16 Conclusions from Spurs 2-3 Arsenal: Stupidity, set-pieces, perfect outcomes and inverted centre-backs

Dave Tickner
Kai Havertz heads in Arsenal's third goal at Spurs
Kai Havertz heads in Arsenal's third goal at Spurs

In which we ponder how a NLD in which Arsenal scored precisely the goals one expects them to score in precisely the way one expected them to score them nevertheless ended up part of one of the most hard-to-explain games of the season. Arsenal had to do very little to find themselves 3-0 up, and Spurs had to do very little to find themselves right back in it. In the end, though, a match that had everything Arsenal could have wanted – even including the fact Spurs could walk away from it with a shred of dignity intact.


1) Sometimes a game of football comes along that is just too stupid to analyse. Sometimes a game of football is a bunch of stuff that happens. Sometimes very little of what you’re watching makes sense. Very often, those games involve Spurs, a team whose own hardwired stupidity can on occasion infect opponents and cause them to do equally inexplicable things.

This was a day when it is almost impossible to avoid confirmation bias. Where the scoreline inevitably leads you to all your conclusions, and all of those are different at full-time compared to half-time. How to explain this game? Arsenal’s 3-0 half-time lead only made any kind of sense if you accept the not unreasonable premise that even when so often and so alarmingly losing the battle in so many areas of the pitch they remained vastly superior in both penalty areas, that their sense of calm serenity had simply overpowered Spurs’ daft chaotic force.

It might still feel inadequate, but it would at least hold up to scrutiny. And then came a second half where Arsenal tried their damnedest to be just as stupid as Spurs and almost came completely unstuck. Spurs got back into this game via their only two shots on target. The first from Cristian Romero playing as a number 10 and having the ball plinked to him by a confused David Raya, and the second from a penalty after the previously imperious Declan Rice took a wild swing at one ball and made contact with a different one altogether to hand Spurs a penalty. It was so ludicrous an offence that Michael Oliver simply couldn’t believe the evidence of his own eyes from five yards away, and was only convinced that yes Rice really had just kicked Davies right in the gooch after going to check the monitor.

Are we still sticking to the idea that Arsenal won this vital game because they are less inherently stupid than Spurs? Yes, just about. This was arguably the biggest North London Derby in 20 years, and the North London Derby is already the best fixture in the Premier League anyway. Don’t care what other fixture you’re going to suggest, we don’t want to hear it. This is the best one. Because they so often defy logic and today even managed to deliver an entirely predictable result in a way that even managed to include Bukayo Saka giving Ben Davies twisted blood and a couple of Arsenal goals from corners as well as another derby goal for Son Heung-min, and yet still be so vastly different to the game anyone might reasonably have expected.

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2) What a three points for Arsenal, though. The fact it’s Spurs makes it even better of course, but the knowledge they can now go anywhere like this, play so far below their new normal and still skip away whistling merrily with all three points in the bag is huge. And to be clear, this is a big compliment. We’re firmly in ‘performance of champions’ territory here to chisel out three points from a performance like that in a game like this, but even that doesn’t really tell the story because of the way it all played out.

It’s just as well this was a ‘result is all that matters’ kind of day, because otherwise you might spend 3000 words tying yourself in complete knots trying to make some sense of it all. Ahem.


3) We’re going to argue that the unexpected second-half agonies they endured before pocketing three points actually make this even better for Arsenal. Not for us, because as you can see we’ve already completely lost the plot and also had to abandon nearly all the clever beard-stroking stuff we wrote in the first half about how even when Arsenal were so conspicuously and unusually second best between the penalty areas, their total calm command of the game in both those vital areas was what really mattered.

They lost all semblance of that control in the second half as Spurs gave them an almighty scare. But here’s why that’s good news for Arsenal: because they needed two things from Spurs. The first was three points, which they now have. The second, and almost as importantly, is for Spurs to now take something off Manchester City in a few weeks’ time. Because looking at their remaining games, it’s hard now to see who else might. At half-time, however great things looked for Arsenal on the day, you had to concede that the idea of Spurs taking anything off Manchester City was a ludicrous one. Just too stupid. Just too many basic mistakes. Now, though, Arsenal can walk away from here with three precious and hard-earned points knowing that while this Spurs team remains extraordinarily stupid, it does nevertheless retain enough ability among the absurdity to pull something out of the bag in that or any other game. Arsenal just about avoided a huge booby trap here, but leave smiling and knowing it still lies in wait for their one remaining rival. Especially as it’s a booby trap that for some reason City specifically stumble into more than most.


