* I have tried to stay calm about the rise and rise of Harry Kane this season, but the young striker makes hyperbole and melodrama easy bedfellows for the writer. Every time he has been asked to step up a level in order to meet Spurs’ needs the affirmative answer has been forthcoming with gusto. He just keeps getting better.
Kane’s accelerated development is not just unusual in the English game, but in world football. Before November, he had three Premier League goals, the third string to Tottenham’s striker bow, but in three months he has transformed himself into the next big thing for club and country. He has 22 goals this season; this feels like football magic. You’re a wizard, Harry.
* As Big Weekend rather pithily stated, Tottenham and Arsenal arrived into the north London derby in remarkably similar frames of mind, desperate to maintain their form in order to bolster their top four chances in the most competitive area of the Premier League. Both sides had taken 19 of their last 24 available points.
Both too had wind in their sails after difficult starts to the season. After the 2-1 home defeat to Stoke City in November, Spurs were in lowly 12th position, whilst Arsenal was as low as eighth on November 28th, already 15 points from the top. That gap had been cut to 11, with just two points separating the two rivals.
Yet it only ever felt like one team were confident at White Hart Lane. Even after conceding Spurs surged forward, whilst Arsenal struggled to find fluency in the final third. Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud found it difficult to impress themselves upon proceedings, whilst Aaron Ramsey was almost a complete non-entity.
At times it felt as if Francis Coquelin was the lone firefighter in midfield. Since December 28 (when the Frenchman came back into Arsenal’s side) no PL player has won possession more times than Coquelin. That figure stood at 42 prior to this match – it now stands at 56.
* The most interesting aspect of the team news came with Arsene Wenger’s decision to leave Theo Walcott on the bench in favour of Danny Welbeck. Walcott still made his 200th Premier League appearance, but his absence seemed odd.
Welbeck was evidently included for his defensive capabilities in dealing with Danny Rose’s ventures forward. A reminder that Welbeck joined Arsenal in order to play as a central striker.
It came as a particular surprise given Wenger’s pre-match words on the fit-again Walcott. “When he scored the goal on Sunday against Villa, you can see he’s a great finisher now,” Wenger said on Friday. “But Theo’s first quality is the quality of his reception. That means he gets the timing and the movement. He is absolutely exceptional, one of the best in the world, with regards to the area where he will get the ball. We want him to be world class. It is all there.”
Walcott will be happy with the effusive praise from his manager, but less so at his place on the bench. One suspects that Rose also breathed a sigh of relief.
For Spurs, Mauricio Pochettino selected Eric Dier over Federico Fazio, slightly strange given the successful nature of the central defensive partnership of Fazio and Jan Vertonghen. Presumably his reasoning was to opt for the pace of Dier over the physical presence of the Argentinean, given Arsenal’s typically intricate play around the penalty area.
* Tottenham started on the front foot, and it took five minutes for Kane to have an impact. The home side stormed forward with six attackers against as many Arsenal defenders. The striker should probably have played in Christian Eriksen, but instead chose to shoot for goal. He was denied by a wonderful fingertip save from David Ospina.
The home side may have dominated early possession and territory, but it was Arsenal who opened the scoring. Welbeck showed searing pace to fly past a coasting Rose, and his measured pull-back found Giroud on the edge of the box.
The Frenchman has been composed and assured since his return from injury, but his assist demonstrated that fortune is often as important as fineness. There is no doubt that Giroud aimed a shot on goal with his left foot, but it merely screwed off awkwardly into the path of Ozil.
Ozil’s finish should not be underestimated, a first time side foot high to the left of Hugo Lloris, who was left stranded. It was the German’s third goal in as many matches, supporters finally seeing their player in peak fitness.
For Spurs, however, the goal made for grim viewing. Vertonghen dived in on halfway without winning the ball, leaving himself stranded upfield. Rose was guilty of allowing Welbeck to sprint past him, unaware of the danger behind him, Ryan Mason left Giroud free on the edge of the area and Kyle Walker was in a different postcode to Ozil when the German finished his chance. To complete the set, Dier was the one playing Ozil onside.
