1) You could have held it at Pride Park, nicknamed it ‘The Rams’ and preceded it with the words ‘Frank Lampard’s’ and you still wouldn’t have had a more pure, unadulterated, wonderful derby. Arsenal and Tottenham showed how a true rivalry should be played out on Sunday.
It was pulsating and engaging, a rollercoaster of a match which one team led, squandered then led again, while the other fought back for the honour of losing. There were goals, penalties, pyro, fights, red cards and an unhealthy dollop of one Michael Dean. It was, all in all, an absolute classic.
2) The story of Arsenal’s season so far can be plotted out quite neatly over the months. August was an eye-opening, chastening experience that proved how far behind their rivals they were. September was an improvement, but that was more a reflection of the inferiority of the opposition than Arsenal’s own evolution. October was a similar story, while November saw the comparative wobble of three draws in five games.
How fitting then that December is the moment Arsenal are finally considered one of the Premier League’s best teams in their own right. There is no ‘but’ attached to their brilliance, no asterisk placed against their awesomeness. This was not a victory over Qarabag that can be overlooked, nor a defeat of Fulham that can be scoffed at. Those were whispers in comparison to this statement win against a supposedly better side far further ahead in their evolution. Arsenal are unbeaten in 19 games, are fourth in the Premier League table with over one-third of the season gone, and are there on merit. Sleep on them at your peril.
3) Quite how much can be read into this defeat for Tottenham is difficult to say. The team selection set the tone for a performance tainted by naivety and poor decision-making. But this feels more like an outlier than proof of a wider problem.
That will do nothing to dilute the disappointment. The frustration is that Tottenham actually fought back from adversity, recovering from a nightmarish start to find themselves in dreamland at 2-1 up after 34 minutes. Then came the relapse: a lead they had stolen in three first-half minutes was lost in as many in the second period.
The absence of the calm-headed Toby Alderweireld was a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the foot, while hindsight suggests the confident passing of Harry Winks was sorely missed too. After playing the Chelsea and Inter Milan games to perfection, this was perhaps a step too far for both the manager and his players.
4) Mauricio Pochettino seemed to over-complicate the task at hand while Emery simplified the equation put in front of him. Juan Foyth started alongside Jan Vertonghen for the first time ever in the Premier League, as Tottenham deployed a high line against the notoriously slow and plodding Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The visitors were also over-run in wide positions as they matched the combination of Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s movement and Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac’s overlaps with a diamond midfield. The amount of space Arsenal enjoyed on the wings was alarming, yet Tottenham still led at half-time.
The difference between these two mistake-ridden sides was negligible, yet the respective reactions to a strange first half could not have been more diverse. Emery changed tack completely, changing formation by bringing off Iwobi and Mkhitaryan at half-time and replacing them with the more central threats of Aaron Ramsey and Alexandre Lacazette.
Pochettino might as well not have noticed. Tottenham changed neither personnel nor system, the manager trying to answer completely different questions with the same answers as before.
By the time Matteo Guendouzi came on as Arsenal’s third substitute in the 71st minute, Tottenham had still not made a single change of their own and were now level. Only when Arsenal equalised did he alter things ever so slightly, dropping Eric Dier into a back three while a fit Alderweireld watched on from the bench. Three minutes later, the hosts were in front.
Pochettino made his first substitution in the 79th minute, by which point they were 4-2 down and the game was beyond them. As incredible a job as he has done in north London, he was completely and utterly outmanoeuvred here by both his own stubbornness and Emery’s invention.
5) “We cannot impose our ideas in the first 45 minutes, but in the second half we have the chance and the opportunity to change the result,” Emery admitted after Arsenal’s 1-0 victory away at Sporting Lisbon in October in a game they were drawing at half-time.
“I think we did that in the 45 minutes of the second half. But we need to continue finding the solution for us to be better in the first halves.”
The conundrum seemed to finally be solved on Sunday. Arsenal burst out of the blocks, refusing to afford Tottenham a single second to think or even breathe. The right side of their defence looked vulnerable, with Serge Aurier hardly the most reliable of safety nets for the inexperienced Juan Foyth, and Arsenal were ruthless in targeting the pair.