4) When the celebrations of a massive win subside, and the Celebration Police have issued their penalty notices and filed all the relevant paperwork, Arsenal will reflect on this game and conclude they probably did get away with one a little bit. We can and will talk about the decisive importance of crucial moments, but Mikel Arteta will know as well as anyone else that his side’s 3-0 half-time lead could easily have been wildly different and his unusually sloppy side still ended up needing every bit of that cushion. We would be enormously surprised if Arsenal play so poorly again this season; to eke out a win from that performance in the toughest game they had left only makes it sweeter.

👉 Mailbox: Did Mikel Arteta let Spurs get close just to prove a point about Arsenal?
👉 Arteta admits Arsenal outcome bias as Postecoglou tired of ‘waiting for somebody down the road’

5) But equally it would be too simplistic and reductive to reduce that half-time scoreline entirely to dumb luck. You can’t have dumb luck without the dumb, after all. This was 45 minutes that offered a compelling argument for the manufacture of one’s own luck. Arsenal did more clever things and Spurs did more stupid things. Was Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg unlucky to slice a defensive header past Guglielmo Vicario from a tight angle? Yes, but Takehiro Tomiyasu was clever to nudge him and ever so slightly increase the chances of such a misfortune.

Were Spurs unfortunate in the manner in which they lost possession after Dejan Kulusevski tripped following contact from Leandro Trossard (we’re being very careful here not to suggest it was a penalty, but at the same time, had it been given as one on the field we don’t think it would have been overturned)? Absolutely yes, but they still left Ben Davies isolated against Bukayo Saka – the most obvious thing that simply had to be avoided at all costs here – and Saka still finished it off with calm authority.

And even if you have gone 2-0 down in circumstances that might be considered unfortunate, what sympathy that lingers is rather wiped out if you let an opposition player block your keeper yet again from a corner before not one player even bothers to jump or challenge or doing anything of much at all to prevent Kai Havertz having a free header three yards out.


6) So yes, 3-0 was a profoundly unlikely scoreline on the balance of 45 minutes that also included Micky van de Ven scoring an equaliser chalked off because he was a handful of millimetres in front of Gabriel’s arse when a ball was played that would eventually find its way through to him. But this is not the first time Spurs have so miserably failed to do the most basic things right. And it’s not the first time Arsenal have been cleverer as well as better than their opponents.

You can say Spurs were unlucky to find themselves so very far adrift, but also ask serious questions about why, with two weeks to prepare for the obvious set-piece threat Arsenal would pose, Spurs waited until half-time when it was already (albeit only just, as it turned out) too late to do anything about trying to rectify it.

We must ask how, precisely, it has taken Ange Postecoglou and his backroom team until a presumably frenzied half-time chat today to even consider what might happen if someone was tasked with blocking the blocker as Pape Sarr did to at least some effect in the second half.

We’ve talked plenty of times before about how Spurs needed to do something about what was happening from corners. Because it looks absurd to see the keeper so easily and comprehensively taken out of the game time after time. It has to be in part on the keeper himself of course, but that cannot be the only reason it doesn’t happen to any other team in the league with anything like this frequency.

It had got to a point where Spurs were relying on a mistake not to concede. So flimsy is their marking and tracking from corners, and so easily do they allow their keeper to be taken out of the equation, that if you get the delivery right and the header right you’ll score. Arsenal didn’t even need to get both parts right both times to cheerfully collect a couple of easy and hugely important goals here.

On which note, perhaps our favourite single moment of the entire very silly game was Vicario going up for a last-minute corner and immediately standing on David Raya.

📣 TO THE COMMENTS! Disagree with any of Tickers’ Conclusions? Offer your own here.

7) You don’t have to like Arsenal’s set-piece coach Nicolas Jover, which is just as well because we would struggle to maintain the euphemistic stoicism shown by Gary Neville in calling a Celebrity Coach now challenging for Jason Tindall’s crown a ‘little nuisance’, but you have to admire the job he’s done. Strip away the many, many layers of nonsense this game contained and you’re left with an Arsenal team not at their best against their most hated rivals and nevertheless winning the game because of their total dominance when both attacking and defending set-pieces.

There really isn’t any great reinvention of the wheel going on here – have a couple of lads who consistently deliver inch-perfect inswinging deliveries from each flank at pace, some big lads to head them in and some other lads trying to put off the defence – but few teams if any have ever so perfected this particular tactic.

It’s given Arsenal such a greatly more multi-dimensional threat. Even – especially – on those rare days like this one where their work from open play fails to hit its usual heights. Set-piece dominance won them this game and may yet win them the title because this is not the first game and almost certainly won’t be the last where that’s the case.


8) The sheer absurdity of how events unfolded in that first half really did highlight how big a gulf now exists between these teams. This Spurs team can really play little better than they did in that first half. They attacked with brio and brightness, saw far more of the ball than anyone could have been expected, and found themselves up against an Arsenal team making uncharacteristic errors and giving the ball away in unusually dangerous areas.

