Arsenal show frills and flaws in decisive five minutes
It was the light and shade of Arsenal, the new hope and old despair, distilled into one five-minute period. The tension of a north London derby, even one played under unrecognisable circumstances, has a habit of exacerbating every ingenuity and flaw.
The opening goal, a blistering shot by Alexandre Lacazette, displayed all those inching improvements made under Mikel Arteta. Granit Xhaka, once accused of being impassive and immobile at the base of midfield, chased down the loose ball and bullishly stole it off the toes of Edinson Sanchez in a 50-50 – the type that would cause the Arsenal of not too old to shrivel into their shell. Lacazette, whose own career at the club is in jeopardy amid a streak of impotency and absence, producing one of the purest strikes any player can hope for.
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It was a just reward for Arsenal’s early confidence, a willingness to break and maraud into space without fear or constraint. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had already spurned a wonderful chance after Hector Bellerin’s waltzing run, skipping past two challenges and making up a good 40 yards before cutting it back to Arsenal’s captain.
But for all their form and flourish, the spectre of the past crackled over Spurs’ new stadium. The blame was immediately directed at David Luiz, who was left in a painful stumble by Son Heung-min. But really, it was the fault of Sead Kolasinac, Arsenal’s makeshift third centre-back, whose under-hit hospital pass gave birth to the morbid footrace.
On cue, Son raced through and lifted a chip deftly over Martinez, Arteta grimaced on the touchline, and you hardly needed 60,000 fans inside the stadium to hear the familiar chorus of laughter and groans that will have ensued.
Spurs win in typical Mourinho fashion
For Spurs, too, this victory was a reflection of their own joys and woes. By now, we’re all accustomed to Jose Mourinho’s side creating few chances, but the bedrock of defence that the Portuguese built his name upon often feels like an equally distant memory. He could hardly be blamed, though, for Serge Aurier’s leaden touch assisting Lacazette’s opener. The French full-back, much like Luiz, seems to be hardwired with a system error that no manager is capable of overwriting.
Ben Davies struggled to contain Nicolas Pepe’s blur of jinks and stepovers, but came closest to putting Spurs ahead in the first-half after his fizzing long-range shot forced the increasingly impressive Emiliano Martinez into a fingertip save. Giovani Lo Celso, meanwhile, continued to establish himself as the technical and tenacious heartbeat of Mourinho’s side, charging spitefully between each box, as readily gliding between tackles as biting at ankles.
Those individual sparks of quality – largely confined to Son and Lo Celso on today’s viewing – are clearly too few and far between. For a Tottenham side who showed the quality to outclass some of the world’s very best en route to the Champions League final just a year ago, Mourinho’s blueprint for the future feels short on ambition and stirs little excitement. And yet, here he was vindicated again as Toby Alderwiereld’s late header provided the decisive blow, no matter how much Spurs’ imagination and freedom seems to be stifled by this approach. For all Mourinho’s promises of evolution, this was the typical performance from one of his sides. The type we’ve seen countless times down the years, uncompromised by time or change – and one that might just breathe life into Spurs’ Europa League hopes yet.
Ceballos and Mustafi embody Arsenal’s improvement
Dani Ceballos’s short stay at Arsenal seemed as though it was going to peter out quietly prior to the restart. Injury had robbed the midfielder of time and fitness, but even when available, Arteta seemed reluctant to call upon him, with concerns over Ceballos’ defensive contribution. If Mesut Ozil’s ostracising has taught us anything, it’s that Arsenal’s manager will not suffer any lightweights in his side.
But if any player embodies Arsenal’s recent improvements, Ceballos’ recent performances have been emphatic. Today, he touched the ball more than any other player, dictating play in midfield, providing shape and structure. An honourable shout-out, too, must go to Shkodran Mustafi. The central defender was recently regarded as one of Arsenal’s largest liabilities. Within the space of a few weeks, he’s transformed into the club’s most reliable defender, a resurrection that many would have cast as impossible.
Kane still short of goalscoring best
After his long injury lay-off, the best of Harry Kane still feels confined somewhere below the surface. Whereas he was once omnipresent up front, dropping deep to collect the ball, finishing any sniff of an opportunity. At times, the Spurs captain seems to drift into the peripheries, not quite able to force an impression on the game. When his clearest opportunity came late on as Arsenal became stretched chasing an elusive equaliser, his shot clanged off the inside of the post from a tight angle. There’s no doubting that his best form will return, but after such a long period out, and such a relentless reintroduction to football since, right now it still feels as though there’s plenty of rust to be shaken for Tottenham and England’s talisman.
Set-piece costs Arsenal
Ultimately, Arsenal only had themselves to blame. Spurs had coiled and compressed, determined not to let their lead slip and save for that one golden opportunity. The Gunners had been the better side, on the ball and on the eye, but a combination of lack of experience and cutting edge cost them. Aubameyang had hammered a great chance against the upright and another difficult volley forced Hugo Lloris into a diving save. Rarely, throughout the second half, had there been any moments of real panic.
But, in the most routine of circumstances, their hard work was undone and, with it, their hopes of a Europa League spot by way of the league extinguished. Alderweireld rose tallest to meet a brilliant ball from Son. It was a well-taken goal, but one that was entirely preventable. Mourinho’s stubborn and rigid approach inflicting a cruel blow on Arteta’s exciting but vulnerable transformation.
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