Spurs and Arsenal lay out flaws in knockabout north London derby

By Dom Farrell 13 July 2020 9
Spurs and Arsenal lay out flaws in knockabout north London derby

The first-half finishes produced by Alexandre Lacazette and Son Heung-min were moments of contrasting beauty in Sunday's disorientating north London derby. 

Matches behind closed doors are the not-so-new normal, but those fixtures where the sound and fury tends to be turned up the loudest – such as any encounter between Tottenham and Arsenal – seem to sit most uneasily within it. 

The scenes of bedlam among both sets of fans that would have accompanied both the Gunners' gatecrashing opener and Spurs' rapid response are easy to wistfully imagine and miss. 

Lacazette's 16th-minute strike was one of brutal, destructive power underpinned by purity of technique. When the shot careered into the top left corner, it felt like it might pull Hugo Lloris' goalposts along with it. 

Arsenal joy was short-lived, though, as Son dinked an irresistibly cute finish beyond Emiliano Martinez, the ball looping obediently into its intended target. 

These was goalscoring feats of the highest order, fit to grace any team or occasion. 

What came immediately before both goals spoke unpalatable truths to two giants of the English game with ambitions far outstripping their present standings of eighth and ninth in the Premier League table. 

Granit Xhaka was careless in possession as Arsenal attacked, trying to shake the effects of a probing Spurs start at odds with their limp efforts last time out at Bournemouth. Serge Aurier stepped in, only to blunder into midfield and allow the Switzerland international to retrieve the situation. 

Take two. Xhaka found Lacazette and Spurs were far too happy to idly watch his striking masterclass. 

Just over two minutes later and David Luiz was at the centre of a moment of high defensive farce. For once, it wasn't the accident-prone Brazilian's fault. Sead Kolasinac sent a brainless pass beyond his beleaguered colleague, who was fighting a losing battle when it came to making up ground on Son. 

Mikel Arteta reverting to a 3-4-3 led to Kolasinac's haphazard involvement on the left of a back three, while Jose Mourinho set out Spurs in an unfamiliar 4-4-2.

Those adjusted new systems were perhaps partly culpable for this looking not very much like an elite encounter. The first half was dominated by midfield players roving through chaotic expanses of space, the action devoid of structure. 

If it had unfolded amid a white-hot derby atmosphere, it might have been partly understandable. In a supporter-less setting it simply looked like two teams reverting to mid-table type. 

Those clubs existing in closer proximity to the top four have had seasons of ups and downs, dealing with their own shortcomings. Yet they do seem to have a far greater grasp of their destiny over the course of 90 minutes.

Ben Davies unleashed a long-ranger that Martinez tipped on to his crossbar before half-time, although when the Golden Boot-chasing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hit the same goal frame in the 59th minute it was Arsenal in the ascendancy. 

Spurs' earlier ambition had shrivelled as they shrunk closer and closer to their own goal. Arsenal are a team at the start of their journey under Arteta and briefly appeared primed to pile further misery upon Mourinho's inherited Mauricio Pochettino vintage that had turned sour. 

However, Arteta would again find out that one step forward/one step back has become hardwired into the DNA of the club he loves. Toby Alderweireld's header from Son's 81st-minute corner means Arsenal have now dropped a staggering 21 points from winning positions this season. 

The Belgium centre-back's winner also felt familiar in terms of this stage of Mourinho's career. Like when Spurs were somehow battered in a 2-0 victory over Manchester City in February, or those last defiant wheezes against big-name opponents as his Manchester United career stumbled towards a conclusion. 

Finding a way to win is an admirable trait, but how much can it galvanise when the overall direction of travel for Mourinho's Tottenham looks so unclear? Buying valuable time, but to what end? 

The team with a muddled identity but some cutting edge eventually overcame the one with a swiftly established identity but a reliably soft underbelly. 

Spurs and Arsenal is a rivalry well-matched because of their shortcomings as much as their stars. As Sunday's encounter showed, there is work to be done on either side of the north London divide.

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Dom Farrell

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