Gunners as dangerous centres across the box from Hector Bellerin (released by a sumptuous ball from Ramsey) and Ozil were left unconverted.
It was all a little ‘not quite’ for Arsenal and Arsenal fans have seen rather too much of ‘not quite’ in recent years to be excited about all the verve and energy on display. After all, they had started quite enthusiastically against Liverpool and that game had descended into four-goal farce. Glass-half-empty Arsenal fans (are there any other kind?) might have feared a repeat.
* Sorry but I don’t care whether that free-kick was a free-kick or not; it was the kind of ‘wrong’ decision that happens several times in every game and you do still have to defend the free-kicks you believe are unjust.
The delivery from Ozil was typically excellent but the defending from Tottenham was wretched. Shkodran Mustafi found himself between Tottenham’s two most senior centre-halves in Eric Dier and Jan Vertonghen but the former got caught under the ball while the latter respected the German’s personal space. Which is advisable at a party but not in a set-piece situation.
16 – Arsenal have scored 16 headed goals in the Premier League in 2017, three more than any other team. Bonce.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 18, 2017
* There is something wonderful about Jose Mourinho building a Manchester United side designed to dominate in the air while Wenger – who would surely never think of such a thing – has accidentally constructed a heading machine. This 3-5-2 formation at the very least gets more big men on the pitch for Arsenal, while Ozil’s deliveries will always cause problems. You can see why Mourinho might be interested in the German when he becomes available next season.
* Reach for the stars, urged S Club 7. Reach for any reason why you lost the game, urged thousands of Tottenham fans who started giving Mike Dean a middle name he will be in no rush to use on Saturday. As mentioned above, breath should not be wasted on debating the correctness or otherwise of that free-kick decision and any suggestion that Arsenal’s second should have been disallowed because of Lacazette being offside should also fall on deaf ears.
Save your ire for Dier, who was entirely lost by Lacazette’s movement and could only raise his arm in vain appeal. The Frenchman was pushing the line, as he did all game, but only his arms were beyond that line and an offside call would have been as harsh as the one Arsenal suffered at Stoke. His movement and delivery, and Sanchez’s determination in the finish, made the Gunners worthy 2-0 leaders at the break.
If you are a Tottenham fan that believes you lost this game because of refereeing decisions then congratulations, you are at least as one-eyed as your manager.
* “I need to say nothing, everyone who was here or at home watching the game, they saw what happened. We have to move on. It’s not easy to accept, because we lose the game.
“We were better than them until the goal. The free-kick (should not have been given) and I think (it was) offside.The first, sure (it was offside), the second one maybe.
“In this type of game when you play top sides like Arsenal, it’s little details. It changed the game and that disappointed me. But that’s football. We have to accept.”
Now obviously part of Pochettino’s job is to deflect attention away from the poor performance of his players and pretend that their continual failure in big away games owes more to bad luck and poor officiating than bad decisions or poor football, but it is my job to point out when he is talking bollocks.
There was no part of the game when Tottenham were outplaying Arsenal. None. They were disjointed, rattled and some distance below Arsenal’s quality from the first minute to the last. Whether it was in the first half when they were pressed high or in the second half when they were challenged to break through a more packed defence, they struggled.
This was not a game decided by little details but by a rather large gulf in quality over those 90 minutes. There are bumps along this glorious Tottenham road and not all of them are potholes left there by somebody else’s shoddy workmen.
* Tottenham did improve in terms of their ball retention in that second half but they were allowed, with the Arsenal emphasis switching very noticeably from aggressive curtailing to almost passive containment. But the Gunners proved adept at both strategies, with Mustafi in particular revelling in the easily won battle with Kane.
Wenger’s decision to remove Lacazette for Francis Coquelin was predictably booed but – as Neville said on commentary – it was absolutely the correct decision. Harry Winks has by this time entered the fray and was worthy of rather more special attention than could be given by the tiring Xhaka and Ramsey. Wenger absolutely got this one right from energetic start to triumphant finish.
* “If you have to give me one credit I never questioned their commitment,” said Wenger. “I know them well. I know that when these guys go on the football pitch they want to win the football game. They can have bad games but the problem is when the player goes to the end of their contract and has a bad game everybody says ‘of course, because he’s going’.”
It’s something that we really should not need reminding about, but we all do. Fans, journalists and pundits are all guilty of making massive assumptions about a player’s motivation or mental state when really, the man who watches them, trains them and talks to them every day really does know better.
Elite footballers do not stop trying. Their strength of will and uncompromising ambition are two of the reasons they are elite footballers in the first place. And on this occasion at least, Arsene knows.
* Last month I wrote 16 Conclusions on Manchester United’s 1-0 win over Tottenham and ended by saying that Football365 are ‘pro-football and we are not disappointed that United won this match’, just ‘disappointed that it wasn’t an awful lot of fun’.
This? This was fun.