1. Even when all the other big games let you down, you can always rely on the North London Derby. It’s not always to either or both side’s credit, but these games are almost never, ever dull. This was one of the strangest yet. This was a game in which a largely woeful Spurs contrived to make things as easy as possible for Arsenal, who still managed to make life uncomfortably difficult for themselves in a frantic final 10 minutes.
2. Arsenal don’t need to worry about that last 10 minutes right now, though, having secured a thoroughly deserved victory over their bitter rivals. And however big a win it was for the club, it’s a huge one for Mikel Arteta. Dropping Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to the bench for disciplinary reasons was a big and ballsy call for any game, not least this one. It makes a point to the rest of the squad about standards and who is in charge, but it would also have left Arteta wide open had things gone wrong. Even a slightly ponderous start as a new last-minute gameplan was adopted could have been so costly in a game that really did carry all Arsenal’s hopes of a meaningful conclusion to their Premier League season on it.
3. Arteta did address those frenetic closing moments afterwards, though. “Last 10 minutes we did not manage the game and we need to improve on as a team. We relied on luck. With the way we played we should have seen it out comfortably.” He’s right, both in acknowledging how well his team played and yet how close they came to another unnecessary self-inflicted wound
4. Arsenal, though, were very, very good in the first half. However much they surely couldn’t believe their luck that Spurs had got confused and played their recent attacking line-up but with their seemingly discarded negative tactics, the Gunners went for their dozing opposition from the first whistle and entirely dominated the first 45 minutes. This never felt like the first half at White Hart Lane 2.0 back in December when Arsenal’s non-threatening dominance was simply them stumbling naively, blindly into the precise trap Spurs had set. Arsenal were a constant threat, hammered shots off crossbar and post and could have been out of sight in a breathtaking first 20 minutes. If Aubameyang was, as reports suggest, dumped from the starting line-up for being late he can consider himself unfortunate: after 25 minutes of the actual match there was still no sign of any Spurs player turning up.
5. And when one eventually did, he hadn’t even been in the starting line-up. Indeed, the costliest element of Spurs’ almost sarcastically passive first 15 minutes here may be the fact that Heung-Min Son spent 15 minutes standing around in the cold before being called upon to run. Twang went a hamstring, with all manner of possible repercussions for the weeks ahead. There had been growing signs in recent weeks of his exertions catching up with him, and this looked like a classic fatigue injury. But on his place came Erik Lamela, a player of many faults (more on that later) but one who always, if nothing else, brings energy and a sense of danger and excitement to proceedings. You don’t know if it will be good, bad, purely sh*thouse, or some combination of all three, but you know there will be something.
Nothing has ever been nailed more thoroughly than Spurs Twitter’s Bankrupt Spurs describing a Lamela substitute appearance as being like Flashheart turning up in an episode of Blackadder. Precisely the same energy. Today, he simply introduced himself by scoring perhaps the most absurd goal in the history of this fixture and quite possibly this league, arrowing a precision-engineered rabona finish through the legs of a defender and into the bottom corner. Freddie Ljungberg – who has seen some things – called it the best goal he’d ever seen. “He even manages to get curl on it.” Lamela being Lamela, it might not even be the best rabona goal he’s scored for Spurs. A ludicrous moment of audacious brilliance from a man who will do quite literally anything to avoid using his right foot.
6. Two other points about that goal. First, a semi-serious one: it was the first and only time in the first half that Spurs got Sergio Reguilon into any kind of attacking position. That feels important. Second, less important but still worth noting, what a disappointing bit of commentary. If ever a goal deserved a Neville orgasmoshriek or even a Martin Tyler special, it was surely this. Alan Smith can’t be entirely blamed for failing to muster enthusiasm for it, but Tyler will surely look back and be a bit disappointed with that. He’s got to do better there for me, Alan.
7. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. One of the myriad absurdities with Lamela’s goal was that it was the first and only time Spurs did anything of note in the opening 45 minutes. Against a team full of defensive demons and with their star striker relegated to the bench in controversial and slightly mysterious circumstances, a Spurs team that had scored 15 goals in five matches since an apparent epiphany at West Ham reverted painfully to stodgy, defensive type. But so much of that was down to Arsenal. In a way, the absence of Aubameyang seemed to energise them. Bukayo Saka was a menace down the right, but the key threat throughout the half came from Kieran Tierney and the superb Emile Smith-Rowe on the left. Both faded slightly in the second half, but their work by then was done. Matt Doherty had a truly horrible afternoon, admittedly not helped by the total absence of support being provided by Gareth Bale in front of him, but the Arsenal duo exploited it superbly. Half a dozen times it could have led to a goal, rendering moot the observation that when that combination and an inevitable Doherty foul-up did finally help Arsenal bring the scores level there was an element of good fortune to Martin Odegaard’s deflected finish.
8. The first half might have been the best 45 Premier League minutes of Arteta’s reign, given everything: the occasion, the trip to Greece, Aubameyang’s misdemeanour. Arsenal played near faultlessly to their plan in that first half and the fact they only ended it level was, in a way, one of its most impressive elements. Arsenal never looked like wilting or withering when falling behind so absurdly. To concede to your opponent’s first attack when you have played so well is tough in any game. In one so highly-charged and with Arsenal still so brittle mentally and with the goal itself being so utterly absurd, it could have caused a full unravelling. While the last 10 minutes of the second half showed Arsenal still have work to do, the last 10 minutes of that first half, in which Arsenal dusted themselves down, carried on as they had played before the goal and duly got their equaliser thanks to yet another attack down the profitable trade route on Spurs’ undermanned and underpowered right-hand side showed that there is progress being made.
9. And so too the penalty, which came at an important time for Arsenal. They were still on top, but not quite so thoroughly as before the break. Mourinho, desperately trying to find a midfield foothold, had withdrawn Bale and Ndombele – both looking extremely leggy for their recent endeavour – and brought on Moussa Sissoko and Dele Alli in what amounted to a large-scale midfield reshuffle. Arsenal’s second goal arrived at just the right moment for the home side, before those changes could take effect. Spurs, still feeling their way into their new shape, gave possession away easily from a goal-kick, and Davinson Sanchez committed a nonsense on Alexandre Lacazette just as he prepared to shoot. Again, like everything in that first hour, there was much to admire in Arsenal’s pressing and precision, while Spurs’ abject clownery finally got the punishment it deserved. Lacazette’s penalty was pure and precise to provide the fitting coda to that little passage of play.
10. And for all Spurs’ protestations, there was no doubt about the decision. Lacazette’s slice-cum-air-kick is irrelevant. Sanchez, much improved recently and otherwise pretty decent here in an unnecessarily desperate and fraught Spurs rearguard, absolutely clatters him in an unnecessarily desperate and fraught moment. It’s a penalty.
11. At this point, you already know where Mourinho will go with this. Individual errors, silly mistakes, bit of bad luck. A deflection and a penalty and suddenly you’re behind, what can you do? But really it was just Mourinhoball exposed for the deeply flawed strategy it is in all but a handful of very specific games. Scoring from your one shot on goal – in itself an absurdly unlikely and unpredictable one – and then relying on perfect defensive performances and zero misfortune is not safety-first, low-risk football, it’s the highest-risk game you can play. Before this game, Mourinho talked big. “I look up, I don’t look down. If Arsenal was seven points ahead of us, I’d look to them. But because we have seven points more than them, I don’t look down.” And yet this was how he set his side to play. Arsenal were not treated as inferiors or even equals, but rather giants to be cowered from. This isn’t pragmatism, it’s ideological destruction. It really did seem recently as if a penny had dropped, as well. We were fools.
12. And there is no more damning indictment of just how badly Mourinho got it wrong than those final 15 minutes. Despite being down to 10 men, Spurs – fresh out of alternatives by this point, of course – finally went at that fragile Arsenal defence. They decided that playing in a way that allowed the chance for Harry Kane to touch the ball might be a good idea. Suddenly Arsenal’s defence had at least 14 obvious vulnerabilities. Sure enough, Arsenal, having cruised through 75 minutes scarcely able to believe their luck, were suddenly jittery and clinging on for dear life. Needless free-kicks were conceded. Corners were given away under zero pressure. Kane had a goal (rightly) disallowed and struck a post. The rebound was then cleared off the line. They would not have deserved it, but Spurs could so easily have left with a point. That’s not to their credit: it just exposes the tactical and technical paucity of the 75 minutes that preceded it.
