Tottenham Hotspur 0 – 1 Arsenal
0 – 1 Rosicky (2)
On a day when Arsenal had to win to keep their title hopes alive, they won. At a ground where they had not tasted victory, Arsenal won. The skies over North London remain resolutely red. Whatever argument may be put forward, the trump card of “It was good enough to beat Tottenham” will always lurk, unsaid but waiting to pounce.
Tomas Rosicky’s second minute strike was enough to win the match, it was so good that it deserved to win the match, a crisp, rising drive that curled majestically into the top corner with Lloris not so much straining to reach it but flailing helplessly in its vapour trail. Arsène Wenger’s choice to select the Czech international ahead of Mathieu Flamini found an immediate and definitive reward. Rosicky’s industry helped to protect the back four as Arsenal retreated into their shell and allowed Tottenham to press on with their ultimately futile attack.
It is hard to choose a Man of the Match with Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny both performing exceptionally to keep Tottenham at bay. Which was just as well since budding photographer Wojciech Szczesny chose the match to have a nervy ninety minutes where you were never quite sure what was coming next, particularly from crosses. And Tottenham had a lot of them. Lots of them yet they were delivered comfortably to either of the centre backs for the most part. It culminated when the Pole came and flapped at a cross and found his defence willing and able to clear up the mess, only to repeat the feat minutes later, leaving the goal at Chadli’s mercy. As the Tottenham striker took aim, he found formidable barriers in his way in the form of the Arsenal central defensive duo with Koscielny proving to be the final protector of the single goal lead.
The pair’s contribution was not overlooked by the manager,
They were exceptional for the whole game. They were already at Bayern I think and even after when Vermaelen came on we finished with the three [centre-backs] and they didn’t create the chances anymore.
It has long been perceived as a weakness, back through the various incarnations since The Invincibles where Wenger has struggled to find a reliable pairing. Now he has one and is being repaid by continually improved performances. It is reminscent of the Graham era and the early years of Wenger’s reign; a solid defensive pairing underpinning the progress from attack. He would no doubt prefer more goals from his central striker – we all would – but at the moment the midfield is compensating. Which was previously designated a problem as well.
No doubt that Arsène will look at the performance critically and be concerned how deeply his team retreated. Popular mythology will no doubt have Tottenham pinning them back but that wasn’t the case; Arsenal were comfortable in letting their opponents have the ball, perhaps confident that it would amount to little threat. It was the same at The Emirates as Mesut Özil contemplated life in the capital. Whilst it wasn’t the sort of performance which excites or enthrals, it was enough to win the game and on a weekend where rivals who needed to drop points did so, pressure emerged with Liverpool and Manchester City winning.
Wenger believes that influenced Arsenal’s match,
We were under pressure to win before the game because of course it was a very important game. After that it was a mixture, our early goal a little bit influenced too much the way we played because we missed the second goal and after that we wanted to protect the lead. Sometimes we were under pressure, Tottenham played well you must say. For me they were absolutely up for it and we needed some special resilience to get away with it.
There wasn’t much evidence of trying to get the second goal beyond two chances scuffed by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain which will concern the manager. Too often possession was ceded carelessly which is a major flaw when trying to settle a match by concentrating on defence. It also renders your strikeforce impotent and with Giroud foraging for scraps on meagre service, a more effective Tottenham might have capitalised. At this point, you sense the post is about to meander into the ‘what-if’ territory. What if we play this way against a better opponent, for example Chelsea this coming weekend.
That is a massive ‘what-if’ because the match will be different simply because it is another day. At this moment, we can’t say whether the same XI will start; we know substitutions will happen around the same time in the game but the same players? Too early to say. It seems from Wenger’s comments that the players took it upon themselves to settle deep and play cautiously once Rosicky scored. In some respects, that is no doubt true with caution creeping in and once you go down that route it is hard to break out of that shell. Arsenal lacked the pace to exploit Tottenham’s high defensive line. How much havoc the likes the Walcott could have wreaked was seen in Oxlade-Chamberlain’s bursts to bring about the memorable opportunities after the goal, reminiscent of the League Cup tie when Theo enjoyed the freedom of White Hart Lane in extra time.
But the focus ought to be on praising Koscielny and Mertesacker, with an honourable mention to Mikel Arteta. The Spaniard worked hard in front of the back four, scurrying into tackles and mopping up loose passes. But the centre backs worked hard to contain Emmanuel Adebayor. He wasn’t the world-class striker his manager made him out to be but certainly he was a nuisance and the likeliest source of an equaliser, beyond Szczesny’s butter fingers. And the Arsenal pair did contain him for large parts of the game with solid positioning and reading the game, understanding the predictability of Tottenham’s attacks and concentrating on their own game to prevent the equaliser.
Tim Sherwood sought to use smoke and mirrors to divert attention away from his own team’s shortcomings. Whilst Alan Shearer preferred creosote, Sherwood has obviously been doing some cowboy decorating with all the cracks being papered over. Crucially, Tottenham are rooted in fifth, nine points adrift of Arsenal having played a game more. With Everton breathing down their necks, two points behind with two games in hand, the irony is that Sherwood needs others help to qualify for Europe next season. He needs United to continue to implode as well because Tottenham’s challenge for the top four has turned into a dogfight for the scrap made available by Manchester City winning the League Cup.
Arsenal in the meantime will focus on challenging for honours.