The Gunners attempted three crosses in the opening three minutes from three different players. They pressed their opponents relentlessly, forcing more turnovers than a Dragon’s Den pitch. And their reward came when Aubameyang duly dispatched a penalty conceded by the wandering hands of Jan Vertonghen.
It was a completely deserved goal. Arsenal had 67% possession and had misplaced just six passes altogether by the time they took the lead. They have been in front in the first half of just four of their 14 league games this season; that two of those have come in their last two fixtures suggests Emery’s message is finally getting through.
6) That said, Arsenal’s breakthrough was not due to their own brilliance. Instead, Tottenham themselves were the catalysts. A hat-trick of mistakes handed the initiative to their rivals.
First came Aurier’s failed interception. That was followed immediately after by Foyth’s indecision, which Aurier sought to make up for by fouling Aubameyang near the touchline. The right-back launched into an impassioned rant at the young centre-half for failing to close the forward down, yet it was his error that created the problem in the first place. Foyth was far from blameless and was caught sleeping, but only after Aurier had tucked him in and bid him goodnight.
To complete the set, Vertonghen inexplicably handled Granit Xhaka’s free-kick. On only the fourth Premier League start of his career, 20-year-old Foyth should expect better support from his 31-year-old and 25-year-old international teammates. Aurier in particular was far too keen to pass the buck to an easy target, hardly the example a senior player should be setting.
7) If Aurier’s woeful display was to be expected despite his recent improvements, Vertonghen’s was surprising. A late – and completely deserved – red card summed up his afternoon. Pochettino made a mistake in starting Foyth, yet it speaks volumes that he was not Tottenham’s worst centre-half.
There was no leadership from the Belgian, no sign that he could push the team on from the back. Vertonghen made one tackle to Foyth’s seven, and two clearances to his six. He was thrown in at the deep end on only his second game back from injury, but he drowned in a pool of his own incompetence.
8) The challenge for Arsenal was how they would respond to an unfamiliar position of early superiority. They would not be able to keep up the intensity for the entire game, so the onus was on them to exert control instead of chasing for once.
For 20 minutes, they fared very well. Aubameyang and Iwobi should both have done better when played in by Kolasinac, while Ben Davies had to be alert to block Bellerin’s attempt. Arsenal made twice the number of crosses as Tottenham (22 to 11) as they proved a quite literal pain in the side.
“You could see Emery talking about getting wide, that’s the areas where you can hurt them and Bellerin and Kolasinac were wide,” Ian Wright said after the Liverpool draw, and it was a similar story here. Arsenal have some phenomenal attacking players in central positions, but their main danger is in making you forget how much damage they can do from the wings.
9) But as ever, Arsenal can be their own worst enemy. “When we are pushing with Hector Bellerin wide we need some players for balance,” Emery said after last week’s win at Bournemouth, noting a possible chink in the armour. When they eventually settled, Tottenham exploited it to the fullest degree.
Heung-min Son created their first real opportunity out of nothing, dribbling past three defenders before firing low at Bernd Leno. That was in the 23rd minute. Ten minutes later, Tottenham were ahead, and both goals came down that left-hand side: Bellerin’s flank.
First came Sokratis’ unnecessary foul on the South Korean when he was running away from goal, reminiscent of Aurier’s earlier challenge on Aubameyang. Dier nodded home from the subsequent free-kick. And Arsenal had barely settled by the time Son raced through and won a penalty after Rob Holding dived in. There was minimal contact, but it was a terrible decision from the player on an afternoon of central defensive brainfarts.
It took them time, but Tottenham finally learned how to make Arsenal’s greatest strength their main weakness. The hosts were right to remove that option after the break, and it exposed Tottenham’s lack of ideas thereafter.
10) Within 11 minutes of the restart, Emery’s double substitution had paid off in full. Jose Mourinho spent much of Saturday stressing that “simplicity is genius”, and Arsenal offered irrefutable proof 24 hours later. Bellerin found Ramsey’s fine run, with the Welshman’s pass inside to Aubameyang as excellent as the first-time finish. In just three touches, Arsenal went from their own half to Hugo Lloris’ goal.
