Spurs 2-1 Arsenal: Kaned and Unable

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I seem to bang on about ‘fine margins’ an awful lot at the moment. So much so that I’ve started using online thesauri to try and come up with some alternatives. The best I can find is ‘narrow gap’, which funnily enough is precisely what has opened up between Tottenham and Arsenal since our derby defeat.

That’s of little immediate concern: looking at the two sets of fixture lists, I still expect Arsenal to finish above Tottenham. The greater threat to our top four place comes from Southampton and Manchester United. Even the gloriously hubristic Hotspurs have been noticeably quiet about their one-point lead — surely they’ll never be so foolish as to warn us to mind a gap again.

That said, Spurs were undoubtedly the better side on Saturday. I think all football fans are sometimes guilty of only assessing their own team’s performance. If we score a goal it’s purely down to our own brilliance; if we concede one our incompetence is held equally responsible. Sometimes you do have to give credit to your opposition — much as it pains me to say it, they were excellent.

But what of those ‘fine margins’ I mentioned in the first paragraph as if they were going to be important?

I suppose what I mean is that the gap in perception between a ‘spirited rear-guard action’ and being ‘on the backfoot for 90 minutes’ is incredibly small. When you play as Arsenal did at Spurs, inviting pressure and looking to play on the break, the game is inevitably going to be on a knife-edge.

When you’re under sustained pressure, as Arsenal were, the smallest defensive mistake can be crucial. Yes, Aaron Ramsey might have done better to stay with Harry Kane at a corner, and Theo Walcott could have closed down Nabil Bentaleb a little sooner, but they’re not criminal errors. I struggle to find the energy to crucify those players for momentary lapses in concentration. If you set up to defend for 90 minutes, it’s draining.

Such a game-plan also demands you’re incredibly efficient in possession. Surprisingly, that’s where Arsenal most obviously fell short. Defensive errors are par for the course, but an inability to keep the ball comes as more of a shock. That’s the greatest disappointment to come out of Saturday’s game: with more finesse on the ball, we might have punished Tottenham sufficiently on the break to render our defensive errors inconsequential. Instead, we struggled to live with Tottenham’s high intensity pressing game, just as we did at Dortmund and Liverpool earlier this season.

This game followed a remarkably similar pattern to last year’s fixture. In both matches, Spurs recovered from going a goal behind to dominate — they actually had more possession in 2014. Sometimes you’ll get away with it, sometimes you won’t.

For more rambling discussion of this ilk, why no tune in to the latest Arsecast Extra, in which we take a closer look at the form of Aaron Ramsey.

Arsecast Extra 35: Derby Day Edition

I’m interrupting my holiday on the stormy isle of Mallorca to bring you the latest Arsecast Extra, recorded between Dublin and the wee town of Pollensa.

Unsurprisingly, the focus is primarily on that slightly underwhelming 1-1 derby draw. We discuss the bizarre team selection, Flamini’s costly error, and our feelings about a slightly disappointing start to the campaign. It’s a barrel of laughs.

Don’t forget, you can subscribe to the Arsecast Extra on iTunes by clicking here. Alternatively, if you want to subscribe directly to the feed URL you can do so too (I’m told this spares you the dastardly delays from iTunes).

Haven’t had time to put together a proper blog on the game – I actually missed a good chunk of the first-half due to delayed flight – but here are some other bits and pieces I wrote for it.

On Alexis Sanchez, for ESPN:

Alexis calculates that his drag-backs and dribbles are a chance worth taking. In future, Wenger must show similar courage in his team selections.

And on a potential solution to our midfield injury problems, for Bleacher Report:

Oxlade-Chamberlain was excellent against Tottenham, with his powerful running posing a constant menace to the Spurs defence. However,Wenger has long insisted that the England international might develop into a top central midfielder. The spate of injuries could be a chance to test that theory once again.

Galatasaray tomorrow. A win is needed. Come on Arsenal.

Spurs beaten & 1000 not out for Arsene

Any kind of derby win is welcome…
In these games, performance is secondary to result. Arsenal may have been on the ropes at times, but ultimately it was our hand that was lifted aloft at full-time.

