Arsenal vs Tottenham: Spurs forced to escape from a north London derby they held in their hands

Spurs fans will be dispirited by the ease with which they seem to lose composure in games like this: the hurried back-passes, the frenzied attempts at playing out, the scruffy interchanges, the defensive lapses

Jonathan Liew
Emirates Stadium
Sunday 01 September 2019 19:14
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Premier League match preview: Arsenal v Tottenham

You can always tell who’s got the better of a draw by seeing how the two teams react at the end. On Saturday afternoon, after the final whistle at St Mary’s, Southampton’s Ralph Hasenhuttl fairly bounded onto the pitch to celebrate a 1-1 draw with Manchester United: arms flailing, fists pumping, like he’d just won a year’s supply of doughnuts. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, meanwhile, simply shrugged and shuffled down the tunnel, in quiet mourning of all the Nou Camp 1999 zingers he had prepared for his post-match interviews that would now, sadly, be going to waste.

Here, the difference wasn’t quite as stark, but there was still one team who looked decidedly relieved and another decidedly frustrated. As Martin Atkinson finally called time on this game, Arsenal’s players cursed in irritation, ruing their missed shot at immortality. Meanwhile, Tottenham’s exhausted players blew their cheeks out as one, trying not to look too pleased as they shook hands with their opponents. And yet, with seconds remaining in the first half, they had led 2-0, a first league win at the Emirates in nine years seemingly within their grasp. So, how had that happened?

Sometimes, you can pinpoint a moment in the game when the wind begins to change direction. A moment that seems to encapsulate the frailties of the team in the lead and cement the belief of the team chasing. Here it came in the second half, with Tottenham 2-1 ahead, when Harry Winks got a rare pocket of space in midfield, a rare moment to reflect on the ball, and pumped a beautiful, dipping parabola of a long pass, a 60-yard ball straight into the arms of Bernd Leno.

All of a sudden, a little prickle seemed to take hold of the Emirates Stadium, a realisation that Spurs were out of ideas and out of puff, and that with 20 minutes to go the match was there for the seizing. One minute later, Matteo Guendouzi slipped far too easily past Christian Eriksen and whipped a delicious ball in for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who touched the ball in to level the scores.

There, summed up in those few moments, was Tottenham’s problem: a cheap surrender of possession in midfield a minute earlier, and now a derisory effort at winning it back. Eriksen had actually been very good in the first half, launching a number of quick counter-attacks, but as Arsenal began to take control in the second, he was gradually forced into a more and more reactive role. And for all his many qualities, nobody would describe Eriksen as the most natural midfield hound, the efficacy of his one-on-one defending largely analogous to trying to put out a house fire by sneezing on it.

Spurs had been hollowed out. Meanwhile, Arsenal had brought on the mesmeric Dani Ceballos to sharpen their play through midfield, and with the rampant Guendouzi alongside him Arsenal were able to maraud largely at will. It felt a bit like that Yeats poem: turning and turning in the widening gyre; the falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon a makeshift back four with Davinson Sanchez at right-back.

It would have been a harsh but fitting punishment for Spurs if they had ended up losing the game after that. Instead, they launched a commendable second coming, enjoying a few half-openings in the game's closing minutes. Mauricio Pochettino deserves a good deal of credit for the brave substitution of Giovani Lo Celso for Heung-min Son: a sacrifice of Tottenham’s most effective player on the day, but a necessary move in an attempt to gain some control of the centre. And besides, for all Tottenham's flaws, Arsenal were at least as culpable, not least in that catastrophic first half hour.

Where are Tottenham at the moment? Probably not in as bad a state as some of the more shrill treatises have them of late. Physically, they don’t quite look all there yet, but you also have to factor in injuries: Tanguy Ndombele, Juan Foyth and Kyle Walker-Peters all missed this one. And besides, two points from the Etihad and the Emirates is no disaster by any stretch: a fairly winnable run of fixtures lies ahead, and given the speed at which football’s wheel seems to spin these days it’s entirely possible they could be challenging near the upper reaches of the table before summer is out.

Equally, though, Spurs fans will be dispirited by the ease with which they seem to lose composure in games like this: the hurried back-passes, the frenzied attempts at playing out, the scruffy interchanges, the defensive lapses, and above all a midfield that at times is guilty of that classic Tottenham malaise: a lack of bite. The Spurs sides of two years ago snapped and snarled, brazenly asserted themselves, suffocated your space and tore you to ribbons, and most importantly of all satisfied itself with nothing less than victory. It says something for their state of mind right now that the squandering of a 2-0 lead against their biggest rivals still, paradoxically, felt like something of an escape.

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