As the 90 minutes passed, a certain eerie stillness seemed to settle over Wembley Stadium, a stillness quite at odds with the vigour and the fury that had preceded it. The crowd of 81,000 fell silent. The fourth official Jonathan Moss strode to the touchline to unveil a stoppage time board reading five minutes. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang stood at the end of his run-up, preparing to take a penalty that would surely win the game for Arsenal.
And even with the knowledge of what came after, when the time comes to reflect on this game, Arsenal still won’t quite believe how they managed not to win it. Having defended impeccably, comprehensively won the midfield battle, taken an early lead through Aaron Ramsey before conceding a soft equaliser to an offside Harry Kane, here was their chance to claim the three points they deserved. Not only was Aubameyang’s poor penalty saved by Hugo Lloris, but they finished the game a man down after Lucas Torreira’s late red card, the chance to steal a decisive march over their north London rivals decisively squandered.
If there was a criticism to make of Unai Emery’s team, it was that they didn’t quite show enough ambition to win the game. Arsenal will rue two glorious chances for Alexandre Lacazette, but also perhaps the decision to leave Aubameyang and Mesut Ozil on the bench, when Spurs were ripe for picking off on the counter-attack. The upshot, instead, was a game painfully low on quality, perhaps the poorest north London derby for many years, and several leagues below what Manchester City and Liverpool have offered this season.
Still, Spurs were second best by a large margin, indeed a far larger margin than the foot by which Kane was offside as he won Tottenham’s equalising penalty 16 minutes from time. This was their first Premier League draw of the season, but one for which they will be abundantly grateful. If they play like this in Dortmund on Tuesday, not even a 3-0 first-leg lead will protect them.
Tottenham were tired and predictable: Kieran Trippier and Christian Eriksen badly out of nick, the midfield so denuded that a clearly unfit Victor Wanyama was deployed from the start, with Danny Rose taking on the role at the end. The lack of signings this season is finally taking its toll, and as impressive a job as Mauricio Pochettino has done at Spurs, he is now essentially holding a crumbling edifice together with his bare hands and sheer force of personality.
With Harry Winks ruled out with injury, Spurs were simply overrun in the middle of the pitch: a team not so much playing through midfield as surrounding it from a safe distance and trying to starve it out. Nobody was there to pick up the second balls, nobody was there to act as a passing outlet for the back five, which forced Tottenham direct and up the flanks, whereupon an undercooked Harry Kane and Son Heung-min were gobbled up by Arsenal’s excellent centre-half pairing of Sokratis and Laurent Koscielny.
Indeed, Arsenal were largely immaculate at the back, not just the back four but the midfield, a sight exemplified by Henrikh Mkhitaryan - quietly excellent over the last few weeks - sprinting back to clear a dangerous cross at the near post. The excellence of Arsenal’s defensive unit was brought into sharper focus by the fact that their goal came from a poor defensive error by Davinson Sanchez after 14 minutes, fluffing a defensive header and allowing Ramsey to go clean through, rounding Lloris and putting into an empty net.
Tottenham looked disjointed: a luxury sandwich made with lightly grilled artisan sourdough bread, spread with creamy Jersey butter, served with hand-cooked potato chips, but sadly lacking a filling of any sort. It took fully 43 minutes for them to threaten Bernd Leno’s goal, a brilliant double-save denying Eriksen from close range and the excellent Moussa Sissoko from 18 yards.
Now Arsenal looked to turn the screw. Now Emery unleashed his bench: Aubameyang for Lacazette, who had missed two excellent chances at the start of each half. Ozil replaced Ramsey on 71 minutes. Tottenham, meanwhile brought on Erik Lamela for the painfully ponderous Wanyama, Fernando Llorente for Son. Spurs ended the game in a narrow 4-4-2 with Jan Vertonghen at left-back and Rose in the regista role at the base of midfield. Was Daniel Levy watching? Spurs fans will certainly hope so.
With 17 minutes to go, a lifeline. A free-kick from the right, an exceptionally soft penalty as Shkodran Mustafi leaned gently into Kane, sending him over like an empty bottle of Highland Spring. Kane made no mistake with the penalty, and in a scrappy, screeching climax punctuated by Anthony Taylor finally dishing out all the yellow cards he should have given in the first half, Spurs looked marginally the more ambitious.
But with just over a minute remaining, Vertonghen lost the ball on the left and Spurs were on the run. Mkhitaryan spirited past him, the ball was played into Aubameyang in the channel and Sanchez made his second egregious mistake of the afternoon, grappling with Aubameyang, and grappling him down.
Taylor pointed to the spot. A hush. In many ways, it felt more like snooker at the Crucible than football at Wembley, an impression reinforced when Aubameyang gently tried to roll the white towards the corner, but ended up putting it far too close to Lloris. Finally Wembley erupted in roars, which turned to cheers when Torreira saw a straight red for a two-footed scythe on Rose. Full-time, and bundles of relief for Tottenham. If this is to be their last home game at Wembley, they can’t get away quick enough.
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