The About page on this website reads:
The goals, the refereeing decisions and the mistakes, ultimately decide the outcome of the match – that’s the usual argument. However, football is played on the pitch and to assume such solitary factors are the only things that matter, renders the rest of the game useless. Which is an absurd argument. That’s why The Arsenal Column serves to exist; to analyse the pattern of play, the tactics, as well as the individual factors which prove crucial in deciding the final result.
But after Arsenal’s 5-2 win over Tottenham Hotspur (no, not that one), we’re going to ignore our usual little principle. Because this latest edition of the North London Derby – in its 125th year – was ultimately shaped by a refereeing decision.
It was one, however, which Howard Webb had no choice. Emmanuel Adebayor’s challenge on Santi Cazorla was high and dangerous and as much as Andre Villas-Boas argued that it did not change “the running of the game”, after that it was all Arsenal even with their susceptibility to collapse like England’s middle order – against spin.
Before Adebayor’s sending off in the seventeenth minute, the game was tantalisingly poised. In fact, it had all the ingredients of a classic; the nervous energy, the recent history which dictated that taking the lead is the most dangerous thing: Spurs did. (Of the last 19 encounters, the team that has scored first has only won 6 times). Then there was a battle of the systems; Tottenham surprisingly played a 4-4-2 chosen on the backdrop of a win against Hungarian side, Maribor. Arsenal recalled Jack Wilshere and bar Kieran Gibbs, who was out through injury, this was the strongest side Arsenal could put out.
The game started tentatively, with both sides trading possession as if to scrutinise each others’ (slightly damaged) credentials. When Tottenham scored with the first meaningful attempt at goal, it hinted at a vulnerability that has been the hallmark of North London Derbies. Wilshere and Cazorla were just beginning to get on the ball, the former in particular catching the eye with a neat turn to initiate an attack. But then, Adebayor saw the red mist.
It was over as a competitive spectacle after Spurs were reduced to ten-men. The game became embarrassingly one-sided, apart from a spell in which Gareth Bale pulled one back. Not that it mattered. Football is about one-upmanship and revelling in the glory whenever it comes and given the position Arsenal are in, and that the team is still gelling, Wenger would have cared little about facing opponents in the best possible condition. Besides, Arsenal’s attacking play, due to the numerical advantage, was breathtakingly dizzying for the most part and despite Wenger admitting the “confidence was not completely there” in the second-half, it’s a step closer to where they want to be.
The return of the Bakary Sagna-Theo Walcott axis was shown to be Arsenal’s strongest weapon while Wilshere and Cazorla look like they could be a formidable duo. At times, the way the two midfielders supported Olvier Giroud, it looked like the team played a 4-1-4-1 with Mikel Arteta at the base.
It was strange then, in the little time Spurs had two strikers on the field, that they didn’t drop somebody on Arteta. And given that Arsenal have had trouble building from the back against both Fulham and Manchester United, we didn’t see the potentially tantalising tactical battle unfold. Credit to Tottenham (and Villas-Boas), however, for still posing The Gunners questions. The switch to 3-4-2 at half-time was interesting as it gave Spurs a man advantage – however futile it may seem – at the back when playing it out. And when Bale scored a fine individual goal, it seemed like Arsenal’s defensive creakiness might rear its ugly head. But perhaps the point isn’t that there is a discernible weakness at the back but the fault lies because, as Wenger says, they lacked confidence in the second-half. Because as Arsenal’s passing and movement play has regressed in recent games – particularly the latter – so it has exposed the backline. Of course, Tottenham’s opener was avoidable; it came from a puzzling decision by Per Mertesacker to push up neither to play an offside or pre-empt Jermaine Defoe’s movement (except, he tried to read the pass which proved fatal).
That one of Arsenal’s goals came from an individual mistake wasn’t really unexpected. The football statistic website, WhoScored.com, lists “avoiding individual errors” as Arsenal’s biggest weakness. Indeed, and unfortunately I can’t prove the veracity of these claims, but I think it came during the systemised footballing days of Valeriy Lobanovskyi derived from laboratories of Kyiv, which said that “a team that makes errors in no more than 15 to 18% of its acts is unbeatable.” They also stipulated, however, that you can’t control mistakes and refereeing decisions so as such; football is centred on minimising errors through a style which makes the pitch as large as possible when in possession and small as possible, without the ball.
This season, Arsenal have chosen, not to press, but to drop back in their own half for the most part and to try and deny opponents space in front of the back four. It’s their way of minimising errors: Brazil’s fabled 1970 team did the same thing. “We played as a block, compact,” said coach Mario Zagallo. “Leaving only Tostao up field. Jairzinho, Pele, Rivelino, all tracked back to join Gerson and Clodoaldo in the midfield. I’m happy to see the team in terms of 4-5-1. We brought our team back behind the line of the ball….Our team was not characterised by strong marking.” (The Blizzard, Issue Three).
Previously, you might have said the same thing about Arsenal. That pressing up the pitch was too high a demand for such a young team and as a result, it left copious amount of space behind the midfield. When Tottenham scored their opener, it happened when they committed four players beyond Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere. But to talk about defensive misgivings is beside the point if mentioning nothing about Arsenal’s passing. That’s the mechanism in which the team uses to reduce errors – the more they attack, the less they have to defend. And as such, the most important thing to come out of the North London Derby is not just the result but the confidence gained from dismantling quality opponents. I’m sure the referee had a part to play in that but it’s best not to talk about it…