Football: Tottenham discover solidity

Arsenal 0 Tottenham Hotspur 0: COMMENTARY
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The Independent Online
Tottenham were overwhelmed by Arsenal at Highbury on Saturday. They took 38 minutes to manage a shot and barely crossed the half-way line in the second 45. All the invention and most of the enterprise came from Arsenal, who had 27 goal attempts. Spurs did not so much take part in a game of football as in a cockerel-shoot.

Yet such is the curious psychology of football that the visitors, despite having barely a creative kick, will have sat in their dressing-room after the 121st north-London derby glowing with self-esteem. Their hosts will have been tortured by self-doubt wondering, after the most absorbing of goalless draws, "how did we fail to win that?"

The answer is partly bad luck but also a resilience which augurs well for Tottenham's season. Totally outplayed in the first half, and by their own admission "fortunate" to be level, they had Justin Edinburgh sent off seconds before the break. Defeat seemed inevitable as they surrendered space to Arsenal and defended for a point.

This, remember, was Tottenham, the team famous for having a defence leakier than MI5. They were facing Ian Wright and Dennis Bergkamp - and they not only denied them a goal but did so with Ian Walker barely required to make a second-half save.

In front of him were three outstanding centre-half performances from Sol Campbell, Gary Mabbutt and John Scales. With Colin Calderwood suspended, this was very encouraging for a side who have have specialised in dodgy centre-halves since Mike England departed.

It was Campbell's first match since injuring ankle ligaments 17 days earlier. He did take a while to settle, once trying to make Marc Overmars take his surname literally, but after that he was magnificent.

Mabbutt, who has spent most of his Tottenham career covering hapless defensive partners, purred with appreciation. "In the last year he has grown in stature, confidence and ability. He is now one of, if not the best, defender in the country," he said. "To play like that after being out was exceptional. One tackle on Ian Wright was magnificent. I can see him playing for England for a long time, and he can get better."

The most obvious area for improvement is on the ball, especially when he steps forward. Since even Les Ferdinand rarely found himself in an advanced position, this part of Campbell's game was hard to assess, but on his only foray he did ensure he found a team-mate by settling for a simple square pass. There were other, minor faults, but this is quibbling. Campbell marked Bergkamp and Wright as well as anyone has and Glenn Hoddle would have been delighted to see it.

Mabbutt was pretty impressive himself after he came on. "I wish I could transplant his brain on to a younger player," Gerry Francis said. "He reads the game so well and he marshalled the defence superbly." Mabbutt, 36 last month and out for a year after breaking his leg, said: "I never stopped believing I could come back and play at the highest level." Given what he has overcome in his career - diabetes and an eye fractured by an elbow - no one would begrudge him an Indian summer. The third member of the triumvirate, John Scales, held the defence together while Campbell settled and is close to another England cap himself.

Between them the trio left Wright frustrated again in his pursuit of Cliff Bastin's record and the pressure is really on now, with the prospect of a ban for Wednesday's shenanigans at Leicester. Arsene Wenger, the Gunners' manager, again defended his player but stressed that, should the Football Association crack down, he would want it dealt with as soon as possible rather than waiting until after England's October date in Rome.

"We have some important games in November and, anyway, it is better for Ian mentally if it is finished with," he said. "I don't know if that, and the record, is affecting him but it would be hard not to be affected by it.

"I was pleased with what Hoddle had to say [in Wright's defence]. I think the FA will listen to him. There could have been 20 players reported at Leicester, why was it only Wright and [Patrick] Vieira? Maybe the club should have been charged, not the individual, there is a collective responsibility."

Wenger could be right but since the last time that happened, in 1990, Arsenal were fined two points, he is unlikely to welcome a repeat. Arsenal certainly have a discipline problem, Saturday's three bookings (by a strict but consistent referee) brought their tally to 14 in five games.

The worst crimes were perpetrated by Tottenham on Overmars, who was a constant menace and would have won the game had he kept being fed possession. As it was Arsenal hit the metalwork four times (David Howells, a near own goal, after 11 minutes; Overmars after 18; Bergkamp, 35 - a great save by Walker; and Wright, 43, one of two very good chances).

Edinburgh departed after bookings for bringing down Wright and Lee Dixon and Spurs pulled up the drawbridge. "There was a collective resolve - we will not lose to Arsenal," Mabbutt said. After one defeat in eight derbies they should pretend they are playing Arsenal every week.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Bould, Grimandi, Winterburn; Parlour (Anelka, 71), Vieira, Petit (Platt, 70), Overmars; Wright, Berkamp. Substitutes not used: Garde, Marshall, Lukic (gk).

Tottenham Hotspur (3-4-3): Walker; Campbell, Scales, Edinburgh; Carr, Howells, Clemence, Sinton (Domingues, 32); Fox (Nielsen, h-t), Ferdinand, Iversen (Mabbutt, h-t). Substitutes not used: Arber, Bardsen (gk).

Referee: G Willard (Worthing).

Booked: Arsenal: Bergkamp, Wright, Bould. Tottenham: Campbell, Carr, Domingues, Howells, Edinburgh. Sent off: Tottenham: Edinburgh.

Man of the match: Campbell.

Attendance: 38,102.

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