Arsenal overwhelmed Tottenham Hotspur in the North London Derby, but Spurs’ current problems may run far deeper than the manager alone.
1) It’s one of football’s most intriguing philosophical questions. How much of a football match is a team winning it, and how much is a team losing it? It’s a spectrum, and sometimes a result can be a smash and grab. Sometimes, though, the stars align and one team plays really well while the other plays as though they were first introduced to each other in the tunnel before the match.
Arsenal and Spurs arrived at this game as though passing each other in adjacent glass elevators. At the end of August, Spurs were top of the Premier League having won each of their first three matches of the season without conceding a goal, while Arsenal sat at the very bottom of the table, having played as badly as Spurs had played effectively.
But by the time of the North London Derby, the two clubs seemed set to move past each other. Spurs had lost each of their last two Premier League matches 3-0, while Arsenal had lumbered to life with 1-0 wins against Norwich City and Burnley which left some wondering how much they’d actually improved, despite getting some points on the board.
2) For the first ten minutes, Spurs played as though the concept of ‘midfield’ didn’t exist. Every ball played forward was lofted optimistically in the general direction of the front three, who circled aimlessly in the hope of landing underneath one of these defensive drop-kicks, usually ceding possession back to Arsenal without even having to even make work hard for it.
It was a mystifying tactical decision, and the first time that Arsenal broke they showed why, when Kieran Tierney was fed the ball on the left and his low cross was met by Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang, whose shot was turned away by Hugo Lloris.
The flag went up, but an early warning had been sounded. Spurs were playing without a central midfield, other than Pierre-Emile Højbjerg sitting just in front of their central defence, which more than once led to the near-comical sight of up to six Spurs defensive players almost in a line, desperately seeking to find themselves some respite by thumping the ball aimlessly down the pitch yet again. The central midfield was no man’s land, the ball a grenade to be hurled rather than an instrument to be played. At times the Spurs performance looked as though it would have been better suited to 1921 than to 2021.
3) The early warning was not heeded. Four minutes after the first chance, Arsenal took the lead when Emile Smith-Rowe turned in Buyako Saka’s low cross. At the time that the ball was with Saka, there were six Spurs defenders in their own penalty area; they moved barely a yard between them from the moment Saka shaped to cross.
It is surprising to see such inertia on a football pitch. It is even more surprising to see it in a local derby in a Premier League match. Indeed, Arsenal’s players might have been forgiven for pulling up themselves in the belief that a whistle they’d all missed must have gone off without them hearing it. But no. In September 2021, this is what the Tottenham Hotspur defence does when threatened with attack. Like a bunch of hedgehogs unexpectedly thrown into the high pressure world of professional football, they curl themselves into a ball and hope for the best. It didn’t work on this occasion.
4) Spurs dropped their early adherence to the tactics of rugby union after about 20 minutes and briefly improved, but the positioning of their midfield continued to look highly suspect, and when Arsenal picked up possession after having soaked up some ineffectual Spurs attacking, they found a huge hole in the centre of the midfield through which Tierney could play an easy ball for Aubameyang, whose flick found Emile Smith Rowe, who dragged the ball back for Aubameyang to score.
It was a wonderful break, but Spurs’ terrible positional play did make taking advantage of it a littler easier for Arsenal than it probably should have been. It was also a goal that confirmed the soft underbelly of the Tottenham defence, that breaking on that left-hand side could prove fruitful every time they tried, and that, best of all, it didn’t really look that much as if the Spurs players cared whether they won or lost.
5) The game went into a lull following the second goal, but the difference in how the players were carrying themselves was noticeable. Arsenal were understandably still perky, but the slumped shoulders and frustrated physical gestures of the Spurs players hinted at something being wrong within the squad that could run deeper than just the entire first team and the manager having an ‘off day’ at the same time. The issues looked tactical, motivational and structural. With the match only a quarter played, it already felt over as a contest.
6) With 11 minutes of the first half left to play, Harry Kane made a cameo appearance in his own penalty area. Sliding the path of a Bukayo Saka pass inside towards Abemeyang after having lost the ball, Kane succeeded only in sliding the ball into the path of Saka, who made it 3-0. It was a goal that rather summed up Harry Kane’s season so far.
7) Early in the second half, Sky Sports showed a graphic showing that Spurs are in bottom place in the Premier League for shots, chances for open play and distance covered in kilometres so far this season. It leaves you incredulous to start thinking that athletes who are paid tens or hundreds of thousand pounds a week might be unfit, but such figures coupled with the body language of the Spurs players certainly invites the idea.
This is a truth that some Spurs supporters have been shy of fronting up to so far this season. The performances in those first three Premier League wins were not particularly great, and there was something inevitable about the house of cards blowing over at some point. The question now becomes: now that those card are starting to tumble, what happens next?
8) Following the replacement of Japhet Tanganga and Delle Alli at half-time (as well as, presumably, several rockets up several backsides), Spurs improved a little in the first 15 minutes of the second half. Harry Kane had a low shot well saved by Aaron Ramsdale, while what looked like needless a foul on him by Ben White was surprisingly not given as a penalty kick.
9) On the whole Arsenal seemed happy enough to hold onto what they had rather than pushing to further increase Spurs’ humiliation during the second half. The pace of the game noticeably dropped, and the ‘oleing’ started with more than 20 minutes still to play. This briefly looked as if it could backfire on Mikel Arteta when Son Heung Min pulled a goal back for Spurs with 12 minutes to play, but the bald truth is that this moment was an exception rather than being anything which signified a shift in the flow of the game and a dramatic late comeback.