It wouldn’t be too outrageous to say that first half was close to the best of Spurs currently against the worst of Arsenal, with the outcome still being a 3-0 lead for the visitors. Doesn’t matter how unlikely that scoreline might have been or how deceptive a reflection of the half’s events; it’s impossibly hard now to believe it’s only a couple of years ago that Spurs were crushing Arsenal 3-0 here to take charge of the top-four race and see just how big the gap between them now is. It’s almost gone without mention that this was St Totteringham’s Day with five matches still to play.


9) And while we’ve had a go at a lot of the Spurs silliness, this is really something that says more about Arsenal. They are such a serious team now. They may well come up short again in the title race this year, but it looks increasingly certain that such disappointment will only be temporary.

They are a better team than last year. They control games better and even when that control wavers as it did here they are better equipped to keep themselves out of trouble. There were obvious parallels between this game and those costly run-in draws from comfortable winning positions at Liverpool and West Ham last season. Here they found a way to regroup even after the self-inflicted nature of the goal that gave Spurs their unexpected foothold in the game.

The expectations of Arsenal have changed massively now. During last season’s title race the vibe was very much ‘Well if Arsenal don’t win it this year, when will the chance come around again?’ This year it’s ‘Well if Arsenal don’t win it this year they probably will next year.’ That they’ve so brilliantly kicked on from last season’s near-miss with a couple of astute big-money signings in crucial positions is something that will be doubly cruel for Spurs fans who saw their own club so abjectly fail to build on a similarly encouraging foundation under Mauricio Pochettino.


10) The fact Havertz was Arsenal’s best player on the day really does highlight where Arsenal’s recruitment is at. Declan Rice was probably their second best having put out numerous fires before bizarrely igniting a pretty big one of his own by inexplicably kicking Ben Davies up the arse. But the signing of Rice is a different kind of success.

Everyone knew Arsenal needed a top-tier defensive midfielder, and had done so since the days of Patrick Vieira. Everybody knew Rice would fit the bill perfectly and everybody knew that while £100m was an awful lot of money it was almost certainly going to prove money well spent for what he could bring to the team. The brilliance in that deal lay in getting it done so smartly and fending off all other interested parties. There was no great secret to it.

But Havertz? That’s a different matter. That was 60 million down the p*sser according to many seasoned observers, an inexplicable price to pay for a player who had so flattered to deceive at Chelsea. But Arsenal had seen something that would work for them and paid what it took to make it happen. And now look at them. And look at him.


11) Even allowing for the mania that overtook the game in the second half, there was still no clearer example of the gulf that now exists between these teams than the swift, clinical brilliance of the second goal.

We wrote before the game about how Davies’ composure and reliability might be just the thing for Spurs in a game of this heat and intensity over the more mercurial and volatile charms of the injured Destiny Udogie. Across the 90 minutes as a whole, that probably proved the case. But there was always one major problem with it. What if he got isolated against Saka with Van de Ven out of range to offer jet-heeled assistance? It would likely be very ugly indeed. It only happened the once, and it only needed to happen the once.

Spurs lost the ball in the Arsenal penalty area, and via Rice and Havertz found themselves almost immediately in trouble. Davies must have known precisely what Saka was going to try and do, which only made his almost total inability to have any impact on it playing out as predictably as one could possibly imagine all the more striking.


12) But it wasn’t just the goal that highlighted this gulf. A few minutes earlier, Leandro Trossard had lost possession inside his own penalty area. For approximately half a second, it looked like Spurs might be in. Yet in that blink of an eye, Arsenal had regrouped and had everyone back exactly where they wanted them, round pegs in round holes across the defence and midfield. Three passes later, Spurs were on halfway and starting the laborious task of picking their way through once more. Needless to say, they did not succeed.

And there it is: Arsenal lost the ball in the Arsenal box, and three passes later Spurs were on the halfway line. Spurs lost the ball in the Arsenal box and three passes later the ball was in their net.


13) Spurs had to do something differently in the second half, and in fairness they did. And here is where Ange Postecoglou might just wonder. He is a manager famously wedded to his principles to an almost pathological extent, and he may this evening just find himself wondering if he hadn’t strayed from the path a bit here.

We’re not going to be too critical. We asked, nay demanded, that he do something like it. That eventually it becomes unacceptable to greet another heavy defeat featuring the same familiar failings with “That’s the way we play, mate.” Sure, you can enjoy your freeform attacking football, but enjoy it by being f***ing disciplined.

Davies for Udogie was obviously an enforced change, but everywhere else Postecoglou had a decision to make in his starting XI he uncharacteristically went for the pragmatic option. Dejan Kulusevski over Brennan Johnson was one. Hojbjerg over Pape Sarr was the really big one, Yves Bissouma having in fairness made himself largely unpickable in the Newcastle game.

