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.

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.

Arsenal 2 – 0 Spurs: I Sher-Woodn’t want to be a Tottenham fan

Arsenal 2 – 0 Tottenham
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

I’ll admit, I was worried about the XI Arsene picked…
Before the game, Arsene said he’d treat this just like an important league game. He was fibbing. Had this been a league game, Szczesny, Mertesacker and Ozil would all have started. Perhaps Olivier Giroud would even have been roused from his sickbed.

Instead, all four were absent from the starting XI, and two from the matchday squad entirely.

There were two areas that particularly troubled me. The first was at centre-back: the pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen has never looked particularly secure. The first half showed that fielding these two talented but impetuous defenders does make us a little vulnerable in-behind – Vermaelen was twice turned when trying to nick the ball early. However, any anxiety was relatively short-lived: a cut knee forced Vermaelen off at half-time, with Mertesacker coming on to replace the Belgian.

My other concern was the goalkeeper. Although Lukasz Fabianski’s recent performances have been relatively solid, I’d be lying if I said I’d entirely let go of my perception of him as something of a calamity waiting to happen – as my annotated team-sheet will show.

My fears were misplaced…

Arsenal were never really tested. Fabianski made one decent save to deny Christian Eriksen, but other than that Arsenal looked very secure. Emmanuel Adebayor, whose good form going in to the game was cause for dark premonitions, spent the match tucked firmly in Laurent Koscielny’s back-pocket. Roberto Soldado, meanwhile, is truly the heir apparent to Helder Postiga in Tottenham’s Hall of Infamy.

To be honest, Tottenham made it very easy for us.

I think Tim Sherwood’s positive impact at Tottenham has been hugely overblown. He’s only won three of his first six games. He drew at home with an out-of-sorts West Brom, and lost an important Capital One Cup tie at home to relegation-threatened West Ham.

I don’t know if it’s because he’s a young English manager, but the praise he’s received seems hugely disproportionate when compared to his actual tangible impact. The BBC have even chosen to conveniently overlook the West Ham game and call this the first defeat of his time at Tottenham:

I’m convinced that a Spurs side managed by AVB would have given us a better game today – in fact, they did just that, back in August.

Sherwood has been lauded for his revolutionary introduction of an old school 4-4-2 formation. However, today was the first occasion on which his system was tested against a quality five-man midfield. It might be good enough to beat mid-table sides like Manchester United, but it’s not going to be good enough to beat the Arsenal.

Another bizarre thing about Sherwood is that while he has overhauled the team, he’s chosen to retain arguably the most catastrophic element of AVB’s team: the kamikaze high line.

It was telling that Wenger opted to pick a three diminutive speedsters up top in Gnabry, Walcott and Cazorla. He had probably watched Liverpool’s tiny trio of Suarez, Coutinho and Sterling demolish Tottenham a matter of weeks before.

While I’m on it, Tim Sherwood is a spectacularly inarticulate man…
I know I’ll be accused of snobbery here, but I don’t care. After the match, Sherwood claimed, “We was not not outnumbered in midfield, we wasn’t”. Seems like he’s stuck in his own double-negative spiral.

Gnabry was outstanding…
Starting Fabianski felt like a gamble. Starting Gnabry felt like a declaration of faith. That faith was repaid with a storming display. For an 18 year-old, it’s his football intelligence that really takes your breath away.

Amid all the chatter about the Januzaj lad at United, you might forget that other club’s are even allowed to have exciting youngsters. Apparently if they don’t have even the slightest chance of playing for England, they’re not as interesting to our national press. Nevertheless, I can’t see many more promising prospects than Gnabry around – and he doesn’t dive. While I’m at it: if he played for a club with a midfield as weak as Moyes’, he’d probably be starting every week too. As it is, he is in competition with the likes of Cazorla and Ozil for a regular place.

Further reading: Serge Gnabry comes of age as Arsenal see of Spurs

Rosicky…
…deserved that goal. He probably deserves a new deal, too. Arsenal will face competition from the MLS and elsewhere for his services in 2014/15, but I’d be delighted to see him stay with the club. You won’t find many 33-year olds who could race away from Danny Rose quite so effectively. He’s like Peter Pan. Or maybe Benjamin Button. Maybe eventually he will regress in to being a weird little baby old person. Who knows? But I want to see it happen. At Arsenal.

Further reading: Super Tom Rosicky Shines Against Spurs

Theo Walcott looked impressive as a centre-forward…
His finishing was a little off, but he showed great movement and a willingness to take on the physical elements of the role. On the admittedly limited evidence of the past two games, he’s a far better bet for the position than Lukas Podolski.

As for the whole stretcher-based controversy, Spurs want to be careful throwing money at Theo – they’ve already chucked away £100m in the summer transfer market.

Arsenal saw out the game in relative comfort…
My overall thought watching this match was that gap between the two teams seems to have widened significantly in the first-half of this season. This was the most one-sided derby victory for some time.

The Fourth Round beckons, and I hope we give the FA Cup some real focus this year. It’d be a massive thing to reach the final or, God forbid, win it. The players seemed to flourish away from the weekly pressure of the Premier League, too – this was our best performance in weeks.

Arsenal have nine days rest now before an awkward-looking trip to Aston Villa, and the resumption of Premier League duties.