A vintage north London derby and, well, vintage Erik Lamela.
Having got people off their feet with his class after coming on as a substitute, the Argentine was sent off the pitch for his clumsiness, summing up Tottenham Hotspur’s collapse at Arsenal. The truth was Mikel Arteta’s side were already on the way to a 2-1 win, that brought the manager’s first win in the derby, and one that was more than deserved.
Lamela’s eventual red card sullied his afternoon, but probably won’t colour the memory of his moment. His rabona - the second of his career at Spurs - will go down as one of the Premier League’s great goals, to be replayed so many times.
That, however, was also one of the problems with it. The goal was a moment in and of itself, almost divorced from the flow of the game and the idea of any kind of attacking plan. It was telling that, for over 70 minutes, Lamela’s one-in-a-million shot was also Tottenham’s one shot of the game. That he came on for the injured Son Heung-Min now only compounds the issue.
By contrast, Arsenal were hurting Spurs from everywhere - but particularly down the left. It was an attacking performance so comprehensive that Arteta’s call to drop captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for lateness just didn’t matter by the end.
Announcing the striker had been punished for disciplinary reasons before the game may have been a risk from Arteta, but it paid off, and now looks even better, because Arsenal were the team that took the risk in play.
That is the nature of such decisions. They are entirely dependent on results. It was almost forgotten by the end, which will not be the case for Lamela’s goal.
It is at least worth reflecting on the nature of that, before the nature of the game. This, after all, is one of the main reasons we watch football: to be entertained, to be wowed, to see something that gets us off our feet.
What was initially so intricate about Lamela’s finish was the way he adjusted his own feet. It was a nimble piece of footwork that complemented the power of the finish, and made it look even better. It was deftness followed by definitiveness.
Often with these types of attempts – and Lamela himself has tried enough of them – the ball isn’t quite caught right, or the direction is fine but not the power. This had it all, a drilled finish right into the corner that was beyond Bernd Leno - and beyond the imagination of most players.
The problem was that it was also the extent of Spurs’ attacking.
Arsenal had meanwhile hit the bar, the post and squandered at least two big chances through Lacazette. On another day, the question might be whether Aubameyang would have finished them.
The truth is that, whatever about his status as captain, his importance to the team is actually receding. He is evidently no longer essential, as younger players become increasingly crucial to how Arteta plays.
Chief among them is Emil Smith Rowe. He ran so much of the game, and showed so many qualities. In one moment, he was tearing down the flank to set up Lacazette for a chance that really should have been a goal. In another, Smith Rowe was curving a brilliant strike off the crossbar that deserved to be a goal.
There is at least the semblance of a burgeoning system at Arsenal, and that could be seen with how often they got down Spurs’ left side. Kieran Tierney was giving Matt Doherty a torrid afternoon, and it was from that side the goal came. Martin Odegaard got lucky with the finish, and the deflection of Toby Alderweireld, but it was a luck that Arsenal had by then deserved.
They’d had the better of the game, looked the better team.
Spurs, by contrast, were largely dependent on individual moments of inspiration – like Lamela’s.
On the other side, Gareth Bale could not replicate his impact of the last few games. Some had wondered whether he could maintain it in big games. This was the question around Spurs. It just led to Mourinho’s first big call, as he was subbed for Moussa Sissoko.
It didn’t stem the tide. Arsenal kept up the pressure, to the point that Lacazette was put through on goal with one brilliant touch. Just as he was about to power it at goal, though, Davinson Sanchez came in to clear him out. It felt Lacazette had actually fluffed the opportunity before the challenge, but it didn’t matter. A penalty was given. Lacazette didn’t fluff that.
Lamela, however, fluffed his big day. Just five minutes after a first booking, the attacker stuck a hand into Tierney’s face.
He was dismissed. Spurs’ chances of top four are complicated. They aren't quite as difficult as pulling off a rabona, but that's part of the issue. For Arsenal, everything suddenly looks that bit easier.
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