Arsenal 5-2 Tottenham Hotspur: Thumping good victory


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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,, 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…


Yossi Benayoun selection epitomises Arsenal’s philosophy in derby win


At 34 minutes, it seemed like the balance of power had indubitably shifted towards the white of North London. 34 minutes later, it had appeared as if it had never moved. Tottenham Hotspur had taken a two goal lead and confirmed that the difference between the swashbuckle of the two sides was the end product. However Arsenal, often too ready to accept their role as beautiful martyrs and they had full right to be aggrieved when they fell behind further to a dubious penalty won by Garethe Bale, did not wallow in their adversity and responded emphatically. Everything went right for them with Arsène Wenger claiming it was a “perfect performance”.

This was how Arsenal always wanted to win. Perhaps it was not part of the plan to fall two goals behind to Tottenham Hotspur but that seems to get the best out of them – they drew inspiration from the 3-2 win against Aston Villa for their latest comeback. But they played with a refreshing desire and togetherness, set on the backdrop of Robin van Persie’s heartfelt promise to fans to expect better in Sunday’s The Sun, that should set the benchmark for a strong end to the season. They’ve felt this before, though, when they defeated Barcelona 2-1 at home but as Paolo Bandini said on Football Weekly, it was probably The Emirates’ “signature moment” as Arsenal delivered a strong performance for lengthy periods. “Today we gave a performance that on the spirit side, the technical side, the drive of the whole team, on the style of the game we want to play everything was perfect despite a very bad start,” said Arsène Wenger. “I felt in the first five minutes Tottenham started well, after that it was all us for 85 minutes.”

In some respects, there was nothing new about Arsenal’s performance. In fact, you might even described it as their “gung-ho” style working perfectly because while it, at times, left them exposed at the back, such as the build up for Spurs’ opener, it was the right mix of intensity and technical level. If they want to concede less goals, they’d probably have to demand an even greater share of the possession and/or compress the space quicker when they lose it. Arsenal’s rapid and intense brand of football is resource-heavy and creates undue strain at the back. But as the rest of the game foretold: if Arsenal attack like this, it is their defence. In that sense, it was strange to see Tottenham cut off so much of their attacking threat in the second-half as while they probably did the right thing, congesting the middle of the pitch by moving to a 4-5-1/4-3-2-1 with Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart roaming, it narrowed the space for their key player – Bale, who was superb in the first-half – to cause damage. (And it was even more strange to see him shunted to the right for the majority of the second-half; it was probably a case of Harry Redknapp looking to get more of their best player by giving him freedom but he sacrificed the rest of the team to try and squeeze more out of one).

Arsenal were excellent – pulsating at times. Robin van Persie led by example and he confirmed his status as the most hard-working player in the league with another tireless shift (he runs on average 6.148 miles a game). He dragged Arsenal to their feet when on another day it might have dropped. Certainly, there was a noticeable shift in Arsenal’s mentality while Alex Song could be seen geeing his team up when they fell behind on four minutes. The midfield swirled and snarled at Tottenham’s attackers to try and win the ball back and then kept the ball brilliantly to sustain the pressure. And while Mikel Arteta probed and prompted, Tomáš Rosický gave a direction to Arsenal’s attacks and his goal to put Arsenal in the lead, epitomised their philosophy. As Theo Walcott played the ball into the box following a furious counter-attack, The Gunners had four men waiting to receive the pass.

Talk of “philosophy” implicitly imbues it with a kind of moral superiority that tends to irritate but this performance gave it back to Arsenal when it had seemed as if it had deserted them this season. The selection of Yossi Benayoun epitomised that, signalling Arsenal’s intention and their ideologue for the match. He wasn’t starting by default just because Andrey Arshavin had left. No, this is a player who has finally got his chance – his deserved chance. In his short period at Arsenal, Benayoun has shown a willingness for the fight and a refreshing patience to wait for his opportunity. He scored a header in the last minutes against Aston Villa and the reaction of his team-mates said it all; they were wishing it on him to score. Add to that he was thrown in in not too favourable conditions away to Borussia Dortmund (and Swansea City), in the unfamiliar position of central midfield and was tasked with taking a creative mantle in the Carling Cup. It’s just a shame in the past few seasons, his talent has never been rewarded with starting spots. At Liverpool, he had an in-out relationship with Rafael Benitez while Andre Villas-Boas wasn’t willing to take the punt with him, in either the wide striker roles or in the centre in his 4-3-3. It’s a similar scenario at Arsenal where, if he had come in another season where the ideological slant hadn’t shifted slightly away from the intricate towards the direct, then he surely would have played more often.