It is a minority that admittedly diminishes with each passing game, but show that goal to anyone who insists Emery has changed little to nothing since Arsene Wenger’s tenure. Arsenal passed straight through an elite opponent instead of around them, taking the most direct route to goal possible. It was utterly ruthless and utterly brilliant.
11) Ramsey changed the game completely – and do not underestimate just how bold a call his introduction was. Iwobi and Mkhitaryan might deem themselves unlucky to have been taken off so early, as they were hardly to blame for the first-half mini-implosion. But it felt like a pre-planned approach. This was Tottenham’s third game in eight days after facing Chelsea and Inter Milan. Pochettino spoke of an exhaustion both mental and physical after the match, and Emery seemed to want to play on it.
In also bringing on Alexandre Lacazette and giving four fine forwards 45 minutes each, Emery maximised their times on the pitch. Their energy levels were higher, their effectiveness multiplied against a tiring defence that struggled to keep up with different challenges.
Ramsey was the most troublesome. With just 15 passes, he registered two assists, and restored that first-half aggression with two tackles, one of which created Lacazette’s goal. It was the kind of performance that makes you wonder why he is being allowed to leave in the summer.
12) Lucas Torreira was immense in midfield, and revelled in applying icing to this most delectable of cakes. His run left Eric Dier – and Tim Sherwood – rather embarrassed, and his finish was exquisite.
The pass was sublime, the role-reversal completed as Aubameyang carried the ball through midfield before picking Torreira out. It rounded off a complete performance from the Gabon international, whose ability on the ball is often masked due to his prowess in front of goal. He completed a higher percentage of his passes (89.5%) than any Tottenham starter.
13) A word for that prowess in front of goal though, as Aubameyang is central to the idea that Arsenal’s run is unsustainable. A team outperforming their xG at such ridiculous levels cannot possibly carry on doing so throughout an entire league season.
With such elite finishers, why not? Aubameyang is scoring with nearly one-third of all his Premier League shots (32.2%), while Lacazette (20%) is not too far behind. It is no coincidence that Manchester City are the only team to outscore Arsenal this season; the league leaders are the only side with better attacking options.
14) The game started with Arsenal swarming their opponents in possession, and ended much the same way too. Lloris (54.8%), Aurier (69.2%), Foyth (63.6%) and Vertonghen (68.6%) fared miserably against the press, with Davies (85.2%) the only defender whose pass accuracy points to a confidence – or at least a competence – on the ball.
By comparison, Kolasinac (72.7%) was the only Arsenal defender to register a pass accuracy lower than 88.9%, as the hosts had a much greater, more reliable platform from which to build, assisted ably by Tottenham’s complete ineffectiveness and passivity off the ball.
15) Quite why Alderweireld was rested while Sissoko was allowed to complete his third full match in eight games is beyond the minds of mere mortals like you or I. The Frenchman has been wonderful recently, but this game required an energy he could not be expected to deliver.
Arsenal relished the space afforded to them by a tired midfield. Sissoko made one tackle and no interceptions, offering minimal resistance to a team that only grew in stature. Again, much of the difference was due to the substitutions, with Emery ensuring to remain as fresh as possible at all times, and Pochettino allowing his goods to pass their use-by date.
16) There goes that power shift. This was supposed to be the season where Arsenal were in transition, when they started their daunting post-Wenger journey and, like all fallen dynasties before them, would struggle for years in the wilderness. Manchester United are still trying to find their way more than five years after Sir Alex Ferguson left; how would Arsenal fare in worse conditions?
Wenger’s work in his final years at the Emirates Stadium may never be respected for what it was. He was largely to blame for a gradual depreciation in results and performances, but he also oversaw their first steps into life without him. He rid the club of most of its deadwood, helped put in place a more secure body of power, and bequeathed upon his successor an excellent squad that could be moulded in their image. Emery deserves immense credit for taking Arsenal back to their seat at the top table in record time, but Wenger pulled the chair out for him.