Sports Writer of the Year

James Lawton: The defence that can't defend ruins Wenger's home-spun strategy

Arsenal have to think as much about survival as some unlikely reclaiming of their old spot in the top four

There were some beautiful moments when Arsenal again looked like Arsenal, passages of fluency of craft and always the sense that something fine and creative might happen. Unfortunately there were also some extremely ugly moments and these too were the responsibility of Arsenal.

They explained, as if we had not long passed the need for any fresh evidence, why Arsène Wenger's team are now so detached from the serious end of the Premier League action.

It is not that Arsenal defend poorly. It is as if they simply do not understand the concept.

Wenger complained that Rafael van der Vaart handled the ball on his way to scoring Tottenham's exquisite opener – a claim that was more predictable than unanswerable – but you would have thought he might have been rather more outraged that the Dutchman had vast space in which to convert the short cross of Emmanuel Adebayor.

Arsenal enjoyed more possession and when Gervinho had one of the game's best scoring possibilities it seemed feasible that this might be the moment when a season programmed for disaster felt the breath of a little hope. But what is hope in football if you have a defence that lurches from one crisis to another and when, in the end, your best hope of survival, goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, is worn down to the point where he allows the decisive strike of Spurs' impressive young defender Kyle Walker to fly home from distance?

It was a superb effort by a young player who could hardly have done more to press his England claims under the gaze of Fabio Capello but it was a bleak conclusion to a fine performance by a goalkeeper who is obliged to awake from one nightmare of pressure after another.

Whatever Arsenal achieve in the absence of Jack Wilshere, the young player whose value seems to increase a little more with every game he misses through the sickening onset of long-term injury, it will be hard not to see it as something of a holding operation.

Arsenal signed the currently underwhelming German veteran Per Mertesacker in their desperate rush into a closing transfer window but the reality is that they have to do a whole lot better come January. Thomas Vermaelen is missed desperately but with midfielder Alex Song operating beside Mertesacker the need for major moves into the market could scarcely have been more pressing.

Wenger is defiant in his belief in the cultivation of home-grown excellence but an old preference is now looking like something of a flight of fancy, one that has already condemned Arsenal to a season in which for the first time under their manager they have to think nearly as much about survival as some unlikely reclaiming of their old place in the top four.

In defence, where Spurs looked superior, there is the most desperate need. It is of savvy, of instinct, something that can only be established in the heat of competition.

Spurs looked a long way from the fluency which launched them on their current run of four straight league wins and Van der Vaart's early departure, the result of his failure to reproduce often enough the relevance of his intuitive move into a scoring position, was especially disappointing.

But always they had the greater potential to take hold of the game and when Walker, who announced his sound belief that you will never win a lottery if you don't buy a ticket, drove home the winner Arsenal could hardly register a serious complaint.

Better for them to understand they will be playing entirely on chance and speculation until they attend to the enemy within. It is of course the defence which really doesn't know how to defend.

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