Perhaps at first glance, Benayoun’s selection doesn’t seem as significant as it is being made out in this article. But Arsenal have struggled for fluency this season, with Arsène Wenger admitting that the team is a “little bit less good than last year with possession of the ball.” And he has admitted that the three-striker system was almost an experiment; one which has surely now ended or at least, shown it’s limitations against the top sides. “When we played for a long period with Gervinho, Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott we were dangerous, basically, always through our wings, but a little less in control possession wise,” he said. “It was not a conscious thing but it’s just we found Gervinho, who did well, and we tried to find a system that can accommodate Walcott and Gervinho.”

With Arsenal suffering in past derbies from a lack of control, Wenger got it correct tactically by playing the Israeli midfielder. With Benayoun frequently involved in the build up, Arsenal refound their control and swagger. No longer did Robin van Persie remain exclusive to a poacher’s role; he roamed around the pitch, dropped off his marker and was allowed to spontaneous again. His goal to equaliser was the perfect expression of his new-found freedom as he curled the ball into the corner from the edge of the box. And Wenger knew, with Benayoun’s presence as a half-winger on the other side, it would eventually see Theo Walcott come good. Indeed, Arsenal’s set up changed slightly in the second-half with Benayoun tucking in and Alex Song dropping deeper thus allowing Walcott to push up; it’s something they have experimented during Thierry Henry’s brief spell at the club. But with Spurs playing more narrow, it allowed Theo Walcott to get behind constantly and Arsenal’s formation flitted in and out of their 4-3-3 to a slanted 4-4-2. Walcott profited and punished in a match where, not only did Arsenal wrestle back the balance of power back to red and white of North London, but they also rediscovered their identity.

Arsenal 5-2 Tottenham Hotspur: Saha 4, Adebayor (pen) 34, Sagna 40, van Persie 43, Rosicky 51, Walcott 65, Walcott 68.

Some Chalkboards….

1. Arsenal squeeze the space

If Arsenal played with a spirit and desire to get the ball back quickly, it can be showen by the graphic for their interceptions. The ball was rarely won in their defensive third but in the middle third of the pitch. Arsenal began with a fervour and while the lack of interceptions in defence might show how well Tottenham stretched play in the early periods – Arsenal 11 of those interceptions in the first-half alone – it also showed Arsenal’s determination to compress space and play up the pitch. Perhaps Arsenal were a bit nervous at the start abecause once they gained their composure, they were imperious and could sit back and soak Tottenham’s meek pressure. (As ever, click to enlarge).

2. Bacary Sagna v Kieran Gibbs

The return of two natural full-backs saw the return of Arsenal’s right-side bias with 42% of attacks stemming from that side (the average has been 36% down the right and 31% down the left). This means the two full-backs play slightly differently. Bacary Sagna plays a supporting role, always looking to make himself available in possession while Kieran Gibbs is generally more reserved; his forays forward are often more selective (he was involved in the build up for the first, coming forward late).

3. Theo Walcott makes his presence felt in 2nd-half

Wenger admitted he was thinking about taking Theo Walcott off at half-time but decided against it; the momentum was with Arsenal and that increased the likelihood, especially as Spurs might have to push forward now, to release him. It happened – three times in fact – all in the second-half and of course, he got the two goals (and had a 100% pass accuracy too).

And while Tottenham nullified Walcott in the first-half as shown by the tackles on the right, the change of shape in both sides meant that it happened less in the second. Theo Walcott got behind easily as the Spurs formation narrowed.

