Amid all the chaos at the Emirates, both Arsenal and Spurs remind us of their fatal flaws. Alex Keble dissects a remarkable north London derby.
You can always rely on the North London derby for total carnage, for players gleefully abandoning their manager’s carefully thought-out battle plans in favour of a blood bath. But even by the standard set in recent years Sunday’s 2-2 draw at the Emirates was a special game, and one from which both sides emerge relatively pleased with the spirit and fight of their respective performances. Nevertheless, it was chaos and disorder that defined the game, teaching us as much about Arsenal’s and Tottenham’s limitations as it did their strengths.
Arsenal were maddening, as usual. Unai Emery finally unleashed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, and Nicolas Pepe together in a Liverpool-esque 4-3-3 with predictably thrilling results, and yet familiar defensive errors undermined the fact Emery’s frantic, dogged energy is beginning to rub off on his players.
Focus on the positives
But first, the positives: Arsenal snapped and snarled into challenges, Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira supplying the aggression that Emery needs for his surging counter-attacking football to take hold at the Emirates. They hustled with the alacrity Jurgen Klopp squeezes out of his Liverpool midfielders, and the comparisons to the European champions don’t end there. It is no surprise that Klopp would inspire his peers, and indeed ahead of a workmanlike midfield trio Emery picked three quick, incisive forwards in the mould of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino.
The problems lie further back. There is no Fabinho figure screening the Arsenal defence, Granit Xhaka’s hopeless concession of a penalty further evidence – not that we need it – that he was never a defensive midfielder. There is no Virgil van Dijk, either, but instead a pair of delightfully manic centre-backs who embody Emery-ball better than anyone.
David Luiz and Sokratis are urgent to the point of anxious, zealous to the point of rabid. It helps Arsenal draw the opposition press and counter quickly in behind like Emery’s Sevilla did, but it is fatal to their distant hopes of a title challenge. Christian Eriksen’s opener followed Sokratis wildly rushing out and Luiz getting lost, setting the tone for a frantic first half hour that perhaps influenced Xhaka’s decision to rush to ground in the penalty box. No doubt the erratic decision-making in defence will continue to undermine Arsenal throughout the campaign.
But what most poignantly separates Arsenal and Liverpool is the full-backs. Liverpool’s front three draw defenders narrow so that overlapping full-backs can do damage, a pattern Arsenal know better than most after last weekend’s 3-1 pummelling at Anfield. Sead Kolasinac and Ainsley Maitland-Niles have nothing like the same quality, hence why Arsenal failed to capitalise on Spurs’ tiring legs in the second half.
The visitors’ clumsy 4-5-1 left acres of space in the channels but Arsenal were unable to take advantage, which was particularly frustrating after the team had built fluidly through midfield.
Full-backs are fast becoming the most important position in football, providing width as high-pressing football narrows the pitch and clutters the once-fertile number ten space. And so it’s no surprise that what separates Arsenal from the elite level is also what separates Spurs from the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool; Davinson Sanchez had a nightmare at right-back and Danny Rose was scarcely better.
Lack of quality out wide
Spurs’ lack of quality in the wide areas explains why they keep struggling to break down deep-lying opponents like Newcastle last weekend, and at the Emirates on Sunday they barely managed to break into the Arsenal half. Rose managed a total of nine touches.
Not that Spurs should be criticised for a gutsy display, even if ultimately Arsenal made the visitors look nervous defensively. Mauricio Pochettino’s surprise 4-4-2 formation worked well in the first half as Eriksen cut in from the left to confuse the Gunners midfield, while Son reminded us that he is the most important player in the Tottenham team. When he’s firing – or in other words, when the opposition leaves space in behind – Spurs are transformed.
The North London derby always seems to bring out the worst in defenders, but nevertheless, Sunday’s draw was a timely reminder that both Arsenal and Tottenham are too flawed to expect title challenges in the near future; mutual weaknesses in the full-back positions prohibit it. As for Champions League qualification, both managers will have seen enough tactical cohesion to be confident of success. Battling against the hysteria that always seems to infect this fixture, both clubs did well to emerge with their reputations, and seasons, unharmed.
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