Arsenal 2-2 Tottenham: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Sunday 1st September 2019 8:44

1) Contrary to popular belief, there were two genuine winners from Sunday’s north London derby. As Arsenal and Tottenham scrapped to the most ridiculous of draws in a hearty game of competitive incompetence, Liverpool and Manchester City must have wondered what all the fuss was about.

The gap from second to third was a chasmic 25 points last season, but it feels like two completely separate divisions already this campaign. Liverpool and Manchester City are so far ahead of their supposed nearest challengers in terms of their development that it’s almost painful. Arsenal and Tottenham are just two members of a chasing pack that is already being lapped.

 

2) Neither side will be delighted with either the result or their respective performances, but the general feeling at full-time provided a neat microcosm of where both sides currently are. Arsenal will be disappointed to have drawn, while Tottenham ought to be relieved they held on for a point. The trajectories might well change countless times before the end of the season, but this did come across as a game between one side still finding its feet at the start of a journey and the other losing its footing as it approaches a crossroads. Both are far from the end.

 

3) Not that Arsenal are enjoying anything resembling a stroll under Unai Emery. This was more of a progressive 90-minute stumble during which they almost lost their balance more than once.

Alexandre Lacazette’s goal might well have changed the course of their entire season. Had Arsenal gone in 2-0 down at half-time, the toxic atmosphere that plagued Arsene Wenger’s final days would have returned. The Gunners were backed as favourites at home to an injury-riddled team in disarray and were contriving to lose to themselves rather than the opposition. The camel’s back was straining under the weight of a defence made entirely out of straw.

That stoppage-time strike turned the tide, shifted momentum completely and possibly rescued Emery. At the very least it has granted him considerably more time, as a convincing defeat would have felt almost terminal.

But Arsenal proved their mental strength in recovering from a two-goal deficit against their most bitter rivals. What’s more, it could not have been more obvious what works and what really, emphatically does not. Now for Emery to implement the former.

 

4) Mauricio Pochettino will and should be furious. He would be perfectly justified in kicking Paul Merson, but the pundit ought to be at the back of a queue consisting of Tottenham players.

Perhaps the most worrying thing is that Tottenham almost accidentally established their two-goal lead. They were the better side in the first half but neither goal was particularly well-crafted or unstoppable. They were, like a Tim Henman Wimbledon semi-final defeat, the result of unforced errors.

When Arsenal stopped shooting themselves in the foot, Tottenham started firing blanks. Harry Kane hit the post and Christian Eriksen forced a save from Bernd Leno, but 17 shots to five in the second half was indicative of a team battling the tide. They deserve credit for just about staying afloat, but not much.

 

5) To draw from a position of such strength further exposes one of Tottenham’s greatest weaknesses under Pochettino. Since his appointment in summer 2014, they have faced Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and both Manchester clubs away a combined 27 times. Their tally of wins from those games stands at just three, with a rate of 0.66 points per game.

They are obviously the toughest assignments possible and, as such, there is no easy solution or answer. But that record is abysmal. Tim Sherwood took three points from three games against fellow Big Six opposition during his reign. Forget the lack of trophies; the travel sickness on such decisive trips is the biggest genuine mark against Pochettino as a manager at this level.

 

6) While the Argentine was making what he felt was the best of a bad situation by starting Davinson Sanchez at right-back, Arsenal suffered from a problem entirely of their manager’s own creation. His selection of an absolute condom of a midfield – one that prioritises protection but, placed under enough pressure, leaves an almighty mess – was their undoing.

Lucas Torreira has his strengths. Matteo Guendouzi has his strengths. Granit Xhaka, presumably, has his strengths. But none of them were initially given the platform to show them in a passive midfield three behind a forceful attacking trio. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe were constantly pushed up to try and force Tottenham mistakes, but it created a conundrum for the midfielders: either cover the space immediately behind them and expose the defence, or sit in front of the back four, leave a huge gap in the centre and struggle to create anything meaningful.

How Emery must have regretted Arsenal not signing a midfielder blessed with ingenuity and craft in the summer. How curious that they most dominant period came with Dani Ceballos on the pitch and Guendouzi given more of an opportunity to advance.

 

7) Tottenham revelled in that space that Arsenal left. Every time the hosts had an attack that broke down they were subjected to a ferocious break, more often than not led by Heung-min Son.

He was, if not the architect of the opener, the main builder. Tottenham relieved a little pressure through Hugo Lloris’ long kick, which found the head of Harry Kane. His flick fell into the path of Son, who carried the ball just long enough and timed his pass perfectly for Erik Lamela. His shot was saved but Eriksen applied the subsequent finish. They were Tottenham’s first two attempts – had Arsenal been lulled into a false sense of security?

 

8) Bernd Leno’s save was poor. There has been some support for the German and plenty of defending – ironically – his part in the goal, but Lamela’s shot was pretty weak. He somehow contrived to palm it into the path of the only onrushing Tottenham player.

But the majority of the blame must be apportioned elsewhere. To Sokratis for inexplicably rushing out to challenge a header Xhaka was already competing for (albeit poorly). To David Luiz for similarly racing out of position to either close Son or track Kane’s run, while not actually succeeding in doing either. To Shkodran Mustafi, for probably teaching both of them their techniques.