13. Spurs were down to 10 men because Lamela had decided his afternoon needed a bit more pizzazz. The surprise was not that he saw a second yellow for an over-enthusiastic hand-off on Tierney, but that this was his first red card for Spurs. A player who has sailed very close to the wind on numerous occasions finally pushed his luck too far. Still, as long as he ends his Spurs career with a positive rabona to red card ratio, we should all be pretty happy. The second yellow here is probably slightly harsh in isolation, but there was another foul between his yellow and this one and it was pretty clear he was at the final warning stage. If we know Lamela like we think we know Lamela – and while we remain resolutely unsure whether he’s actually any good we know for sure we love him with all his heart – his frustration after the red card will be in large part that he finally saw red for an offence that was small and twatty rather than something with a bit more spectacle or at least bruising.
14. Arteta had made a pre-match talking point of the switching of Tottenham’s Europa League first leg against Dinamo Zagreb, a move that was ostensibly supposed to benefit Arsenal – as cup winners they outrank Spurs among England’s Europa League entrants and thus got to keep the supposed advantage of playing the second leg at home. The mischievous fixture computer though, always up for a wheeze or a scheme, had plonked this fixture on this weekend and rather scuppered that. Spurs would stay at home, while Arsenal had to get to Greece and back ahead of a crunch NLD. Atop all this was the inherent absurdity of UEFA, which has readily and understandably shunted games to neutral venues throughout the Champions League and Europa League knockout rounds to keep the whole show on the road, still sticking rigidly to a rule that says two teams cannot play in the same city on the same night when this matters not one single jot if those games are behind closed doors. Arteta needn’t have worried, though. Arsenal, who managed to sneak in a bit of warm-weather training in the sunshine on Friday morning before making their leisurely way back to London looked rested and rejuvenated for the trip. It was Spurs who were leggy and ponderous. Bale and Ndombele were notable disappointments, while the startling thing about Son’s injury is really how few of these sorts of setbacks Spurs have suffered in a season of a million matches.
15. Odegaard’s goal had a sliver of fortune, but it was deserved reward for another hugely encouraging performance. He is starting to show the quality we all know he possesses and a pass completion rate of 96.5% in a display full of forward-thinking, progressive play is particularly impressive. The only Arsenal player to exceed that pass completion was Smith-Rowe with 97.3%. While it may have been Lacazette – a wily 29-year-old veteran – who so calmly scored the winner, this was an Arsenal win built on match-turning performances from youngsters. The future might be bright for Arsenal after all. Now they just need to convince Real Madrid that Odegaard is no good so they should probably just let him go. On the subject of Arsenal players who were incredibly impressive today: When on earth did Kieran Tierney find time to make six tackles in a game he spent the first three-quarters of playing as a left-winger?
16. There are a great many very reliable indicators of historical Spursiness that go back way beyond this squad and this manager. One of the best ones is taking the lead at the Emirates. Spurs have now led in seven of the last 10 North London Derbies in the Premier League here, and won none of them. The year before that run started they did manage to win here, having led for precisely five minutes in that game and trailed for 58.
For Spurs, this latest Emirates failure deals a huge but not quite fatal blow to top-four hopes in a weekend when other results have been kind. That this was a chance to pull within three points of Chelsea with a game in hand is perhaps another thing to make their sleepy performance and inexplicable tactics all the more frustrating, should such a thing be needed for Spurs fans talking about their team making a bollocks of Arsenal away. They remain a slightly puzzling team, hard to judge from one week to the next. Yet it almost feels like their surprisingly decent defensive record can actually work as a criticism. Only four teams have conceded fewer than Tottenham’s 30 goals in the league this season, despite a seemingly unending catalogue of calamities and mistakes. But how much has been sacrificed to keep that number so low and at what overall cost? Leicester and Manchester United have both conceded more goals than Spurs this season. The extra ones they’ve scored currently feel rather more significant.