Mikel Arteta must look further upfield if he wishes to strive for perfection in every Arsenal position; Spurs are a whole new entity under Ange Postecoglou.
1) Once the dust settles, the fume subsides and the poorly weighted combined XIs are buried deep in the content underground, Arsenal and Tottenham will cut their losses, acknowledge they could have won but ultimately accept that a draw was probably a fair result.
Both had 13 shots, periods in the ascendancy, moments they ought to have capitalised upon and situations they will be glad to have escaped without further punishment. When two teams of this calibre meet there will be peaks and troughs for either side and neither can honestly say they deserved more than the shared point which keeps a pair of unbeaten records intact.
But beyond the result and respective performances, this was a north London derby to savour: two sets of excellent players under two wonderful coaches showing not only their best side, but also those elements of weakness and fragility which make them more human than robotic, more mortal than machine.
After their years spent wandering in the wilderness, stumbling over their own feet while trying to forge a different path to the one a transformative manager followed to help them dream, Arsenal and Tottenham have finally found the identity and meaning they had both craved for too long. Those are two teams to be proud of – and naturally infuriated with – as a supporter and to admire as a neutral.
2) The more negative perspective – for there must always be one when it comes to games of this magnitude – will emanate from the Arsenal camp. As the hosts and far more settled team the expectation was greater and it is difficult to see anything other than points being dropped when failing to win after taking the lead twice.
This would have been a decent result last season, but when the bar is as high as Manchester City keep raising it and the stated objective is to match them, a performance of this manner only looks worse.
Losing Leandro Trossard to injury shortly before the game, then Declan Rice at half-time, inevitably hampered their rhythm. But those were some peculiar substitutions from Mikel Arteta. The hard-working but ineffective Eddie Nketiah plays 100 minutes yet Gabriel Jesus is taken off? Bukayo Saka can hardly walk for a while before he is replaced deep in stoppage time? Emile Smith Rowe gets four minutes to impress and make an impact?
Even the change of Rice for Jorginho at the break, forced and perfectly understandable in the circumstances, backfired with the latter making the game-changing mistake for Tottenham’s second equaliser.
Arsenal have only just introduced the Champions League-branded plate to the collection they were spinning brilliantly but precariously before and already it looks like that squad is creaking under the weight of muscle injuries and imbalanced minutes.
3) “We don’t need to change our approach to measure ourselves against the best,” Ange Postecoglou once said while preparing Celtic for a match against Real Madrid. “What a great opportunity to play our football. If we’re not successful, fair enough. But let’s go down swinging rather than deferring to someone because they’re a good team.”
A subsequent 3-0 defeat to the European champions likely prompted some eye-rolling or candid discussions about pragmatism in certain quarters but Postecoglou’s belief in, well, The Process was similarly unwavering in the build-up to this game. And it transmitted to his players.
Even when Arsenal were at their most imperious, Spurs played out from the back and tried to beat the press with patient but purposeful passing. It was to their detriment a couple of times but that made it all the more impressive that they persisted with what they know and constructed the sort of moves like the one which sliced the opposition open in the 74th minute, when Cristian Romero, Pedro Porro and James Maddison combined to almost provide Heung-min Son the chance for his hat-trick.
There were isolated incidents when the risk did not outweigh the reward and the danger when sticking to one’s principles is that it is done for the sake of proving a point. But Postecoglou believes in his way and the ability and courage of his players to carry it out. They requited that with a commendable performance when it would have been easy to instinctively retreat into the shell the Australian’s predecessors often forced them into in such situations.
4) The strength of that Spurs approach, the reason it works so well, is that these players are not scared of making mistakes. Postecoglou knows misplaced passes are a natural by-product of this style but as long as the intention is positive, the idea is right and the players are enterprising and bold in what they are doing, imperfection in execution will be forgiven.
