16 Conclusions: Tottenham 2-1 Arsenal

Date published: Sunday 12th July 2020 9:30

Jose Mourinho played the classics and Tottenham are fifth since he was appointed. Arsenal and Mikel Arteta need fresh blood.

 

1) Two statistics sum up the respective club approaches to Sunday’s north London derby: Tottenham left-winger Lucas made more tackles (10) than the 11 starters and four substitutes of the opponents combined (8); Arsenal right-back Hector Bellerin completed four dribbles to the opposition’s six. One team fought to keep themselves in the race long enough to overtake the other in the inevitable event that they tripped over their own shoelaces. No risk, high reward.

 

2) There is a legitimate discussion to be had as to whether Tottenham can expect a more advanced coaching philosophy than ‘stay within touching distance and see what happens’ from the third best-paid manager in world football. Even in this game, it was far easier to see the framework of what Mikel Arteta wants than a lucid idea of Jose Mourinho’s final destination.

That can be saved for another time. Wednesday, after a 0-0 draw with Newcastle, perhaps. But credit must be given where it is due and a derby win from behind puts Mourinho firmly in the black. Tottenham, 14th when Mauricio Pochettino was sacked, are 5th in a Premier League table from the date of Mourinho’s appointment. Question the style by all means, but acknowledge the substance.

 

3) Imagine Mourinho as Montgomery Burns pointing out a sign to Homer Simpson – Mikel Arteta – that reads: ‘Don’t forget, you’re Arsenal forever.’ That goes some way to explaining this result for the losers. Just as it seemed the Gunners had discovered a new identity, their self-perpetuating cycle of fallibility crept up like a midnight deadline.

This is the most damaging defeat of Arteta’s reign thus far. Not a fatal setback by any means but a poignant reminder of how much there is to do and how few of these current players are fully equipped to do it. If Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool are the reference point then consider that only six of the players he inherited in 2015 are guaranteed to be in his first team five years later at the start of next season. Try playing that same game with Arsenal and coming up with more absolute certainties than Kieran Tierney and Bukayo Saka.

 

4) Arteta has avoided much focused criticism throughout his nascent reign. That is the combined product of patience earned through coaching inexperience and pity generated by individual player mistakes. Any progress made is soon undone by David Luiz, Shkodran Mustafi, Sead Kolasinac, Matteo Guendouzi or all of the above and more.

But his game management was poor on Sunday. Arsenal were in the ascendancy for almost the entire first hour but failed to capitalise on that momentum both on the pitch and off it, struggling to convert the few genuine chances they did create and allowing that situation to fester. Saka for Nicolas Pepe on 70 minutes was a particularly uninspiring and conservative first substitution when the moment called for something a little more carpe diem.

The triple substitution three minutes after Tottenham took the lead was almost artistic in its slapstick slamming of the stable door as the horse was galloping into the distance. He has the time and capacity to learn.

 

5) Further to that point is that Arsenal have won only one Premier League game in which they have conceded under Arteta: against Everton in February. It is difficult to find a single statement that better encapsulates a club’s constant battle to cover both its feet and its head with a blanket five sizes too small. And it hardly helps that they keep pissing the bed.

 

6) But it should be pointed out that this is an entirely different scenario to the one Frank Lampard is experiencing at Chelsea. The Blues have kept seven clean sheets all Premier League season and Arsenal have six since Arteta became manager in December. The latter have earned the right to suggest that, try as they might, these parts are ultimately faulty, while the former are using ill-fitting components wrong in the first place.

There has been a clear improvement in terms of defensive structure and strategy at the Emirates, precipitated by managerial change. It’s just that those players have their limits and it hardly took long for Arteta to find them and raise their collective ceilings. The only problem then is that it will always cave in eventually.

 

7) Harry Kane will be criticised for his inability to score from five shots, a continuation of his and Mourinho’s wider narrative. But this was an effective club translation of his more creative role for England: chief facilitator rather than lethal finisher.

When almost half of your accurate passes (four of nine) lead directly to chances, something is working. Kane is so sensational in front of goal that it almost seems a waste whenever he plays a little deeper or runs the channels, but he has a quite brilliant technical ability and a knack of providing the kind of service he himself would relish. This was closer to his best than we have seen for some time.

 

8) The dynamism of Lucas and Heung-min Son helped. The Brazilian’s aforementioned defensive work was invaluable and allied with purpose going forward, although his decision-making remains questionable and many openings were wasted. Son took his goal expertly but often chose the wrong option when presented with too much time, benefiting most overall from Kane’s selflessness.

There was at least something there to work with, a semblance of a modicum of a pretence of a morsel of attacking automations, fluidity and team cohesion. It was against Arsenal, but also so soon after that disaster at Bournemouth. Mourinho must ensure the former is the rule and the latter the exception.

