The most frequently drawn fixture in the Premier League era offered the early possibility of another of its famous four-fours until a mist as red as an Arsenal shirt descended on Emmanuel Adebayor, who having scored the opening goal against his old club, was sent off for a ridiculous challenge on Santi Cazorla.
One-nil up at the time, which could easily have been two after their storming start, Tottenham’s unreliable defence never seemed likely to hang on for another 72 minutes. Sure enough, they were three-one down by half-time and when Arsenal scored the next goal as well, the game was well and truly over.
Adebayor’s mad moment made it difficult to assess the teams’ respective strengths. Arsène Wenger has promised Arsenal will finish ahead of their rivals, as they have done every year since his arrival from Japan, and that would be the safest bet. It must have been daunting for Andre Villas-Boas before his first north London derby to note that Arsenal in their worst start to a season for 30 years were still only one point behind Tottenham. Now they are two ahead with every chance of staying there.
What was clear yesterday was that since losing Luka Modric, Spurs have no creative midfielder remotely in the class of Cazorla. Theo Walcott was also excellent and Olivier Giroud, taking his run to four goals in three games with another here, has the self-belief that eluded Marouane Chamakh a year ago. For Tottenham, highest marks went to Gareth Bale, who worked hard and made some fine individual runs, even if Jermain Defoe was rightly furious at him for shooting instead of not squaring the ball to him at 4-2.
As part of Villas-Boas’s bold strategy, Spurs had for once gone into the game with two out-and-out strikers, then found themselves reduced to one within a few minutes of the pair combining for the first goal. The visitors had already put the ball past Wojciech Szczesny, returning after injury, but William Gallas was marginally offside. If one former Arsenal man was to be denied, the other was not; Adebayor was left with a jubilant tap-in after Per Mertesacker allowed Defoe to run off him and shoot, Szczesny only parrying the drive.
Adebayor remains one of only two men – the Scottish winger Jimmy Robertson was the other – to have scored in this fixture for both clubs, but that is not what his day will be remembered for. In the 18th minute, he slid in dangerously with both feet and caught Cazorla above the ankle. The Spaniard fortunately avoided serious injury but there could be no doubt about the colour of card Howard Webb pulled out of his pocket.
It was bizarre that Villas-Boas could claim that was not a turning point. Aaron Lennon, running at the left-back Thomas Vermaelen, had just shot narrowly wide of the far post and Spurs were by far the more dangerous team. But from then until half-time they were thrown onto the back foot, and conceded three times in little more than 20 minutes.
The equaliser in the 24th minute came from Arsenal’s first attack of any significance. Vermaelen had a shot blocked and before Spurs regained possession the ball was worked out to the right and crossed by Walcott for a firm header by Mertesacker. Hugo Lloris, picked ahead of Brad Friedel, kept out two headers from Giroud but in the short period before the interval he was beaten twice more; unluckily as Lukas Podolski’s scuffed shot bobbled into the net off Gallas and unstoppably by Giroud’s clever low sweep of a shot from Cazorla’s run after Webb played a good advantage.
That third goal, Villas-Boas could more reasonably claim, was a decisive moment. At half-time he removed both full-backs, neither of whom had distinguished themselves, and went with three defenders, bringing on Michael Dawson and, further forward, Clint Dempsey.
Dempsey, however, has yet to show any of his impressive Fulham form of last season and Dawson was always likely to have his hands and feet full against the newly confident Giroud. Just before the hour Walcott sent Podolski away on the left for a fine low cross that Cazorla converted with ease. Four-one and the statisticians were looking up the biggest margins of derby victory in recent times (one 5-0 each). Spurs, to their credit, kept pushing forward and Bale picked up Sandro’s headed pass to score with his right-foot. Had he picked out Defoe a few minute later instead of shooting, the visiting supporters would have had even more to cheer.
Wenger was sufficiently concerned to send on the (allegedly) defensive Andre Santos for Podolski, but the Tottenham ten were weary and the rest of the traffic was in one direction. Walcott might twice have crowned his performance with goals, and finally did so right at the death, driving in a pass by the substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. At the final whistle, Arsenal’s players embarked on a lap of honour to celebrate the conquest of north London and the songs, rightly, rang out for Cazorla.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny,Vermaelen; Arteta, Wilshere (Ramsey, 72); Walcott (90), Cazorla, Podolski (Santos, 80); Giroud (Oxlade-Chamberlain, 86).
Tottenham (4-4-2): Lloris; Walker (Dawson, h-t), Gallas, Vertonghen, Naughton (Dempsey, h-t); Lennon, Sandro, Huddlestone (Carroll, 72), Bale; Adebayor, Defoe.
Referee: Howard Webb
Man of the match: Cazorla (Arsenal)
Match rating: 8/10