* It may be unfashionable, but it would be remiss not to praise the assistant referee for his decision in awarding the goal.
There has been a shift in mood this season regarding officials’ decision-making in the Premier League. There will always be moaning, of course, but this has progressed from murmurs to witch hunt. Former referees have even been keen to twist the knife, no doubt tempted by the offer of column inches from tabloid newspapers.
There is nothing wrong with grumbling per se, but it is only fair to offer both sides of the argument. Offering criticism without praise is unhelpfully one-eyed.
When Ozil gave Arsenal the lead, all eyes turned to the assistant referee. We have watched so much football that certain scenarios provoke automatic responses, and our hard-wired reaction was to conclude that Ozil was offside. That’s just how it ‘felt’.
But he wasn’t, no matter how many times the television pundits tried to engineer a controversy. It was an incredibly hard call to make on a pressurised stage. Well done sir.
* The goal didn’t seem to alter Spurs’ mindset at all, marauding forward as if there was only 20 minutes remaining, rather than 20 played.
The epitome of the home side’s adventure was Rose, who appeared to be playing both left-back and left-wing, with the latter position a great deal more obvious. In fact, there were times when Rose seemed to be Tottenham’s most attacking player, finding space on the edge of the Arsenal penalty area. For the first time in his brief Arsenal career, Hector Bellerin was struggling.
Whilst there is no doubt that Wenger’s side were under considerable pressure during the first half, was this not just a symptom of the ‘new’ Arsenal? Against Manchester City last month, we finally saw Arsenal prepared to operate with a safety first mentality, registering just 35% possession as they sat back and looked to break forward on the counter attack. It worked perfectly then.
Against Aston Villa last week, Arsenal had just 48% of the ball despite overpowering their opponents and winning 5-0, so perhaps it was no surprise that Spurs had 63% possession in the first half. The important statistic, so the cliché goes, is that Arsenal were leading at the break.
* Unfortunately for Wenger, Spurs looked infinitely more dangerous than both City and Villa, and it took just ten minutes of the second half for them to deservedly draw level. Ospina was at full-length to claw out a header from Moussa Dembele, but the ball fell to ‘Guess Who?’, who finished clinically from six yards.
I’ve decided to call Kane ‘Guess Who?’ because that’s the repeated cry on social media whenever he scores, a message that also flickers through my own mind. I’m not comparing their ability or feats, but the same occurs when Ronaldo or Lionel Messi scores in La Liga, a knowing raise of the eyebrows as if to convey the inevitability of the situation. “Well, obviously he scored again.”
There is something deeply refreshing about Kane. The phrase ‘Boys’ Own stuff’ is well entrenched into football lexicon, but it perfectly describes a player who seems friendly, humble and even awkward. Kane is less like a good footballer than the everyman who happens to be good at playing football.
This incredible rise is not due to breath-taking talent or superhuman physical attributes, but hard work and a commitment to being the best he can be. The most wonderful thing about Kane is that he is devastatingly basic, an all-rounder. If you can’t rise off your seat to applaud that, then there’s something wrong with you (or you support Arsenal).
* If the first goal was of a simple nature, the headed finish for the second was far more complex, Kane finishing Nabil Bentaleb’s cross from the left wing.
Heading a floated cross from a distance of greater than six yards is an incredibly difficult skill. It firstly requires great timing, perfecting your jump to be at the highest point upon arrival of the ball, but there is an added difficulty through the speed of the cross. Whilst a flat, driven pass requires the head only to direct the ball, Kane was forced to generate his own power and trajectory in order to beat Ospina. It’s fair to say that was achieved impeccably.
A word too for the marking of Laurent Koscielny. For all Kane’s brilliance, Bentaleb’s cross was hopeful, not dangerous. The Frenchman failed to put any pressure on the striker, barely even managing a jump. To rely on a defensive strategy, each defender must carry out his role perfectly. Koscielny’s occasional tendency to lack concentration is what takes him out of the world-class bracket.
