Well, that certainly was something. Neutrals who enjoy a good old-fashioned fight back will have enjoyed the match, as Arsenal overcame a two goal deficit to rivals Tottenham Hotspur to secure a point with an energetic second half display. Despite the comeback and a well-deserved point, the match left Arsenal fans feeling like all three points were left on the pitch as Emery’s tactics once again felt lacking.
Arsenal fans were impatiently waiting for the lineup to drop to see if Unai Emery would finally start the attacking trio of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, and Nicolas Pepe for the first time all season. To their pleasure, the manager delivered.
However, what stuck out was the distinct lack of a creative playmaker in the midfield, as both Dani Ceballos and Mesut Ozil were left on the bench. It seemed that Emery had chosen to forego creativity for ball control, which also meant a lack of link-up play between the attack and the midfield.
Tottenham fielded a strong line-up that featured Christian Eriksen, the midfielder whose Tottenham career seemed in the balance in the days leading up to the North London Derby.
Much like last week, Arsenal started fast with Pepe testing Hugo Lloris in the first minute. Much like last week, though, that early momentum appeared to dissipate rather quickly as Arsenal’s midfield, clearly set up to possess the ball, slowed the play to let Arsenal’s fullbacks in behind to create crosses and cutbacks.
Despite the lion’s share of early chances, Arsenal conceded after 10 minutes when, from a Spurs counterattack, Bernd Leno pushed a very stoppable low shot from Erik Lamela into the path of Eriksen, who ran in unmarked to slot it home from 6 yards out to put the visitors ahead. Certainly not Leno’s finest moment in an Arsenal kit.
Leno was forced into action eight minutes later, but this time he rose to the task, pushing a goal-bound curling effort from Son Heung-Min out of play for a corner.
Arsenal’s first chance of note came in the 23rd minute, when Pepe rose to meet a cross from Aubameyang at the back post, only to have it deflected wide by Danny Rose for one Arsenal’s 11 corners on the day.
Most of the first half was defined by fouls. Arsenal seemed content to invite Spurs into foul-friendly situations, as the Gunners were fouled over ten times in the half. But it wouldn’t be a North London Derby without Arsenal conceding a stupid and very avoidable penalty, and Granit Xhaka delivered when he slid in recklessly at Son in the 40th minute. And, just like the sun rises and sets, Harry Kane stepped up and hammered home the penalty to put the Spurs up 2-0.
Arsenal desperately needed to find a goal before half, and thankfully Lacazette came to the rescue. In the first of two minutes of stoppage, the Frenchman received a fantastic pass in the box from Pepe before smashing it into the roof of the net from a tough angle, giving the Gunners the boost of momentum they needed if they wanted to keep Spurs from running away with the game.
Arsenal 1-2 Spurs
Unai Emery started the second half with the same lineup that ended the first, despite the increasingly apparent need for an infusion of pace and passing in the midfield.
Once again, Arsenal found themselves with a huge chance in the half’s opening minute, as Lacazette put a header on goal. Lloris, who stood on his head for the majority of the match, made the save to prevent Laca from netting a brace.
Arsenal began to open up the attack and nearly scored the equalizer in the 56th minute when Lacazette pushed a looping header to the back post off a corner. Kolasinac threw a hopeful left foot at the ball from the edge of the 6, pushing it wide with the bottom of his boot while a clearly frustrated Aubameyang, just a few feet behind the defender, was ready to pounce on the loose ball.
Three minutes later, Kane nearly doubled Spurs’ lead when his attempt from the right side of the box rocketed into the far post and back out. Defender David Luiz dealt with the rebound deftly, plunking the ball out of play and into the stands before the visitors could capitalize.
Arsenal’s first substitution came when Dani Ceballos came on for Lucas Torreira in the 63rd minute as Emery and co were chasing a late goal. While nearly every fan would have preferred to see Xhaka hit the showers early, it appeared that Torreira called for the sub after taking a knock. Ceballos immediately made his influence known, forcing Lloris into another great save with a dipping shot from 20 yards, earning the Gunners with a corner.
Emery soon followed that substitution with another, subbing Lacazette off for Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the 67th minute. While the sub was frustrating, considering the need for an equalizer, Lacazette had earned a yellow card just moments earlier and no one can fault Emery for making a tactical move.
In the 71st, the Gunners finally broke through. Matteo Guendouzi, who was Arsenal’s best midfielder on the day and is making an early case for Arsenal’s Most Improved Player, lobbed a beautifully timed cross into the path of Aubameyang, who beat Spurs’ back line before deflecting the ball into the bottom corner of the goal.
From there on out, the match felt very much like the North London Derby matches we have come to know and love, with cynical fouls, dust ups, yellow cards, and penalty shouts for both sides going unheeded by center ref Martin Atkinson.
In the 80th minute, Arsenal appeared to have pulled ahead when a low cross by Kolasinac was put in the net by Sokratis. The Gunners’ momentary elation was dashed as VAR saved Spurs’ bacon in a big match for the second time this year when it was ruled that Kolasinac was offside.
For the last ten minutes, Arsenal camped out in Spurs’ defensive third but could not create a meaningful chance. It was a frustrating display, as chance after chance were either shot directly into a Tottenham defender or passed to death.
There was even a Granit Xhaka yellow card and a Harry Kane Dive sighting thrown in for good measure. Thankfully, Atkinson wasn’t buying what the Spurs man was selling. The game ultimately fizzled out with Kolasinac failing to get a throw-in off in time outside of Spurs’ box.
- Pepe still seems to be adapting to the Premier League and left something to be desired, but he also managed his first assist in an Arsenal shirt.
- The PAL attack will need some time to gel, but when it finally does? Hoo boy.
- Arsenal once again seemed to have no discernible attacking identity, as they bounced between errant long balls and fruitless cutbacks.
- Is there a rule somewhere that says that Arsenal has to concede a dumb penalty to Spurs every time we play them? I’m starting to think so.
- VAR is a fickle mistress.
- Emery managed to utilize only two of his three available substitutions. A questionable decision, for certain, especially when chasing the game.
- Ceballos looked more like the player that ran Burnley off the pitch than the one that looked lost against Liverpool, and Arsenal benefitted from it.
- Laca makes the tough shots look so easy and deserves a shot at the captaincy with how hard he plays for the club.
- Guendouzi has grown so much between last season and this one. The future is bright for him.
So now Arsenal face a two-week international break. While it would have been nice to enter it on the back of a victory over a rival, Arsenal are still ahead of the other clubs battling for the other two spots in the top four. The draw ensures that Arsenal remain two points ahead of Spurs as well as Chelsea and Manchester United, who both battled to draws in their matches this weekend as well.
Even better news? Following the break, defender Rob Holding should be available for first team action for the first time since tearing his ACL last December, and Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney should only be a few weeks behind in their rehab. If Arsenal can regain a full complement of healthy players, they should be better prepared for a top four run than they were last season.
An attacking identity would be nice too, but beggars can’t be choosers.