It was a North London Derby which highlighted the good and the bad of modern Arsenal. A game of two halves, where the energy and purpose of the second half replaced dithering and mistakes of the opening forty-five minutes.
And at the end of it all, there’s a sense that this is the one which got away.
Tottenham, at the moment, are bang average. Out of sorts but durable; getting away with points rather than deserving them.
In many respects, their performance yesterday was similar to late-era Arsene’s Arsenal. Lucky breaks and then retreating, failing to defend a lead which barely looked under threat. And at the end of it, being grateful for the point rather than celebrating all three.
They can point to Kane’s belly flop in the penalty area at the end but that just shows how much their performance stalled. He tried to contrive a spot-kick when his open play opportunities were stifled. In parks football, that’s called cheating.
But while I may rail against that, it serves only to avoid the uneasy questions which surfaced about Arsenal yesterday. Before them, however, are some positives.
Matteo Guendouzi is the largest of those. Unai played down his contribution somewhat; “he’s very young but he’s progressing,” the Spaniard said before turning to the assembled hacks and said, “Just joshing.”
The midfielder “gives us a lot of control and also the combinations for us” making him “very important in the team.” Too right, Unai; he saved your bacon.
Describing the youngster as a “key player” served to emphasise the point. Guendouzi was a terrier in midfield, even in the first half when Unai once again ceded the flanks. He and Torreira shuffled left and right while Granit Xhaka did bugger all in the centre.
Granit Xhaka’s Charmed Life
How the Swiss stayed on the pitch is beyond me; Martin Atkinson showed a largesse only matched in not booking Xhaka until the 92nd-minute which is only exceeded by Emery not hooking him at half-time.
Make the most of Lucas Torreira; there’s a transfer request in the offing. If he gets hooked when asked to play out of position and Xhaka is dreadful, the Uruguayan won’t be around for long.
The tactics in the first half ask a lot of questions of the coach. A gap between the midfield and attack quickly emerged because too much was asked of the trio he picked. There was no link man and no guile; hassle, harry and pace. In some respects, Arsenal’s performance was typical derby fare from the pre-Premier League era. A lot of huff and puff but in the first-half, no flair.
Which is not surprising when a calamity of errors puts you 2 – 0 down. We started brightly enough but on ten minutes, that all went to pot. Xhaka challenged Kane for a header but Sokratis didn’t wait to see who won the ball; he barrelled in and left a gaping hole in the centre of the defence.
From there on, it was almost a formality. Son to Lamela and the flimsiest hand from Leno left Eriksen with a tap-in. The German didn’t cover himself in glory; it was a basic error and in a derby, unforgivable.
Matters turned to sh*t just before half-time. Xhaka – who else – petulantly slid into Son in the penalty area and Kane calmly scored from the resultant penalty.
I genuinely do not understand how Xhaka wasn’t replaced at half-time. He barely improved in the second forty-five minutes; in one match, he gave away 18% of our season’s total of fouls. In one match.
The Only Way Is Up
Lacazette’s goal, a heady mix of hard work, good fortune and fine technique, gave us the boost just before half-time. Right on the whistle and the impetus changed. Once everyone settled down from Kane hitting the post seconds later, that is.
Emery brought on Ceballos midway through the second half as our control pushed Tottenham further and further back. At one point, the ball spent so much time in their half, it was as if there was a border control post on the halfway line and nobody had the right visa to enter Arsenal territory.
At one point, the possession stat read 69% in Tottenham’s defensive third of the pitch, 30% in midfield and 1% in the Arsenal defensive third. The screws were being tightened as we headed toward the inevitable equaliser.
And it duly arrived with Aubameyang’s studs guiding the ball past Lloris with twenty minutes to go, flicking Guendouzi’s pass into the net. The atmosphere intensified, Spurs players wilted and three points were there for the taking. Buckle up, Mavis; this is going to be one helluva ride.
Which it proved to be. The winner came soon after; Kolasinac buccaneered down the left all afternoon with mixed but largely good, end-product. This time, he got the cross spot on and Sokratis almost went from zero to hero. Unfortunately, the ball entered the net long after the lino’s flag went up; Kola moved a split-second too soon.
That knocked the stuffing out of us. A switch flicked in our heads which said, “let’s keep the point” and we rarely troubled Lloris after.
In the end, we took a point from a game we looked like losing. We took a point from a game against the LWC who were there for the taking.
Come Into The Sunlight, Awkward Questions…
Inevitably, the coach’s tactics come under the spotlight. We let Liverpool roam the flanks last weekend and again Tottenham in the first half. Emery wanted compact in the middle to protect the back four. It didn’t work.
In fact, it horrendously backfired. Once again, the coach’s determination to be tactically flexible had to get us out of a mess that his determination to be tactically flexible put us into.
The trio of Guendouzi, Torreira, and Xhaka was terrible on paper. Too narrow unless part of a five-man midfield which was unnecessary at home. There was no cover on the flanks and it required Guendouzi to be the link man to the attack on his own in the first half.
As well as protecting the back four; the obvious candidate to be caught between two stools yet he showed good sense for the most part in balancing his defensive work with the attack.
The same can’t be said of Xhaka but I’m not revisiting that 500 words after I already highlighted his deficiencies.
That trio, the way in which Emery set out the team, raise awkward questions about the coach. And the squad; it isn’t all on the Spaniard, let’s be fair.
However, his lack of identity in the side masked as flexibility will stop us taking the next leap forward. I don’t doubt that he can get us into the top four; United and Chelsea are hell-bent on giving us a helping hand in that respect.
Yet, with Emery’s apparent season philosophy seeing the midfield corseted between the defence and attack, we’re going to let important points slip.
He can’t legislate for the players’ stupidity. Last week, it was Luiz; this Sokratis and Xhaka both chimed in with equally expensive mistakes.
However, he isn’t utilising our best assets in the same team. We need more guile in home matches, against defences which say “attack us, we’ve already seen the holes you are leaving.”
There’s no sense of a midfield barrier in his current XI. We’re just playing defence and attack; it was the same at Anfield but Liverpool did us a favour by taking their foot off the gas.
I just worked out why Xhaka is in the team. 92 minutes to get a yellow card with is a reckless performance? He’s harvested a field of four-leaf Shamrocks. Unai is hoping some of that rubs off on him.