* Given the soft bookings awarded to Welbeck, Giroud and Nacho Monreal, it was ludicrous that Rose escaped a yellow card for his challenge from behind on Giroud.
The left-back never attempted to play the ball, and planted his studs into the ankle of the forward. Lucky boy, Danny.
* That Arsenal seemed so sluggish and Spurs so effervescent in the latter part of the match is a testament to the fitness insisted upon by Pochettino. This was his side’s 40th match of the season, but only Arsenal’s 33rd. It was Spurs who swarmed forward – adrenalin can only take you so far.
“It is pretty hard,” said Christian Eriksen of Pochettino’s pre-season training schedule. “The first few weeks there were times when we went to bed pretty early. Now of course you try to get used to it.” You’re now reaping the rewards of it, Christian. Spurs have gained 12 points from goals scored in final five minutes of PL games this season. That’s twice as many as any other side.
* Another factor was the age of this Spurs team. Eight of the 11 that started the match were aged 24 or under, whilst Ryan Mason was incredibly the sixth oldest player in Pochettino’s starting side. To be sitting fourth in the league at this stage of the season with such a young squad offers great positivity for the future. It’s only three years since they were signing Louis Saha and Ryan Nelsen on deadline day.
* We took a fair amount of stick for making a big deal of Alexis Sanchez’s unavailability for the match through muscle injury, but he was greatly missed.
It is not simply Sanchez’s excellence with ball at feet, although Welbeck offered only glimpses of his usual threat. The Chilean’s reputation is built around hard work and determination, an insistence on winning the ball high up the field and exposing the uncertainty that creates in defence.
“When you see someone working hard from the front and maybe if they close three players down and don’t win the ball back, then you are not there to back him up, you do have to look at yourself and think ‘why was I not there to help my teammate out?” said Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain last month. “It does set the tone for the rest of the team.”
Against Spurs, Cazorla, Ozil, Giroud and Welbeck won possession 18 times between them. Against Sunderland in October, Sanchez did so 12 times by himself. In that same game, Sanchez made five successful tackles. Against Spurs, those aforementioned four made fewer combined.
* Michael Owen retains a bizarre ability to watch the replay of a refereeing decision and yet still make a completely inaccurate conclusion based on what he has seen. He also offers little to no insight and verges on the inarticulate when not reading from his pre-written script before the match kicks off. These are difficult traits to admire in a co-commentator.
As for Owen’s second-half statement that Nacer Chadli has just come back from the Africa Cup of Nations? Well, at least it made me laugh.
* As Spurs inch closer to the building of their new stadium, a word for the atmosphere inside White Hart Lane on Saturday. From the moment the home side equalised, it seemed as if 32,000 Tottenham supporters had a collective belief that victory would be achieved. The noise was incredible, the proximity of fans to the pitch a factor in generating the fervent atmosphere.
There are plenty more reasons to go rather than stay, but it will be a huge shame to lose White Hart Lane from the Premier League stage. It may not be the perfect ground, but if it is replaced by one of the soulless plastic bowls sadly commonplace up and down the country, I will be all the sadder for it. This was Tottenham at their best, and Old Trusty played its part.
* Not quite back to the drawing board for Arsenal, but a significant bursting of the bubble after a fine recent run. Wenger found a new way for his side to play against Manchester City, but on Saturday they seemed more inhibited than wilfully watchful.
The simple conclusion is that Arsenal failed to turn up in the north London derby. That’s close to unforgivable for many supporters.
* But where else can I end than with the man of the moment, nay the man of the season so far.
Sometimes football can feel as if it is scripted, the sporting stars aligning to create a wonderful story. It feels as if Kane is writing his own ending, as if cheating with a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Another goal with every turn of the page.
“That feeling is one I definitely won’t forget for the rest of my career,” said Kane after the final whistle, with the smile of a young man who will never again be sad. There were 32,000 home supporters, and countless others watching in their living room, who share that sentiment.
Forget the clichéd ‘Kane is Abel’ headline. For Spurs supporters, he’s reaching divine status.