A difficult first half for Destiny Udogie was summed up by an under-hit back pass which forced Guglielmo Vicario into a save from Nketiah at his near post, but the Spurs keeper’s immediate reaction was to give a thumbs-up to his beleaguered team-mate for the general thought. Hugo Lloris would never. Jordan Pickford might have decapitated him there and then.
Not long ago that was the sort of pass which would have led to a furious reaction on the touchline, some post-match snide and a semi-permanent spot training with the reserves. That is an exaggeration and over-simplification, of course, but it is refreshing to see Spurs take something other than a safety-first, risk-allergic approach in such games. In any games, really.
5) With that said, Udogie did have a rough old time of it early on. His aggression and proaction in trying to quell the threat of Bukayo Saka led to a booking after a quarter of an hour and no player on either side made more fouls. The understandable suppression of the more combative aspects of the Italian’s brand of defending were evident in the opening goal and for a while it seemed as though Udogie was chasing his own tail.
But his response was phenomenal, a triumph of character as much as technique. Udogie played a crucial part in the first equaliser and, in the words of Postecoglou, “was the dominant player on that flank” by the end. That is testament to both player and manager; no-one would have been surprised if he had wilted under the pressure or a tactical change was made to offer either bench-based relief or more assistance from Brennan Johnson, but Spurs benefited from sticking to the initial plan.
Gary Neville went on and on and on about how much pressure Udogie was under and then… just didn't mention it when he came through it with calm, resilience and poise. Some fantastic defensive headers too. What a player.
— Chris Miller (@WindyCOYS) September 24, 2023
6) Perhaps it actually helped that most of these players were sampling their first north London derby together. The metamorphosis Spurs have experienced in such a short space of time – only Son, Pape Sarr, Dejan Kulusevski and Cristian Romero started both this game and the 2-0 home defeat to Arsenal in January – has created a strange dynamic. The Spurs that fans are supporting are essentially a different team to the one the players are representing. One carries the pessimism and despair of recent managerial eras with them; the other has no such negative baggage.
Micky van de Ven was phenomenal. Pedro Porro, too. Yves Bissouma was sensational after a difficult start and Son is back to his best. New signings, players discarded under previous regimes and those who lost their way: all are united and pulling in the same direction, no matter where they were going before.
7) Arsenal wholly deserved to open the scoring. Their pressure finally paid off when Martin Odegaard strolled through the middle and played it out to Saka, who took full advantage of the wide-open space Udogie provided as he cut inside and curled an effort towards goal. Romero dangled a lazy knee and it deflected past Vicario.
It was strange collective and individual defending from Romero, Udogie and Johnson, who seemed intent on tracking Benjamin White’s overlapping run into the stands if necessary.
That simple but effective movement from White made all the difference. His relationship on that flank with Saka is an underrated element of Arsenal’s forward play. Maybe don’t do the Thomas Partey thing ever again.
8) The moment it seemed like a mistake for Spurs to have such courage of their convictions was when Gabriel Jesus robbed Maddison of the ball in the area. The England international was facing his own goal when receiving the ball from Vicario and it should have been recycled out wide first time but his indecision allowed Jesus to dispossess him and elicit an ‘ohh’ from Gary Neville as the Arsenal striker stood unmarked, about 16 yards out.
Jesus could easily have carried it further but his instant shot seemed designed to catch Vicario off guard. Perhaps it did. But the fact Jesus also completely skied it did not help Arsenal’s cause. It was a peculiar snatch at a chance he could have taken much more time over and only added to the narrative about the Gunners lacking a truly instinctive goalscorer. Still, at least they signed a Kai Havertz.
9) The first real Spurs chance came soon after and actually developed from Vicario playing it a little longer, bypassing the first line of the Arsenal press and finding Sarr. A couple of short, first-time passes later and Kulusevski was in space down the right. The ball to the overlapping Son was excellent, as was the captain’s cutback to the waiting Johnson. But David Raya’s save, evoking memories of David Seaman against Paul Peschisolido a couple of decades ago, was stunning.