We totally understood both decisions. And Hojbjerg didn’t even do that badly, not really, given what he was up against. But it was a mistake. Sarr made a huge difference when he came on – not just at corners – and even the undeniable caveat that the game situation and Arsenal’s willingness to coast through the second half if they possibly could cannot completely explain away the difference in the general mood and tenor of the game.

Richarlison, and even Bissouma himself, also had positive impact on those harum-scarum final minutes. For all the injuries and suspensions and being worked out that have largely been responsible for Spurs’ indifferent form after that blistering start, there’s a decent argument that Bissouma’s form closely mirrors Tottenham’s.

When he was looking like a £100m defensive midfielder himself in the early weeks of the season, Spurs looked like contenders. And when he hasn’t, they haven’t.


14) Spurs have a big decision to make about who stays and who goes among their midfield options this summer. They need a Rice and probably don’t quite have one among Bentancur, Bissouma or Sarr. Although we do feel quite strongly that Sarr has a higher ceiling than any of Spurs’ other assorted promising sorts. He brings technical quality and unrelenting drive to that midfield that the others do not. But he won’t solve the DM issue.

But the other very big question Spurs have to answer in the summer revolves around Son Heung-min. He took his penalty nervelessly to set up the very nervy conclusion, but it was his only contribution of note after what has now been an extremely lengthy run of indifferent form to go with the extremely lengthy run of indifferent form he had last season.

Spurs have, of course, been spoiled for a great many years by the presence of Harry Kane. Harry Kane on an off-day is still of great value. He will still hold the ball up brilliantly. He will still land some dark arts blows on assorted body parts of defenders. He will still bring others into the play and if absolutely nothing else offer an outlet and some respite for weary defenders when you’re under the pump. Kane’s worst performance ever would still have some value.

The same cannot be said for a bad Son performance. He is a man who wants to run on to balls in behind rather than hold it up with his back to goal. The ball will not reliably stick when played up to him. Even in that ferocious second-half comeback he was a peripheral figure until doing the necessary from the spot. Richarlison had an impact on Spurs’ attacking impetus. Brennan Johnson had an impact. Son did not.

He’s been a wonderful player for Spurs for the longest time, but at the very least his time as a nailed-on starter should be coming to an end. The painful rebuild so long mooted and so slow to happen is closer than ever for Spurs. The departures of Kane and Hugo Lloris and Eric Dier hugely symbolic ones, but that era will only truly end with Son’s departure. And that too has never felt closer or more likely than it does right now.


15) You know who else had a bigger impact than Son on Spurs’ attacking play? Cristian Romero. This was a profoundly ridiculous performance from a profoundly ridiculous footballer. Arsenal’s defence has been magnificent for a long time now, with both Gabriel and William Saliba viable team-of-the-year contenders. But the best centre-back performance on a day when they all had extremely high workloads came from neither of Arsenal’s standouts.

Romero was the best of the lot, despite (because of?) playing only a very limited amount of the game at what traditionally be recognised as centre-back. He was still to be found there on occasion making vital blocks (two), clearing danger (twice) and chucking in some of his trademark crunching tackles (five!). But as well as all that he was also to be found having a match-high four attempts on goal.

Spurs have made significant use this season of inverted full-backs. Trust Romero to create for himself an inverted centre-back role. We genuinely think he might be the most interesting footballer in the Premier League. Not the best, but the most interesting. It is impossible at times to work out what, precisely, is going through his head.

Raya Arsenal
Cristian Romero, the inverted centre-back

One of those times came here when, with his team 3-0 down he decided to charge forward and become his team’s most advanced player when the opposition keeper had the ball. And we now know precisely why he did that, as Raya – whose own performances is covered in far greater detail here – obligingly clipped the ball straight to him to set up that barnstorming finish.


16) Those last few minutes may be the most important of Arsenal’s season. There is a seemingly unstoppable momentum about comebacks this season, especially late comebacks. Few teams have proved more likely to get involved in that kind of late nonsense – for good and ill – than Spurs. Given Arsenal’s reputation from last season and beyond, given the general daftness of Spurs, given the specific daftness of this game and the NLD in general, and there were a huge number of things pointing to Spurs digging out an equaliser. But Arsenal recovered their senses and while you always felt it might come, never did you have the sense it definitely would. Arsenal just about avoided sinking entirely to Spurs’ level of silliness and they will now very likely spend a lot of the next few weeks hoping City fail that test.

Having beaten Spurs here and with Liverpool out of the picture, there’s a compelling argument that the most important remaining game of Arsenal’s season is another Spurs one. Maybe the apparently baffling self-inflicted wounds that gave Spurs hope here were just some 4D chess from Arsenal. They needed to beat Spurs here, but did so without destroying all that was left of their fragile confidence. Mission spectacularly accomplished.

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