Things started rather well for Arsenal at White Hart Lane today, with Mesut Ozil scoring his third goal in his last three games on 11 minutes. And given their form in recent weeks, many a Gooner might have had a strong reason to feel optimistic. Watching the taped game (it started at 4:45 a.m. here), I was less sanguine, particularly as Tottenham mounted attack after attack. Arsenal did get to halftime up 1-0, but with only 35 percent of possession and only one other shot on target. As the second half began, it became clear that Arsenal would continue their surprising, and welcome, new strategy of setting up in a defensive formation and then playing on the counter.
The problem was that the high press that Mauricio Pochettino has taken with him from Southampton kept the Gunners from getting the ball out with any effectiveness and, beside a short stretch before the equalizer, had trouble stringing together enough passes to disrupt the forward momentum of the Spurs. Yet 55 minutes into the game, their defense had yet to concede, with several last second tackles and a few topnotch saves from Ospina keeping their slender lead. That changed in the 56th minute, when the player of the year so far, Harry Kane, coolly slotted past Ospina after the Columbian could only parry the ball into his path after a corner. It was really what Tottenham deserved after an impressive attacking display throughout much of the match. Arsenal tried to inject some attack back into their game, but found few chances but for a whipped shot from Welbeck that Lloris saved well and a free header from a corner that Koscielny directed right at the French keeper.
Given their inability to sustain any attack and trouble even getting the ball out of their zone, the Gunners might have been thinking a point would be good business on a bad day. But Harry Kane would have none of that, rising above Koscielny and Mertesacker to perfectly cushion a header into the far corner in the 86th minute. Arsenal tried to equalize, but without their usual flair, and they dropped not only three points to their bitterest rivals, but fell a points below them in the standings. It was a tough day for the Gunners and a spectacular one for the Spurs, though Tottenham fans should probably hold their tongues, as they have been above Arsenal at this point in a season far too many times, only to blow it in the end. If they continue to play as they did today, however, the Top 4 will soon start looking like a viable and just reward. Three thoughts on the game:
1. Kane “Homecoming”: Harry Kane’s story is a rare one these days – a local kid that started playing for his hometown team as a nine-year-old with dreams of making it to the starting lineup, but real doubts as he went out on loan more than once. Given his chance this season, the 21-year-old has taken it like few in history, first scoring consistently in the Europa League and then matching that feat in the EPL. He now has 22 goals in all competitions, leading all players in England, and looks unlikely to let up soon (barring an injury). He seems to have it all, the poachers instinct, a great header, the ability to score from distance, drive and, maybe most importantly, the poise of a top-class player. At 21, his career has to be managed well, but this is a kid who could go on to do incredible things for club and country.
2. Gunner Gumption (or lack thereof): The most consistent thing about the Gunners over the past several years has been their inconsistency. Sure they finish in the Top 4 every year and tend to get out of their group in the champions league, but when it really counts, they too often seem second best (until the late league run most years they always seem to manage to snatch that fourth, or once third, spot – often from Tottenham, it should be noted). After an inspiring win against City and then an absolute demolition of Aston Villa, there was hope the Gunners could keep up their winning ways, but they again found a way to lose that momentum – even with the early lead. The players seemed to doubt themselves throughout, giving the ball away cheaply and clearing wildly far too often for a team of this talent. They surely missed Sanchez, but certainly could have done better. And now they need to get back to winning ways to ensure the Spurs don’t continue building on that lead. In the end, Wenger set them up to win, but they failed to execute the plan effectively.
3. Tactical Troubles: One could argue that Pochettino outcoached Wenger for not the first time in his career today, though Arsenal could have stopped both goals and easily won this game 1-0. The reason they didn’t, to me, is because they need more work in this new system. It is clear Coquelin has brought power and leadership to the midfield, even as this was not his best game, but Cazorla and Ozil will need to play better defense and distribute the ball better under pressure if this system can work against high pressing teams with strong attacks. Ramsey will also have to improve or give way, as he just can’t seem to find the form of last season and appears to be as frustrated with his play as the fans are starting to become. What was really missing for me in this formation was a second DM. If you are going to play this system, you need to go the way of Man City or Chelsea, and have the sort of defensive-minded players who won’t get as easily beat as Ozil or Cazorla (though he has been better in recent weeks) too often do. Maybe Flamini could have done the job, but I think this highlights the need for that other top class DM to come in next summer – though he should have been there since last August at least! Three other points: a) while Bellerin and Monreal were not bad, there was too much room on the wings, particularly behind Bellerin, and while this was partially due to Ozil and Cazorla not helping out enough, it appeared they were playing a little too far up the pitch and need to stay back a little deeper, b) Giroud and Welbeck have to do a better job of holding the ball up and distributing it for the system to provide goals. While Welbeck made a few impressive runs, including the one that led to the opening goal, he was far too sloppy in giving the ball away, and c) It is time for real questions to be asked of Mertesacker who was partially responsible on both goals, particularly now that a 15 million pound potential replacement sits on the bench. Germany realized that his best days might already be behind him and it might be time for Wenger to come to the same conclusion.
Next up for Arsenal is a welcome trip back home to face bottom dwelling Leicester City (Wednesday) before taking on Middlesboro in the FA Cup and then heading to a relatively hot Crystal Palace. Tottenham next head to Anfield to face a slightly resurgent Liverpool (who drew 0-0 with Everton today) before facing West Ham at home and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, with Europa League games sandwiched in between. So even as it was a bad day for the Gunners, they may very well find themselves back above their North London rivals within the next week or two. That is only if they get back to playing quality football again rather quickly, though.