Big fan of the “what must Aaron Ramsdale be thinking” line on commentary, a matter of seconds before a replay was shown of the erstwhile Arsenal No. 1 applauding with his hands comically high above his head. It turns out he was thinking it was a pretty good save.
10) It would have been more interesting to know what Ramsdale was thinking a few minutes later, when Raya played an important part in Son’s first goal. Shame on whichever coward decided not to show that reaction.
The Spaniard bizarrely decided to punch a deep Sarr cross away under no pressure at the back post when the ball looked to be heading out. The Spurs attack was kept alive even after Raya saved from Johnson again, as Udogie headed to Maddison. His impeccable turn left Saka trailing and Son finished the near-post delivery exquisitely.
Raya’s distribution was also notably average – Vicario’s passing accuracy was better. It was an ordinary goalkeeping performance in truth but Arteta has created an unnecessary distraction and the infernal debate will only rage on, particularly after he completely bottled the chance to bring Ramsdale on.
11) The goalkeeper discourse invites scrutiny elsewhere, too, because if Arteta is so hellbent on upgrading in every position that Ramsdale is catching strays despite playing such a vital role in Arsenal’s evolution, then Nketiah cannot keep being given regular minutes.
His work ethic is not to be questioned but then nor does it override what a downgrade in quality he is compared to the rest of the attack. Nketiah is a fine Jesus alternative but 77 minutes of the pair playing together from the start leads to only one conclusion: it should never happen again.
At least Jesus excels in link-up play; Nketiah could not make anything stick when leading the line, which only made Raya’s continued attempts to play it long and find him more baffling. Spurs preyed on that fault to keep Arsenal penned in their own half for long periods; the hosts did not have a shot from the time of Saka’s converted penalty in the 54th minute up to Reiss Nelson’s blocked effort in the 84th.
Erling Haaland can get away with completing six passes in an entire game because he is Erling Haaland. Nketiah doing the same just emphasises how Arsenal are essentially at a disadvantage when he plays. Havertz is genuinely worth a try in the position the next time they need a Jesus alternative.
12) Maddison not only created that goal but orchestrated the move behind it with a sumptuous ball over the top from deep for Kulusevski. His role in the second, robbing the dallying Jorginho before timing and weighting the final pass to perfection, just underlined those decisive components to his game that easily go unnoticed due to pantomime villainy – in which he did indulge.
It is a pleasure to see Maddison thriving with such responsibility. Rarely has a club and player looked so instantly well-matched.
13) It was a handball; Romero was unfortunate. Those two views can be simultaneously held without feeling the need to say silly things about how defenders now need to have their limbs removed, or how no-one knows what a handball is anymore.
The laws can be difficult to interpret, self-defeatingly unclear and inconsistently applied. But also inadvertently blocking a goal-bound shot – inadvertently or otherwise – probably shouldn’t be allowed.
14) Credit to the cameraman who spotted the only fan in the stands at the Emirates who was literally biting their nails as Arsenal prepared to take one of their many stoppage-time corners. Symbolic narrative is always best when you’re slapped in the face with it.
15) It was quite disarming to see Udogie cleanly tackle Rice towards the end of the first half, or Sarr abruptly halt one of William Saliba’s strolls forward from deep close to full-time. The Arsenal centre-half was characteristically dominant in helping sweep up the Spurs counters which hoped to use Son and Johnson’s speed, but those moments neatly summed up the shift in momentum.
Arsenal established superiority by physically imposing themselves early on but it was Spurs who ended looking considerably stronger. Porro and Bissouma in particular were so good in not only matching that power but marrying it with glorious technical ability to play or drive forward.
16) Rob Jones had a pretty good game. Should have gone to the monitor for Son’s very-obviously-offside goal in the third minute, just to maximise the tension, but otherwise he managed the occasion well. And everyone on social media will undoubtedly agree.