Luiz’s mistake was the most damaging, particularly after a similar rush of blood to the head against Liverpool. This was less “controlled by a 10-year-old on PlayStation” and more ‘controller disconnected’. But it was a reminder that Arsenal are still without Rob Holding, Calum Chambers, Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney. That is an entire defence that, while less adept on the ball and suited to Arsenal’s possession-based tactics than Luiz, offer more stability and consistency.

 

9) On the contrary, Tottenham have not looked defensively sound all campaign. They have one clean sheet in their last nine Premier League games and a defence that never really settles in terms of personnel. Kieran Trippier’s sale was compounded with the early-season absence of Jan Vertonghen, whose return was expected to instil more dependability. But that was countered with the presence of Sanchez at right-back, who understandably struggled.

Danny Rose had no such excuse at left-back, while Vertonghen was partially at fault for both goals. Only Aston Villa (19.3) have conceded more shots per game in the Premier League than Tottenham this season (17.8); only five conceded fewer than them last campaign (12.1). That must be a fault of not only personnel but system and approach. You don’t need me to tell you it’s unsustainable.

 

10) Context is key. A midfield pairing of Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko is hardly ideal with regards to defensive work. If passing and work-rate is the demand then they will fulfil it. Winks fared wonderfully with six tackles but Tottenham were overrun in that second half.

The impact of Giovani Lo Celso was understated but crucial. He did not misplace a single pass and even bought a foul to relieve the pressure. Arsenal had already equalised by the time of his introduction but, parachuted straight into the eye of a storm, he simply put on his best waterproofs and armed himself with a heavy-duty umbrella. Lo Celso was crucial in helping slow the game down which, at that point, was an unenviable task.

His integration into the first team and Tanguy Ndombele’s return to fitness will be of vital importance to Tottenham. The sooner both happen, the better.

 

11) What Lo Celso and Ndombele do best is exert control and counter panic. Xhaka is so often guilty of the opposite.

“He is naturally not a great tackler. It is more the way he tackles that is not convincing. I would encourage him not to tackle, to stay on his feet.

“Tackling is a technique that you learn at a young age but when you are face to face you stand up.”

That was Arsene Wenger discussing the Swiss in January 2017. If the message hasn’t got through by August 2019, it probably never will. The only solution is for Arsenal to keep one of their defensive midfielders as far away from their own area as possible.

One successful tackle, seven fouls and only a second-half stoppage-time booking is actually vaguely impressive. No more so than the fact he is still a regular starter, mind.

 

12) That Xhaka foul on Son provided a few moments of genuine sitcom hilarity: the way he immediately leapt to his feet and forlornly protested his innocence; the way that, if you listened hard enough, you could just about hear a few smatterings of ‘oh, f*** off’ from the home fans; the angle of one of the replays that showed a couple of ballboys react to the tackle by putting their disbelieving heads straight into their hands.

For those who doubt that supporting Arsenal can be a form of crushing self-punishment, watch both Xhaka’s penalty-conceding tackle and the opening goal. The audibly infuriated collective groan that echoed around the stadium for both was sensational. Again, Arsenal should be commended for turning that around because the atmosphere really could have destroyed them.

 

13) The foibles of 26-year-old international captain Xhaka were further laid bare by 20-year-old midfield partner Guendouzi. The Lacazette goal was the shot in the arm Arsenal needed, with his compatriot’s pressing supplying the bullet. Their youngest player soon looked like their most mature.

Guendouzi was excellent in the second half. He displayed remarkable character and composure, but most notably intelligence, to dominate Tottenham. Having been moved out to the left to accommodate Xhaka in the first half, he was moved central to incredible effect after half-time. The assist for Aubameyang was perfect, his performance game-changing.

 

14) But the chance to win the game might have been wasted five minutes before Arsenal even equalised. Taking Lacazette off was questionable but can be justified if Emery felt he was flagging. Replacing him with Henrikh Mkhitaryan will be difficult to rationalise.

Tottenham were parked in their own half. Their defence was under the spotlight, not least an out-of-position Sanchez. The guile of Mesut Ozil, the trickery of Reiss Nelson and the drive of Joe Willock waited on the bench. But the mediocrity of Mkhitaryan was called upon to finally swing the pendulum.

That Arsenal soon equalised should not mask how poor a substitution it was. They levelled the score in spite of Emery, not because of him.

 

15) Pepe has already received some undue criticism for his Arsenal displays, such is the life of a new signing. Those who hit the ground running are instantly brilliant purchases, while the rest are wastes of money. There is no in between.

There have been comparisons to Daniel James, suggestions that he has no end product, outlandish claims in the desperate search for retweets, validation or both. But Pepe had seven shots, created two chances, assisted one goal and completed twice as many dribbles as any other player for either side. At least wait a little longer than two starts against both Champions League finalists to pass your final judgement.

 

16) Pochettino’s post-match comments continued a recent theme of bemoaning his current position. He has done more than enough to earn a stage for his weekly smallest violin recitals.

“Tomorrow I’m so happy because tomorrow is going to finish the transfer window,” he said, describing these past few weeks as some of his toughest. “Because we have massive quality, we need to be all on the same page.

“We start from tomorrow being all on the same page, working hard to win games and be in a position we deserve to be.”

After the PR battle, this is a welcome peace treaty. The reaction to an indifferent – hardly cataclysmic – start has been typically hyperbolic. These are the Champions League runners-up with a better squad than last season, a side that often starts slowly as it builds towards its peak at the busiest time in the middle of the campaign. Arsenal will be happier with their Sunday lot, but Pochettino’s latest crisis is surely over.

Matt Stead

 

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