16 Conclusions on Arsenal 3-1 Tottenham – Saliba, Xhaka, Royal and an answer to our Spurs question

Dave Tickner

Saturday’s North London Derby threatened to turn into a fascinating and epic battle between two contrasting styles. The first half went that way, anyway. Then the second half just went Arsenal’s. Which is fair enough because really they were much, much better than Spurs. Bonus conclusion for free there…


1. So, about that question we asked last week that caused a lot of consternation. Today’s answer was pretty clear in the end: Spurs are a bit shit.


2. Arsenal are not shit. Arsenal might actually be really quite good, you know.


3. While we’re on about our own mischief-making, we’d also noted that much had changed on both sides of North London since the last Emirates clash almost exactly a year ago. So there was a slap-in-our-smug-face inevitability about this game ending precisely as that one did: a 3-1 victory for Arsenal in which the scoreline was ultimately pretty flattering to a well-beaten and frankly embarrassed Tottenham.

But shut up, because it was still a very different game from last year’s, and we would argue – as we pretty much have to now – that this was still a game that did highlight the changes of the last 12 months. The change, obviously, is that both teams are better than they were then.

Last season’s Arsenal would not have beaten this Spurs team 3-1. We prefer not to dwell too long on what this Arsenal would have done to last season’s Spurs. For the first 45 minutes, this was a fascinating and excellent game. Chiefly because those first 45 minutes went exactly as anyone who has watched these sides would have predicted. Arsenal dominated possession and played with fizz and confidence and always, always, always on the front foot. Spurs, by contrast, lived on the counter-attack and relied on the diligence of those charged with first keeping them in the game to make those counter-attacks matter and then launching them when the opportunity arose.

At half-time, Arsenal remained the likelier victors but it wasn’t far-fetched to imagine an alternative scenario in which Spurs got their counter-attacks right and kept the back door shut. Sure, that all exploded in the space of about five minutes once the second half began, but still.


4. At half-time it was even likely Antonio Conte was the happier manager. His gameplan was high-risk but working well and Arsenal’s high defensive line more than once had the look of a high-wire act that while thrilling to watch but could go horribly wrong at any moment. Had Spurs produced a tiny bit more composure and quality in their counter-attacks, things could have been different. For all the talk of injury crises in the build-up to this one, the one key figure on either side to be missing was arguably absolutely crucial: it’s hard to think Dejan Kulusevski would have been as profligate as both Richarlison and Son were at decisive moments.


5. Yet Kulusevski’s inclusion would likely have been at the expense of Richarlison, and he brings something vital to what is still an often joyless Spurs team. As in the draw at Chelsea, there was little tangible in his performance but just as Spurs would not have got their draw there without him then nor would they have got back into this game as they did in the final 20 minutes of the first half when the clash of styles was at its highest pitch. Spurs’ goal rather summed him up: took up an excellent position in the counter-attack, fought for the ball after it had been overhit and then basically nuisanced his way into drawing a foul from his compatriot Gabriel to hand Kane the chance to level from the spot. Every Arsenal fan knew what would happen next.


6. Kane always scores in the NLD and yes, it is very often a penalty. His respective numbers for those now stand at 14 and seven. This one was particularly impressive, though. For one, he’d endured a rare miss this season at Nottingham Forest which, as with this one, came against a goalkeeper who is also an England colleague. We’d imagine Ramsdale has, like Dean Henderson, seen quite a lot of Harry Kane penalties. Kane was also required to stand over the ball for a full minute while the referee sorted out some edge-of-the-box shenanigans. Kane, though, retained his composure and clipped the ball right down the middle for his 100th Premier League away goal and a record 44th Premier League goal in all London derbies.


7. But Spurs’ trips to the Emirates ending in recrimination and disappointment is every bit as predictable as Kane scoring. Ultimately they were soundly beaten by what currently looks a vastly superior side. Most bluntly, Arsenal’s method gave them multiple ways of winning this game while Spurs’ had only one. Arsenal could hurt Spurs from range, or by getting behind them with tricky wingers, who had the added effect of pinning back Spurs’ wing-backs and making sure those counter-attacks that did materialise were only three-man affairs – albeit three very dangerous men, or by picking the lock through the middle of the Spurs defence. Arsenal also had the most basic advantage of weight of numbers. They could afford a far higher failure rate than Spurs.


8. Spurs’ defensive shape – indeed their entire strategy – under Conte is one built entirely on risk-reward and the evidence of the first couple of months of this season and last couple of months of the previous campaign is still that, on balance, it works. Spurs might not always play well, but they hadn’t lost since April. Conte’s Spurs give up lots of possession and vast numbers of shots, but those shots are mainly low-percentage ones. Problem is that while you might be able to predict how often those low-percentage chances produce their high-impact goals across the course of a season, you can’t really be sure when. Spurs looked like a table football side with a row of five and a row of three players between Thomas Partey and the goal when he curled an unstoppable shot past Hugo Lloris from 25 yards. Low percentage, sure, but the highest possible impact in the biggest possible game.

