Afternoon all – James here after an eventful North London derby yesterday – one which we could, and probably should have won, but come the final whistle we were by far the happier set of supporters.
In the build up to the game during the week, the pre-derby trepidation was running at full throttle – I don’t tend to expect much at White Hart Lane during the good times, so given the respective form and perceived trajectories of the two sides, I entered the ground fearing the worst.
Getting into the ground proved surprisingly uneventful, with none of the police-kettling, mouth-foaming thuggery or violence for which this fixture is oft associated. Several vines and images emerged of some pretty unsavoury scenes outside the ground, which bypassed me completely – we made the decision to get into the ground earlier than we usually would and it proved a sensible course of action. They hate us so vehemently – and I love it.
The team news from an Arsenal perspective was interesting, with El Neny slotting in for his first Premier League start, with Ramsey shifted to the right. Gibbs got the nod ahead of an understandably fatigued Monreal and Welbeck deservedly got his chance to lead the line.
The game fell into a somewhat predictable pattern of Tottenham monopolising possession, with Arsenal content to sit back and absorb pressure, often looking long to Welbeck or Alexis as an out-ball. Wenger got his tactics spot on yesterday, particularly in his use of Ramsey and Alexis. The Chilean did very little work in our half and he was clearly under instruction to stay high up the pitch to support Welbeck and often act as the spare man. This put significant pressure on Ramsey physically, and tactically, to shift across the pitch when we were defending, with one of Coquelin or El Neny shifting to the left wing when Tottenham had the ball and Ramsey tucking in centrally. It was a tactic that was working well – whilst we struggled to exert control on the game, we limited the home side, save for a stunning save by Ospina from Walker’s deflected drive.
Whilst Ramsey had to be highly disciplined defensively, he had carte blanche in offensive positions, which in my opinion, brings the best out of him. This was evidenced when five minutes before half time, the Welshman gave us the lead. Welbeck – who’s direct running and intelligent movement had been causing Alderweiweld and Wimmer problems throughout the half – squared the ball to an unmarked Bellerin. His intelligent pass (it wasn’t a shot) was deftly flicked in by Ramsey passed a flailing Lloris. It was rich reward for our hard work and discipline during the half and it sent the away end into raptures.
I felt at half time we deserved our lead and appeared to have the tactical upper hand on Tottenham, who seemed nervous and slightly inhibited by the significance of the game. There had been some strong showings too – I thought El Neny was a pleasant surprise – he clearly has strong tactical awareness and was exceptionally calm in possession, which in a derby can be invaluable. His first touch is immaculate too and puts Coquelin’s, for instance, to shame. Welbeck also had a superb half, hassling and harrying but also showing intelligence in his movement. A friend commented what a nightmare he must be to play against, and whilst he could be slightly more assertive with the ball at times, he was a great asset yesterday.
As the second half got under way, discipline was going to be the key in determining the outcome of the game. Unsurprisingly, it was indiscipline which undid all of our good work, in an act of sheer stupidity by Francis Coquelin. As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m not a fan of the Frenchman and yesterday is illustrative of why. It displayed a real lack of in-game intelligence, which is endemic of the player. His decision to scathe down Harry Kane, rather than stand him up, was the kind that would result in a rollicking on Hackney Marshes – let alone in a Premier League match.
Some will say he’s ‘passionate’, he ‘understands what a derby means’, but I would give that short shrift. I’m all for passion and fight, but there are ways of channelling that. Winning 50:50s, running your socks off, not giving the opposition an inch of space – that’s what the likes of Welbeck and Ramsey were doing all game. Coquelin has a bit of a ‘hero’ mentality, whereby he wins affection because he slides into tackles, waves his arms and gesticulates at the crowd; but this manifest itself yesterday in the worst way. He is a hot head and has been an accident waiting to happen for some time (see Leicester at the Emirates where he was pulled as he had clearly lost his head).