The truth is that, as they have done all season, Spurs struggled to convert their dominance in to presentable goalscoring opportunities. 70% of their attempts at goal came from outside the box, which is something of an inevitability for a team including the trigger-happy Andros Townsend.

Tottenham’s best chance came from a Wojciech Szczesny error, but Mertesacker and Koscielny were on hand to rescue the Pole. Arsene Wenger has had some great individual defenders, but I’m not sure he’s had such an effective partnership as these two since the 1998 stable of Keown, Bould and Adams.

For more on whether Arsenal can win things playing like they did at Spurs, read my piece in The Mirror. 

Tomas Rosicky is becoming the scourge of Spurs…
He’s not known as much of a goalscorer, but two of this three goals this season have come against our local rivals. This one was a spectacular strike, and the sort of goal we might have imagined him scoring more regularly after watching him during the 2006 World Cup.

Arsenal’s need for a new striker crystallised at White Hart Lane…
With the team pegged back, we desperately needed an outlet up top. A bit of pace would have been invaluable. Sadly, Olivier Giroud does not even have “a bit”. He isn’t one-paced. He’s no-paced.

For more on the North London Derby, have a listen to this week’s Arsecast Extra.

Chelsea’s defeat at Villa changes things…
This was a game Arsenal had to win. However, it’s arguably now one we simply mustn’t lose. With that in mind, I expect Mathieu Flamini to come in to shore up the midfield, most likely at the expense of Lukas Podolski.

1000 up for Arsene…
What an incredible achievement. Now seems an appropriate time to share an anecdote from an agent friend of mine who recently went for a meeting with a member of the Arsenal recruitment team at London Colney. Although he didn’t meet Wenger, he was struck by the fact that his presence was evident everywhere. Every inch of that training ground is designed to his specifications.

That influence extends beyond Hertfordshire to North London, where the Emirates Stadium stands as monument to Wenger’s ambition and vision. The agent said his two hours at Colney left him with a deep respect for the remarkable transformation Wenger has enacted in North London. As Arsenal fans, we don’t need to look behind the curtain to understand his importance.

I don’t think Arsene is perfect. He’s arrogant, occasionally myopic, and infuriatingly stubborn. He’s human. However, as humans go, he’s pretty special.

The longer his contract remains unsigned, the greater the chance of him walking away at the end of the season. Arsenal fans are being made to contemplate the daunting prospect of a team without Wenger at the helm.

Let’s enjoy him while he’s here, and honour him as he deserves.

Thoughts on FA Cup, Bayern & Spurs

There is a strange pressure about being FA Cup favourites…
It’s an unpleasantly familiar sensation, much like the one we found ourselves in at this stage 2011’s Carling Cup.

Surely, the lessons of that disastrous final have been learnt. We’re more experienced, more determined and more professional. We ought to do it. There are no excuses.

I was pleased with the Bayern result and performance…

In my opinion, the tie was effectively dead after the first leg result. If I’m honest, I’d pretty much resigned it as soon as the initial draw was made. However, 1-1 at the Allianz Arena was a creditable result that allowed us to continue our campaign with the semblance of gathering momentum. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was absolutely superb: in the continued absence of Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott, he must be one of the first names on the team-sheet.

The penalty save felt significant…

Not only did it ensure we left without suffering a dispiriting defeat, but it also felt like the moment that Lukasz Fabianski guaranteed his place in the FA Cup semi-final side. In this form, his departure on a Bosman in the summer feels like a significant loss.

Spurs are on the ropes…

Their fans are as unsettled as they’ve been for some time. Speaking to Spurs supporters, it seems there’s a sense that the club lack direction and purpose. They feel little to no affinity with the players, and are worried they’re trapped in a purgatorial prison. A “negative spiral”, you might say.

However, derby day is a real equaliser. We know only two well how quickly the trajectories of the two north London clubs can be reversed. Arsenal will need to ensure their focus is absolutely right if they’re to come away with three points.

We need those points pretty badly. Although the increased probability of FA Cup success has made that the focus, we still have a good chance of winning the Premier League. It would take an extraordinary run, but then title wins usually do.