Conte might point to some idiosyncratic defending from Son against Saka in the build-up and the failure to get out quicker to Partey, but really that doesn’t matter. These are the sort of chances his side are designed to concede and sometimes that will backfire.

What it shows, when you then throw in catastrophic individual errors like Lloris’ for the second goal and Emerson Royal’s fury at the holes in the back of Gabriel Martinelli’s socks, is how fragile it all is. This was a game to hammer home the idea that Conte’s methods require players of a level that is still ever so slightly beyond Spurs. You need to get lucky, which Spurs didn’t for the opening goal, and you need to be flawless, which they weren’t for what followed.

Arteta Arsenal

9. Arsenal’s second goal was a gut-punch for Spurs. It’s hard to think of how it could have been worse for them. Coming so soon after half-time it completely took the air out of the improvement they had made as the first period had gone on, and the fact it came from not one but two errors in the space of a few seconds from their captain makes it all the harder to take.

Lloris has been a top-class Premier League goalkeeper for a decade now, but he has always had a rick in him. Not for the first time, he’s saved it for the biggest moment of the most inopportune game. His initial save from Saka’s cross-shot was inadequate, pushing the ball back into danger rather than out wide, and his second error in failing to gather the loose ball after it had ricocheted off Romero was worse still.

But while the nature of the goal meant the focus would always be on the Spurs error, it would be remiss to overlook the sight of Jesus as a fox in the box, on his toes in the face of an apparent lost cause and outmuscling the most physical of Spurs’ three centre-backs in the process.


10. Conte’s way has and will still work against most sides, though. With Kane and Son in your side, a strategy of giving up lots of low-percentage chances in exchange for your own chances being relatively few but far better, will work more often than not. Spurs will likely still finish in the top four because we still can’t see four more effective sides in the Premier League even if they are often a difficult and perplexing watch for vast swathes of games. More interesting right now, though, is how many better ones do we see than Arsenal? This was a thrillingly good performance. There might have been 20 minutes of vague alarm in that first half, but you should expect that against top opposition. What you shouldn’t necessarily expect is to utterly dominate the remaining 70 minutes as Arsenal did here.

Everywhere you cared to look there was an Arsenal player having a fantastic day. Both Partey and Granit Xhaka were excellent before and after the goals they scored, William Saliba is outrageously good, Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko are showing that being not quite good enough to start for Manchester City is not a significant criticism, while Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka performed the twin tasks of posing extreme attacking threat while minimising the threat Spurs posed on the counter. Time and again Spurs were forced to double up on the wide players, leaving them with insufficient resources to do anything else. And in the case of the opening goal it didn’t even work anyway.


11. Pushed to pick a single man of the match, BT’s commentators opted for Xhaka. Fair enough, as well. His goal was still an important one, putting the game swiftly out of Spurs’ reach before there could be any reorganisation after the red card. The defending was non-existent as Spurs blindly attempted to rejig their already full-stretch backline, but Xhaka’s positioning at the head of Arsenal’s attack and the alacrity with which he finished were still exemplary. Everything else he did was so good, though, dictating the tempo throughout and playing with the level head and positional discipline that has not always been his hallmark.

Above all, though, Xhaka has a beguiling narrative arc. So often there has seemed no way back at Arsenal for the mercurial Swiss, but he is now so thoroughly integral that it seems impossible to imagine this particular and excellent iteration of Arsenal without him. We’re not convinced “from the outhouse to the penthouse” is quite as good a line as the BT Sport commentators thought, though.


12. Our man of the match, for what it’s worth (roughly piss all) was Saliba. Good grief, the man is just an outrageous baller. We’re still not sure whether Arsenal keeping him out on loan for as long as they did was a genius move that has turned him into the Premier League’s best defender (which right now he undoubtedly is) or whether not having him here last season was an act of extreme foolishness that has cost Arsenal a place in this season’s Champions League.

The greatness of Saliba is threefold. One, the chant, obviously. That’s the main one. Second, the absolute rock-solid consistency of his fundamentals. Three, the fact he embellishes number two with the occasional act of outrageous banter. He was pulling Spurs players’ trousers down in both penalty areas during this absolute masterclass, yet his actual defending was of the very highest order. Spurs never got an inch out of him. He won all his duels. He brought the ball forward and instigated attacks. And this was in a game that would test the very best. Even when Spurs aren’t playing well, the sheer potential energy generated by the presence of Son, Kane and Richarlison can spook teams into errors. When they do get it right, they can embarrass any defence. Spurs are not a subtle team and essentially whenever one of those three genuine forward players gets the ball, the other two are on their bike and barrelling towards the penalty area. It’s a formidable sight and while Arsenal generally coped collectively only Saliba did so while looking like he was having a leisurely kickabout and might light a cigar at any moment.