It had a very Arsenal-ly feel about it – our ability to hit the self-destruct button is unparalleled at times and indiscipline has been a recurrent theme in big-games this season- see Messrs Gabriel, Cazorla and Mertesaker versus Chelsea. The question was then how we would stand-up to such a set-back and the answer was “not well”. Within five minutes, Alderweiweld had equalised for the Lilywhites, in what was almost a mirror image of Harry Kane’s equaliser in the same fixture last season. A corner slipped through to the back post and the Belgian was left unmarked to sweep home.
By this point, I and those around me feared the worst and two minutes later, our premonitions were realised. A long ball towards the corner was chased down by Per, who really should have hit the ball into row-z instead of shepherding it out for a goal kick. The German had a brilliant game I felt, but this was a poor error of judgement from such an experienced player. The otherwise anonymous Alli nicked the ball away and it fell to Harry Kane who had the freedom of North London to pick his spot and curl, what was in fairness, a beautiful shot across Ospina.
Given our recently tepid performances and seeming lack of mental fortitude, we could be forgiven for expecting to be on the wrong side of an embarrassing score line at this point. The manager was bold however and took off El Neny to introduce Giroud and it didn’t take us long to settle back into the rhythm of the game. With 15 minutes of the game remaining, Ramsey’s intelligent ball found Bellerin who played a delicious ball into the path of Alexis, who’s deft finish slipped through Lloris. The goal was met with both delight and a palpable element of surprise – I really didn’t expect us to be able to shift the momentum in our favour again. After the equaliser we looked the more likely to score, with Ramsey spurning a great chance under pressure from an onrushing defender.
The game finished with Arsenal on-top and the cheers in the away end at the full time whistle left no doubt about who was the happier of the sides with the draw. Admittedly, celebrating a draw against Tottenham may feel a little ‘small-time’, but given the context of the game and how it played out, our resilience and determination was a real positive. For them, it will feel like a loss – failing to win in a big game, at home from a winning position with the opposition down to ten men… feels like bottling to me. Can you imagine if the roles had been reversed?
Whilst I can certainly understand the frustration that we couldn’t show such grit and steel at Old Trafford and against Swansea, if you can’t enjoy snatching a draw from the jaws of defeat at the Lane, then you may as well not bother. Of course there is always a wider context to games, but as fans who expend so much time, money and emotion on following Arsenal, you should be able to enjoy results in a vacuum sometimes.
Conversely, it is these ‘vacuum results’ at home to Utd, Bayern and Leicester and away to Olympiakos and yesterday to a lesser extent, which mask what has been a massively underwhelming season. Throughout the term there has been a lack of any discernable style or vision of how we want to play – we aren’t quite a counter attacking side, not quite a pressing side and not a possession side either. We have definitely suffered from the loss of Cazorla and since losing him, we have muddled through. In part, this is a personnel issue with no other player (save for Wilshere) apart from Santi able to dictate the play from deep. We are also unbalanced by a lack of wide playmaker too – I think Wenger’s preference is (and always has been) to have a bombastic winger in the mould of Alexis or Oxlade supplemented by a more tactically astute player (a Mahrez for instance) to balance the side, relieve pressure from Ozil and crucially be another outlet to retain the ball. It sounds perverse, but Arsenal lack ball playing midfielders, which doesn’t fit the media driven adage of the club stockpiling diminutive ball hoggers.
Going forward, I fear that the gap to Leicester is insurmountable given their relatively kind fixture list and our inconsistency. The target has to be to topple Tottenham as a bare minimum and see where that takes us.
It’s a massive disappointment as I feel this squad has the quality to win this league, but we just don’t have that extra 10% that champions often possess – sadly a lot of the buck must lie with Arsene. If you look at Utd under Ferguson, he was able to make teams greater than the sum of their parts and extract those fine margins which are the difference between title winners and also-rans, which I fear we are perennially becoming. The boss did what few others could have in retaining our Champions League status during the barren years and he earned the opportunity to take us into the stage of anti-austerity. Three years down the line however, I fear he can’t take us much further. I hope I am proven wrong and I’d love nothing more than Arsene to lead us to another title, but at the moment it just feels beyond him. The abuse he receives from sects of our support is abhorrent, embarrassing and disgusting when you consider his achievements – if nothing else, he deserves respect – but in what feels like ground hog day, we just keep falling short.
Until next time.
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