 

9) Add Steven Bergwijn and the ingredients are delectable, if not the recipe. He was the apparent scapegoat for the Bournemouth and Sheffield United setbacks, starting on the bench. In nine substitute minutes he created two chances from a total of three passes as Tottenham pushed for a decisive third. He is a breathtaking lesson in how to maximise the impact of every touch.

 

10) Serge Aurier tends to do that, only not in quite the same way. His attempt to control the loose ball leading to Alexandre Lacazette’s opener was a case in point: it travelled a good ten yards before he lost a 50/50 with Granit Xhaka that resulted in Arsenal going ahead.

“You don’t just play a derby – it is not a normal game,” he said in the week. “This game is different. You need to put more pressure on yourself and more aggressiveness in the game itself because there is a different feeling about it.”

That quote came to mind when watching him go steaming into that challenge before ending up on his arse as Xhaka simply used his own velocity against him. Aurier wanted that to be the moment, the clash that represented something greater because of the opponent. It was, instead, just another mistake. And one compounded by the refusal of Harry Winks to close Lacazette down.

 

11) Arsenal had a foothold. It called for calmer heads to prevail and discipline to be exhibited. Or Kolasinac and Luiz to offer their best impressions of Mamadou Sakho and Steven Gerrard to Son’s Demba Ba.

Kolasinac played a hospital ball back and while Luiz would generally respond by putting on his own gown, strapping himself into a stretcher and administering enough general anaesthetic to leave an entire fanbase numb, he could have done little else from there. Son had already sensed the opportunity and plotted his route to goal, which neither Luiz nor Martinez could impede.

To blame anyone other than Kolasinac for that goal would be wrong. Luiz was running in the opposite direction to a pass that was weighted peculiarly heavily. A faster, more nimble defender might have got there first but Son was in full sprint and Luiz actually did well to force him wide instead of diving in. He still shouldn’t be relied upon so regularly next season but, of the three starting centre-halves, offers the most.

 

12) Arsenal extended his contract and those of Cedric Soares and Pablo Mari for a reason: they are known quantities at a time when transfer risks should be discouraged more than ever. If the money was not there to shop in certain markets before, it certainly won’t be this summer.

As a result, clubs might target players they are more familiar with, those who would require no bedding-in period or adjustment to a new culture and lifestyle. And if the budget allows, Dani Ceballos is undoubtedly an option worth considering. He is the closest thing Arsenal have to a conduit between the midfield and attack, a neat and tidy player in possession and industrious and mobile out of it. In a team that has struggled with ball progression, Ceballos could comfortably be a starting block in the middle.

 

13) The Spaniard was also the only Arsenal player to create more than two chances. As Arteta has already shown himself capable of improving the defence without personnel changes, transforming the attack might actually be his biggest challenge.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is a phenomenal finisher and far more selfless than his reputation suggests, but the nature of the squad dictates he must play out wide. Lacazette is not a natural in the central role and Pepe could go far but currently flitters between predictable and erratic with little grey area. Saka and Nketiah have boundless potential that brings obvious issues in the present.

Fourteen teams have more shots per game than Arsenal, including West Ham and Norwich. Mesut Ozil has started little over half of the club’s Premier League games yet has still created more chances (37) than any teammate. They could desperately do with a player of that ilk and skill set, only not 31 and plagued by chronic back problems.

 

14) There was a flicker of something resembling the old Mourinho, from the formational change to counteract the strengths of the opponent to the winning goal scored by a centre-half from a corner. Arsenal’s threat often comes from wide, with Tierney almost guaranteeing at least one special delivery per game and Bellerin not quite as potent but still an obvious danger on the right. But Arsenal failed to record a single accurate cross all game. Someone more diligent and blessed with a far better laptop than I can research the last time that happened.

The point is, though, that Mourinho affected that. It was a result of his game plan, to “sacrifice” Lucas and the tireless Moussa Sissoko, that helped deliver a crucial victory at a key part of the season. It’s the old dog playing the classics, sure, but they clearly still have their place. Now to expand the repertoire; it can often be more difficult to accentuate your own positives than it is to nullify someone else’s, to create something rather than destroying it.

 

15) Arteta was right in saying that “if we minimise the mistakes that we do and keep playing like that, we’re going to win many football games”. That match was there for the taking until both manager and players took temporary leave of their senses. Just one competent centre-half and a ball-carrying midfielder improves this team immeasurably. As frustrating as the statistic is – and as decontextualised as it can be – the league-leading 15 dropped points since Arteta was appointed would have Arsenal third had they all been converted. It will be a slow evolution but at least it feels tangible.

 

16) Did Mustafi really have an on-target overhead kick or has the rona finally rendered my subconscious as babbling a mess as my conclusions?

Matt Stead

 

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