The Emirates Stadium fell very quiet for the first time all afternoon immediately after the goal as it became clear that Granit Xhaka would be unable to continue following an accidental injury in the build-up to the goal, when Thomas Partey clattered into Lucas Moura, who in turn smacked his boot against Xhaka.
Xhaka, who hitherto had been excellent, had to be replaced but Spurs didn’t have the wherewithal to make Arsenal’s last ten minutes much less comfortable than the previous 80 had been until stoppage-time, when Ramsdale tipped a Lucas Moura shot onto the crossbar.
10) Presumably this is The Process that we’ve been hearing so much about with regard to Arsenal, and perhaps it really was dependent on the players that Arsenal had missing at the start of the season. In this match, they certainly played as though there was a plan. Indeed, if anything it felt like Mikel Arteta laid a man-trap into which Nuno Espirito Santo fell head first.
There remains a question mark or two about the depth of this Arsenal squad. The difference in performances between their second three performances of the season has been so markedly difficult that it does raise the question of what might happen should they start picking up injuries.
11) But having a Process isn’t enough, in and of itself. The players have got to be committed to it. Spurs’ players didn’t seem to believe in Nuno Espirito’s plan (let’s be generous here and presume that there was one), and were this the case it’d be difficult to disagree with them, but this doesn’t excuse them so frequently carrying the demeanour of a group of young men who’d turned up for the stadium tour, either.
Arsenal’s players, on the other hand, looked committed, comfortable and secure in what they needed to do from the very outset. They moved the ball fluidly and took full advantage of the inertia in front of them. Arsenal played and moved as though they wanted to win, and Spurs did not.
12) If Arsenal are to build on this they will have to repeat this sort of performance against better opposition than Spurs offered in this match. It seems unlikely that there will be many other teams this season that will visit The Emirates Stadium with such a poorly thought-out tactical set-up and with so few players looking as though they would be happier spending their afternoon wandering around a DIY store.
But you can only beat the opposition that is put in front of you, and Arsenal did offer further evidence that their movement as a team is heading in the right direction. If Saka and Aubemeyang can start combining like this more regularly, Arsenal could really start to close the gap on the teams still above them in the Premier League.
13) Tottenham’s players need to be aware that what will likely now be mounting speculation surrounding their manager’s future does not give them a free pass on this performance, and listing those who have questions to answer over the paucity of their performances is effectively a team list. They were less assertive in the tackle, they were often practically motionless while Arsenal’s attacking players flitted between them, and on the rare occasions when they did manage to actually get their foot on the ball it wasn’t for long, because their passing was so sloppy.
And the responsibility for their absolute shambles of a performance has to be collective, rather than shrinking behind the absolute kicking that Nuno Espirito Santo is going to get in the press over the next few days. Santo has been the manager of Spurs for six league matches, and if the players do happen to have got it into their heads that downing tools could be enough to see him out of his job, then they also need to remember that Daniel Levy is not as trigger-happy as some other club chairmen, and that if Spurs thought the market to bring in a new manager was tough during the summer, they could well have a nasty surprise at what it would be like during October, November or December.
14) Bragging rights go to Arsenal, and this is the always the case with a local derby, regardless of the quality of the performance. But Arsenal supporters have more to be happy about after this match than the sheer endorphin rush of sticking one over their rivals. This was a performance which showed what Arsenal are capable of.
One such performance isn’t enough to rescue Mikel Arteta’s reputation just yet. That only comes with pulling out this sort of performance regularly to the point which it becomes routine. The reaction of the Sky Sports commentator at the end of the match – “AND THIS COULD BE A DEFINING MOMENT IN MIKEL ARTETA’S CAREER AT ARSENAL!!!” – was a little hyperbolic, but such a result and such a performance was absolutely what the Arsenal manager needed at this time.
Some had remained unconvinced by the nature of their first two league wins of the season, narrow 1-0 wins scratched against Norwich City and Burnley, who come from the flotsam and jetsam of the Premier League, but this was a classy and accomplished performance, and it speaks volumes that come the end of the game it felt more like Spurs were a little fortunate to get away with the final scoreline being 3-1 than Arsenal being flattered by it in any way.
15) Nuno Espirito Santo is in trouble. As time passes, it increasingly looks as if those first three wins of the season were an exception rather than the rule for Spurs’ season, and with three consecutive truly bad Premier League performances in a row now under his belt, it’s starting to be difficult to see where improvement is going to come from, especially if the players are as demotivated as they seemed to be after the first Arsenal goal went in.
It’s not much use being top of the table at the end of August if you’re in the bottom half of the table and still descending by the end of September. Results aren’t great, morale doesn’t look great and performances have been poor, and the biggest reason why Santo is already in trouble is that the team’s problems already look so all-encompassing.
16) Santo won’t have too many defenders around Tottenham Hotspur following this match, but it still feels as though the problems at the club are greater than just a manager could resolve on their own. The problems at Spurs aren’t just the manager. They look, as they have so often in the past as well, structural.
Since losing the 2019 Champions League to Liverpool, Spurs have been in a decline which has shown few signs of abating. They’re already on their third manager in just over two years, and there’s every possibility that he won’t be there for that much longer. The players don’t seem to be particularly happy, and the senior management of the club seem as motivated as ever by their one true love: making money.
Arsenal still have work to do if they’re to bridge that gap to the Premier League’s top four, but for Spurs the Champions League is already starting to feel like quite a long time ago, and there certainly doesn’t seem to be a change in the direction of the club’s drift away from it at the moment.