Man Utd and Arsenal have presented Tottenham with their path to the Champions League. Antonio Conte’s men won’t look a gift horse in the mouth…
Mikel Arteta took it upon himself to apologise to Arsenal fans on behalf of his players last week. But the Gunners boss should be seeking atonement for his own mistakes that made amends impossible against Brighton, all the while inviting Spurs to strengthen their grip on fourth place.
Arsenal lost three goals and three points at Crystal Palace on Monday at the same time as being deprived of arguably their most important player. A thigh injury ended Thomas Partey’s evening at Selhurst Park prematurely and it remains unclear when the Ghanian might return. On today’s evidence, that cannot happen soon enough for Arteta.
Since the turn of the year, Partey has excelled at the base of Arsenal’s midfield. The big-money buy from Atletico Madrid struggled for much of his first year in north London but since returning from AFCON, Partey has found his feet, screening Arsenal’s back four off the ball while dictating their tempo on it and offering the Gunners’ most effective route out of any opponents’ press.
Partey was pocketed by Palace on Monday but the midfielder was hardly alone in having an off-night. A reaction was expected against Brighton but, largely because of Partey’s absence, it never came. At least not until they were 2-0 down at the Emirates.
Arteta had a couple of options to replace his midfielder. The first and simplest was to shift Granit Xhaka into a deeper role; another was to pair the Swiss midfielder with Albert Sambi Lokonga and allow the pair to share the burden. Instead, Arteta opted to give Lokonga the job of pivoting his midfield, which he has yet to prove capable of, hence why the 22-year-old has started only once since November.
Instead of double-pivoting with Xhaka, Arteta chose to field the midfielder at left-back, apparently reluctant to give Nuno Tavares another chance after his poor performance at Palace. It was a decision that backfired everywhere, with Lokonga swamped in a midfield that Partey might have danced through, while Xhaka looked every bit the central midfielder filling in as a full-back. There is obviously no like-for-like replacement for Partey in Arteta’s preferred system so the Arsenal manager may have to change his shape, especially if the Ghanian is missing for a large chunk of a tough-looking run-in.
There are no such concerns for Tottenham. Everything seems to be coming up Conte…
The Spurs boss was able to watch United and Arsenal soil themselves before naming an unchanged side to face a woefully inconsistent Aston Villa. Three minutes in Heung-min Son gave Tottenham a lead with a glorious waft of his left foot. The goal, though, served to rouse Villa and, if their tackling is any indication, anger them.
The Villans made sure there was a little something extra in every 50-50 and most of the 60-40s they contested. It was plainly a tactic decreed by Steven Gerrard, who pleaded for a 90-minute performance to be proud of. Villa got going more quickly this week than last Saturday at Wolves, but not before the early damage was done.
Matty Cash took it out on Matt Doherty, who has been so impressive in Spurs’ re-emergence in the top-four race under Conte. Doherty tried twice to carry on but a third check from the physio prompted the end of his afternoon. For Conte, though, the loss of a key man was no problem. It simply meant the arrival of Sergio Reguilon, who might argue that he offers better balance as a natural left-sider.
Seeing Doherty depart and Villa maintain their attempts to literally make their mark on their visitors might have seen Spurs wilt, or at least lapse in concentration. But Conte’s side were dead-eyed in their focus, asserting their retribution in front of goal.
7 – Hugo Lloris made seven saves in the opening 45 minutes against Aston Villa; since Opta have this data available (from 2006-07), it's the most by a Tottenham goalkeeper in the first half of any Premier League match. Resistance. pic.twitter.com/Rcau7gx4oi
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 9, 2022
Tottenham’s dominance was established with three goals glorious in their simplicity and a fourth that showcased their quality and superiority. Where a loose ball precipitated their opener, their second arrived via Route One, with Harry Kane nodding Hugo Lloris’s clearance into Dejan Kulusevski’s pass. Kane did the same again for Son’s second before the South Korean’s hat-trick came after Villa’s centre-backs, Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings, had been nutmegged and sat down respectively.
Spurs’ creative movements and their resistance in the face of Villa’s force offered the starkest contrast possible to what Manchester United phoned in at Goodison at lunchtime. Arsenal may have showed Tottenham a clear path to the Champions League, but it should not be forgotten that United allowed them a free run at Conte when the Italian was available.
Since Conte was appointed, only City and Liverpool have accrued more points, the last 12 of which have come as a maximum haul from four games that have put Tottenham in control of the fight for fourth. It’s hardly a foregone conclusion, with only three points separating Spurs and Arsenal who have a game in hand. But Conte’s side are purring and peaking while Arteta exacerbates the Gunners’ weakness.