There are plenty of things that have elevated Arsenal this season, and Arteta spoke glowingly of Jesus taking his team up a level after another excellent afternoon’s work from the Brazilian. But against stiff competition we’d still put Saliba top of an impressive list of reasons why Arsenal no longer seem like Arsenal.


13. We’ll have to talk about the red card, won’t we? Boring, but it must be done. Our view is that it was an extreme yellow-plus tackle and not the clear-cut red suggested by the TV coverage. It was a stupid tackle, certainly, a reckless one, and a classic example of Giving The Referee A Decision To Make. On another day, we suspect he gets away with a yellow and not much more is said about it beyond a few “If that was Xhaka…” tweets. But Royal is the only one really at fault here. Certainly having seen the red card brandished, this was not one you would expect or want to see VARed or reduced on appeal. In summary, then: ah, it’s probably a red card. Anthony Taylor had a good game generally too. He got the Spurs penalty right, showed a general willingness to keep cards pocketed where possible and a desire to let the game flow with judicious application of common sense and the advantage law. It’s how you’d want to see a high-tempo but not, Emerson’s antics aside, bad-tempered or nasty derby game officiated so we should probably focus on that rather than nitpicking about the borderline red card he gave.

The temptation is to assume the red card made no difference to the result anyway, but that feels reductive. We’d certainly have seen a different final half-hour without Royal’s rush of blood in any case.


14. Certainly Arsenal deserve huge credit for sensing and seizing the moment in the wake of that red card. It would have been easy and understandable to look to consolidate the 2-1 lead they had worked bloody hard for and figure they could withstand Spurs counters that much easier now their numbers were reduced. Instead Arsenal poured forward in search of the third goal to kill off their wounded prey and duly found it.


15. That third goal reduced the last 20 minutes of the game to a sideshow. One of those rare spells in a derby game where if you’re on the right side of it you can just absolutely revel in the joy of it all and the writhing misery of your rivals. The Arsenal fans certainly did that as Spurs fans slunk for the exits while on the field the managers unfurled 10 substitutions in the space of 18 minutes which is a new Premier League record.

We haven’t actually checked that, but it sounds right doesn’t it? Be honest, you accepted it unquestioningly. Feels like it must be a record, that. The nature of the changes were quite different, though, Arteta taking the chance to offer some of his key players a brief rest and a standing ovation, while Conte was forced into the humiliating spectacle of trying to sit on a 3-1 deficit and not let matters get any more embarrassing than they already were.

Son and Richarlison were withdrawn, ending any prospect of Spurs somehow bantering their way back into the game however undeservedly. This does suggest a slight lack of understanding of the history between these sides from Conte, because what rare joy Spurs have got on this patch has usually been so derived, but above all it will be a personal agony for him. This is a manager who exists purely to win and one for whom his current employment takes him to unusual places. His plans have worked everywhere he’s been, but the point is surely that everywhere he’s been has been at the absolute highest level.

Being forced to concede defeat is not the sort of thing Conte is accustomed to, and will do nothing to quell the speculation about his long-term commitment to Spurs. This was the biggest game of the season so far, and the only conclusion once again is that Conte can take this Spurs team a pretty long way but they just don’t look like they’ll ever be quite good enough to execute his plans as relentlessly and flawlessly as necessary to reach the very top.


16. But what of Arsenal’s chances? This was another significant test passed impressively, and with each passing game it becomes harder to picture a reversion to type. The two-game-a-week schedule they now face will surely stretch them as it will all seven of the teams juggling European competition, but when Arteta looked along his bench today he will have liked what he saw more than Conte – missing both Kulusevski and Lucas Moura from his substitutes – did.

It’s a dangerous game tipping Arsenal for good things because we all know how the Great Circle Of Arsenal works now; it’s been this way for a decade or more. But Arsenal have never looked quite this good for quite this long since Wenger’s better days. Never has there been quite the current sense not just of a team playing really bloody well but one that still has plenty of room to grow even better. In Saliba, Zinchenko and Jesus they have three significant upgrades to their first-choice XI that all bring more than just obvious on-field quality. All three appear to be elevating the players around them, raising standards and easing pressure.

Arsenal won’t win the league, but that says far more about Manchester City than it does about Arsenal who currently look a decent way clear of anyone else attempting the impossible of living with Pep Guardiola’s ever-more powered-up cheat-code of a side this season.