Tottenham came into their game at the Emirates today unbeaten since the unlucky opening day loss to Manchester United. And they left the game still undefeated in their last 11. After taking a first half lead after some terrible defending by both Mertesacker and Koscielny, Arsenal had the unlikeliest of equalizers, from sub Kieran Gibbs three minutes after coming on. Three missed headers from good positions by Giroud surrounded that goal and the Gunners might feel unlucky not to have stolen all three points, but Tottenham were impressive for most of the game and actually outshot Arsenal 13 to 10 and could easily have put the game out of reach with some good chances in the first 15 minutes of the second half. In the end, it was probably a fair result and kept Tottenham unbeaten in their last four North London Derbies (1 win and 3 draws). Three thoughts on the game:
1. Tottenham are for Real: It hurts to say this as an Arsenal fan that is preternaturally inclined to despise everything Tottenham, but this Spurs team has their best chance to get back to the Champions League since 2012, when they were robbed of that position as Chelsea won an unlikely Champions League crown. The Spurs are the youngest team in the league, with one of its younger managers, but it rarely shows as they have now mastered Pochettino’s style and tactical approach – pressing high up the pitch in numbers and then attacking with speed and precision. They surround the ball and then shoot out to create seams across the pitch. And they are also solid at the back, with Belgians Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen creating one of the better centre back pairings in the league, backed by the excellent goalkeeping of Lloris.
They did capitulate the lead here today, after failing to put the game out of reach with some good possession around the box, but seem like a team poised to stay near the top of the table. Spurs fans are probably awaiting the late capitulation that seems to be their birthrate, but I wonder if this is the year they finally overcome that tendency. They had a lot of early season draws when Harry Kane was struggling in front of goal, but he seems back near his best and was actually a few inches away from a hat trick, just missing the far post on a couple of shots. Given the struggles of Chelsea, Liverpool’s injury troubles up front and the fact that Leicester City, Southampton and West Ham are the closest rivals at present for a Top 4 spot, this could be a team on the rise. This is particularly true when we look at their record against the other teams at the top of the table, including the 1-1 draw with Arsenal, the 4-1 win over City, the road draw with Leicester and the 0-0 draw against Anfield. With this defensive unit and organization, the real question is whether they can score enough goals to turn these draws (6) into wins.
2. Arsenal in the Thick of the Title Race: Arsenal missed a golden opportunity to go top of the table after the surprise draw between City and Aston Villa earlier in the afternoon, but their performance during the last 30 minutes of the game showed a team with more self-belief. If Giroud had finished even one of his three great opportunities to head the ball in the net, Arsenal might have snatched all three points. Yet the draw kept them joint top with City and two of the standout performers of the season continued to impress – Cech with some key saves to keep them in the game and then Ozil, adding yet another assist (he now has 10 and could have had three more if the finishing was better). The concern for the Gunners is a more porous defense that is providing opportunities to opposing teams, the mounting injury troubles (though Koscielny and Arteta were both on the pitch today) and the way they gave the ball away far too easily for the first three quarters of the game. Sanchez also had another below par game, though his goals appear to come in patches and one assumes he will be back to scoring goals soon.
3. Should Mertesacker be Replaced by Gabriel: Mertesacker has had an up and down career with Arsenal, but it is hard to ignore the fact that the Gunners have been among the better defensive teams in the league since their title capitulation two seasons ago, when they were blown out by Liverpool (5-1), Chelsea (6-0) and Everton (3-0) in the second half of the season, before the late charge kept them in the Champions League place. They actually conceded the second fewest goals behind Chelsea last term and are joint second this term with Manchester City, having only conceded 9. On the other hand, Mertesacker has looked below his best in recent games, absolutely awful against Bayern (along with most of the team) and beaten far too often in this game, including a real head scratcher that contributed to the Kane goal. Gabriel brings more pace and younger legs and though Mertesacker is taller and maybe more positionally disciplined in general, one wonders if Gabriel and Koscielny might be the better pairing, particularly when facing teams with pace. I am a fan of the lumbering German, but wonder if his time as a guaranteed starter should come under review.
Arsenal head into the international break at the perfect time, as it give Walcott, Ramsey and Ox more time to recover from their minor injuries. Upon returning, the Gunners have a nice run of fixtures heading to the City showdown, playing at West Brom, hosting Dinamo Zagreb in the UCL, heading to Norwich, at home against Sunderland, to Olympiakos (where they will have to win by at least two goals, assuming they beat Zagreb) and then to Aston Villa. Tottenham have a slightly tougher road, hosting upstart West Ham (who have played better on the road this season, particularly against the top teams), a reeling Chelsea that will really need a win and Monaco, and traveling to FK Qarabag and West Brom.