4. Thomas Vermaelen’s no-nonsense approach

Thomas Vermaelen had a difficult opening period. He was constantly sucked out of position as his impetuousness can often leave him exposed. Too often, he tried to attack the ball too early and Spurs got away on a couple of occasions (although Laurent Koscielny was also guilty of that for the first goal). Vermaelen has played much of his recent games at left-back so over-zealous approach will need time to curb. Nevertheless, he showed that he has the all-round ability to replace Per Mertesacker – who was beginning to come into his own before his injury  – as he completed the most clearances for Arsenal – ground and aerial (3/5 headed clearances and 4/4 aerial duels won).

5. Alex Song pivotal

It’s argued Alex Song’s forward runs can sometimes be detrimental to the team balance but that’s untrue because it’s usually selective when he gets up the pitch. This can be shown by the assist he made for Arsenal’s fifth but in the second-half, he almost completely reigned his attacking instincts and just sat in front of the back four – often very deep – to allow the other midfielders to play. He was probably the most underrated of the six attacking players yesterday but just as pivotal.

Arsenal 1-2 Tottenham Hotspur: Arséne Wenger’s side are still searching for their identity

Begrudgingly, Arséne Wenger may have to accept progress has been made despite facing defeat to Tottenham Hotspur. Arsenal didn’t play like second-best but the difference in confidence was evident between the two sides; Tottenham with a ruthless ambition about their forward play and Arsenal, nervy and twitchy around the box. When Spurs took the lead, there was an uncertainty about Arsenal’s attacking play. Both their most direct players – and both carrying knocks before the game – were withdrawn, making you wonder why they both started.

In a previous era, both Yossi Benayoun and Andrey Arshavin might have expected to start but by the time they entered the field, it was felt there was little time for a patient approach. In the end, Per Mertesacker was thrown in as an auxiliary striker to try and save the game. If it’s not an indication of the sign of the times, that Arsenal desperately want to add to their trophy drought thus adjusting part of their game, it may be that they are still trying to find their identity.

With their creative heartbeat ripped out when Cesc Fábregas departed in the summer, Aaron Ramsey has had to take a central role. In the middle of a change in formation – which has subsequently reverted back to a 4-2-3-1 – injuries and a number of fresh faces, he has had to carry the burden of creativity the greatest. Against Tottenham, Ramsey looked better, attempting inject some penetration and urgency to Arsenal’s attack. Ultimately, it proved to be errant as he committed more than his usual amount of stray passes and one in particular proving to be fatal, as his pass out to touch essentially started Tottenham’s winner. But his attempts to bring purpose to Arsenal’s play must be commended because this side still looks like one which is still trying to discover what they are; what avenues they will exploit and at what tempo they will do so.

It’s perhaps significant that Arsenal’s last three games have seen goals come when the objective is fresh in their minds (discounting Shrewsbury). Against Olympiacos, The Gunners struck early while against Bolton and here at Tottenham, they scored first after the break. Aaron Ramsey, in particular, seems to benefit from that extra direction (which makes it more apparent the need for more influential figures on the pitch) because in both games, he was pushed instructed closer to Robin van Persie and the impact was instant. (Ramsey’s impact after the manager’s words reminds me of the introduction of Lucas Leiva for the captain, Steven Gerrard in a Merseyside derby. Benitez took off his iconic captain because he felt his instructions to calm the game down can be transmitted better to someone close to him rather than in the heat of the battle).

Robin van Persie’s effectiveness has also suffered as Arsenal attempt Arsenal to search their soul. He was so dynamic last season because the side’s keep-ball suddenly allowed him to spring into a bit of space or release someone behind but with Arsenal deploying two wingers in the classical sense, he has had to play more orthodoxly. Playing close to the defender isn’t typically his game nor is waiting patiently for a cross but he says he’s had to adjust. On the other hand, stretching play, as Gervinho and Theo Walcott did even if they were passive, offered Arsenal’s more angles to pass the ball which they did well. However, they also looked good coming in off the flanks, attempting a couple of good efforts, which poses the thought why Benayoun or even Oxlade-Chamberlain couldn’t have started. It’s easy to look back retrospectively I guess.

