Arsenal 2-2 Tottenham: Five Talking Points from the North London Derby
The North London Derby in the past decade has been one of the most hotly contested derbies in the Premier League. Last night’s edition was no exception as Arsenal and Tottenham churned out an exhilarating game that ended in both teams sharing points.
Arsenal, the home side, started out on the front foot but it was Tottenham who drew first blood. Bernd Leno weakly parried an Erik Lamela effort that fell straight to Christian Eriksen who simply tapped the ball in. The Dane’s 50th Premier League goal had given the Lilywhites the lead at their rivals’ fortress.
Leno atoned for his earlier mistake as he pulled off an acrobatic dive to deny Heung-min Son. The South Korean punched in a venomous curler from the edge of the box but the German was there to stop it.
Arsenal also created chances in the first half but Spurs doubled their advantage at the 40th minute. Harry Winks, after skillfully evading Ainsley Maitland-Niles, found Son inside the box. The South Korean released the ball to Eriksen but was hacked down by a clumsy challenge from Granit Xhaka. Martin Atkinson pointed to the spot and Harry Kane did the needful to make it to 2-0 to the visitors.
A 2-0 lead for Spurs, going into half-time, would have seen a different game play out. Alexandre Lacazette made sure Arsenal were still in the running with a breathtaking goal in stoppage time. He got on the end of a Nicolas Pepe pass, carved out Tottenham’s defense with his first and second touch and then blasted it past Hugo Lloris. To cap the goal, he celebrated by giving the Spurs’ section of the stadium a patented death stare.
The Gunners then absolutely dominated their rivals in the second half. Dani Ceballos’ introduction for Lucas Torreira allowed Arsenal to dictate play. This paid off dividends in the 70th minute as the home side equalized through Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The Gabonese diverted in a beautifully weighted ball from Matteo Guendouzi into the net.
Arsenal found the net again in the 80th minute following a scintillating piece of play from Ceballos and Sead Kolasinac. Danny Rose turned the ball into his own net while trying to prevent the rushing Sokratis Papastathopoulos. The comeback was complete for the Gunners, or so it seemed. A VAR check showed that Kolasinac was offside in the run up to the play and the goal was disallowed.
After that big moment, the match relatively simmered down in the last ten minutes as both teams ended up sharing points.
Matteo Guendouzi’s midfield masterclass
With the likes of Eriksen and Lucas Torreira on the pitch, few expected Guendouzi to boss proceedings in the middle of the park.
The Frenchman was sub-par in the first half. When Unai Emery shifted him to the base of his three man-midfield in the second half, Guendouzi was a radically different beast.
His work-rate shot up as he haggled the Spurs midfield with his constant pressing. The 20-year old Frenchman isn’t the most creative of players but he greatly improved his distribution in the second half.
His finest moment in the match was that superb assist for Aubameyang. In addition to that, he also had a fine effort that was saved brilliantly by Lloris.
This was Guendouzi’s finest performance in an Arsenal shirt and the Frenchman showed signs that he can be the future of Arsenal’s midfield.
Spurs and VAR – a love story for the ages
First up, the VAR decision was totally correct as Kolasinac was offside in the run-up to the play. I am not criticizing either the technology or Atkinson’s decision.
That being said, Spurs do have an affinity for VAR, especially against rivals.
VAR proved to be the difference maker against Manchester City twice. Once in the Champions League 2018-19 Quarterfinals and then in the second gameweek of this Premier League season.
Now, they had a favorable VAR decision in the North London Derby.
Clearly this is one footballing union that fans will be watching closely.
Tactical and selection questions for Unai Emery
Xhaka’s horror show would be posing multiple questions for Unai Emery. Despite being the captain, the Swiss is extremely unreliable. He came in as an error-prone midfielder and has not been able to improve on that facet of his game.
Xhaka’s passing range is fabulous and helps Arsenal in opening up defences and switching play. The midfielder, however, is only effective when he is afforded time – a luxury in the fast-paced Premier League. Quite simply, Xhaka can be easily pressed into making critical errors.
Defensively, he still remains a liability as seen by the bone-headed challenge on Son that led to the penalty.
Looking at Ceballos’ contribution in the game, one has to question Emery’s squad selection. Not only that, but also the decision to bring on Henrikh Mkhitaryan in place of the excellent Lacazette. The Armenian was underwhelming and I’m being polite here.
A midfield three of Guendouzi, Ceballos and Torreira could work for Emery. The Spanish manager’s midfield lineup, however, is directly linked to the forwards he wishes to play with.
Playing the front three of Aubameyang, Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe requires an industrious midfield that can help in defense. If he switches the forward line, then who slots in the number ten role? Amidst all of this, where does the mercurial Mesut Ozil fit in, considering the German is yet to make an appearance this season?
The white side of North London is a shadow of its former self
Mauricio Pochettino’s stupendous work with Tottenham deserves all the credit. He took Spurs from being a “banter team” to legit title contenders and Champions League runners-up. All of this, while playing football that was a good mix of pragmatism and adventurism.
Spurs’ form this season, however, is a far cry from what fans have been accustomed to. The team looks lethargic and withdrawn. The Lilywhites, critically, lack the dynamism that they displayed these past couple of seasons. Their midfield is unable to dictate play and that was one of the primary reasons why they gave up a two-goal lead.
There are rumors of a breakdown in relations between Pochettino and chairman, Daniel Levy. The latter has been criticized of not being able to retain players. Christian Eriksen’s transfer drama and Kieran Trippier’s unsavory comments after being sold to Atletico Madrid point to discontent in the Spurs locker room. Not to mention, the standoff with Jan Vertonghen which led to the Belgian being frozen out until this game.
The locker-room and boardroom issues are creeping onto the field for Tottenham. The bigger powers of Europe would kill to have a manager like Pochettino. Is this season the Argentine’s last as Tottenham boss? That’s one thing to keep an eye out for.
Do not expect Arsenal’s defending to improve this season
If Arsenal’s lineup was to be broken down into three components, then it would look something like this – the hood of a Formula 1 Mercedes, the mid-part of a BMW 3-series and the back of a Lada Riva. Such is the gulf in quality as you go further down the pitch.
Sokratis was overly-aggressive in the game and was lucky to not be booked earlier. David Luiz without the guidance of Antonio Conte is too inconsistent. Kolasinac is more of a wing-back than a full-back. Maitland-Niles is still a work in progress but is showing positive signs.
Arsenal’s defensive ineptitude was on display in this game. They allowed Lamela to get the ball too easily in the run-up to the first goal. Eriksen could also have been tracked better.
The second goal came off an insipid challenge and there’s not much the defense could do.
Three defenders, namely Hector Bellerin, Rob Holding and Kieran Tierney are still recovering and are expected to add to Arsenal’s defensive woes.
That expectation, however, is an optimistic one. Bellerin, while an improved product, is still not defensively sound. Tierney is an untested talent in the shark tank that is the Premier League. Holding had shown signs of brilliance last season but he is coming off a long-term injury and his contribution will most likely not be sudden.
Arsenal fans will have to keep groaning and lamenting over their defense for a longer time.
Cover image credits: www.premierleague.com