Arséne Wenger’s primary tactic was to regain control of the North London derby, which in recent seasons has somewhat been wrestled away from them, in terms of possession and he got that right on Sunday. Francis Coquelin and Mikel Arteta gave positional security as well as technical although the lack of a creative figure to aid Ramsey hurt the team. Wenger indicated before the game that was to be the main way of stopping Tottenham from exploiting from transitions, saying: “It’s down to our quality and to how well we defend. And even better, how much we will have the ball.” However, their pain was as much self-inflicted as it was dealt by their opponents because the two goals they conceded came from the restart i.e two throw-ins. Spurs took advantage from Arsenal’s lapse of concentration and relative meekness when pressing (although, to be fair, it’s getting better) to score twice.

In Wenger’s attempts to make Arsenal more dynamic, he’s willing to let the three forwards stay up the pitch and that means behind them, there are three midfielders who mark zonaly and a back four who want to pick up their men. Bearing that in mind, perhaps it was inevitable that Rafael van der Vaart was to add to his his three goals in two derbies. For his goal, he dragged Kieran Gibbs inside with his movement which then opens up space for the ball to be switched out to the vacant right-hand side. By moving infield, van der Vaart is passed on by Gibbs to the midfielders to make – who are already overwhelmed for space – and the Dutchman is thus allowed to run into the box unmarked. There were arguments that Bakary Sagna could have done more to stope the run but he was too occupied by a man – Gareth Bale – highlighting how difficult to pick up (and deadly) intelligent running can be. Again, my assertions that Ramsey played well was because he tried to bring that threat to Arsenal and as well as getting the goal, got into a couple of promising positions in the box.

03sZf<Figure 1>I stand alone: Aaron Ramsey may have been criticised for a few misplaced passes but he tried to instill into the side, some urgency. His passing was higher up compared to against Bolton and linked more with the wide forwards.

As Wenger said afterwards, it was a case of “two steps forward and one step back”. The side showed progress although more than ever, Arsenal’s season may depend on how much the “cult of the coach” can inspire his side. As Barney Ronay writes in the 25th Anniversary issue of When Saturday Comes magazine; “Football has changed and so have footballers. The game is now a more regularised affair. At a certain level – below the very best and above the second rate – players are relatively indistinguishable in terms of athleticism and basic skills. And so football has become more chess-like, more a matter of the location and exploitation of momentary weakness.” This has elevated the primacy of the manager in the modern game and Wenger must inspire his players accordingly. But if football is also becoming more regularised and technique and conditioning reaching a plateau, perhaps it’s the mind that can really elevate a team. In that respects, it’s no wonder the best team at the moment is Barcelona, using each other as extensions of the mind to create an all-dominating team. Next to them is Manchester United, a side seemingly un-fazed by the mental hurdles that face them even when the side’s average age has plummeted this season. “We have yet to tap the full potential of the mental aspect of the game,” says Louis van Gaal when asked by Champions Magazine, how football could change over the next decade. “Mental preparations, visualisation and imagination offer the best chance for change.”

Arsenal must persist with this technical approach; it’s their defence as much it is their attack. Indeed, they have to. If Wenger commits to a passing game, steps must be ensured to make it better each season and not fixate disproportionately on other trivial matters. Gervinho speaks about having to adapt to the “Arsenal way” if he is to succeed at the club and at times in the system he has looked like an interloper; an incorrigible maverick. It’s not Arsenal’s style playing two wingers – or at least, they still don’t know if they can play a way that can afford them to. Arsenal dominated by possession, and that, despite the defeat, Wenger must cling onto as a sign of progress.

With competition in the league becoming more intense and the recent financial results confirming the need to qualify for Europe, Arsenal’s position in the Champions League is in danger of compromise. We scorn to use the word “crisis” but if it’s not an identity crisis, Wenger must stop it becoming an existential one.