In terms of the title race, a draw at White Hart Lane was far from ideal for Arsenal against Tottenham on Saturday, with the Gunners now eight points off the top with nine games to go. But in terms of the team showing some spirit, heart and commitment, the draw was a deserved reward for players that had to scrap their way back into a game after Francis Coquelin’s moment of madness could have cost Arsenal dearly.
After the demoralising week that we’d had as Arsenal fans, I’d virtually written off any title hopes, so as a standalone North London derby, in the fragile state Arsenal were in before the game and the adversity they faced in the second half, the 2-2 scoreline was a good effort. It’s because of lapses in other matches, rather than what happened on Saturday, that has really cost them in terms of the title this season.
Arsene Wenger had to make changes as things just weren’t working against Manchester United and Swansea in the past two games, so while it put a lot of pressure on Mohamed Elneny to make his first Premier League start in such an important game, Arsene Wenger was right to bring him into the side to sure up the midfield. David Ospina came in for the injured Petr Cech for his first start in the league this season, and Kieran Gibbs also got a rare Premier League outing with Nacho Monreal struggling with an injury. For players who have had limited game time at the top level for the club this season, all three performed admirably.
Ospina has gained a slightly dodgy reputation this season, partly through the excellence of Petr Cech, and partly through his own error in dropping the ball over his line against Olympiakos, but he offered a reminder as to why he replaced Wojciech Szczesny as the number one last season. The reflex save in the first half to deny Erik Lamela was superb and he also did well to just about prevent the ball from crossing the line from a Kane effort in the second half, which was blocked with an inch of the ball not in the goal.
Arsene Wenger also got his team selection right in an attacking sense with Danny Welbeck picked up front and Aaron Ramsey shifted out to the right. Freed up of the greater responsibilities needed in the centre of the pitch, Ramsey was able to get in more dangerous positions going forward, and whether he likes it out there or not, the team is much more balanced when he plays there. With Arsenal predominantly looking to counter-attack, Danny Welbeck’s selfless running stretched the Tottenham defence and gave the Gunners an out-ball, even if they weren’t holding onto possession for much time as Welbeck would relieve pressure by chasing the the ball deep into Tottenham territory.
The Gunners were set-up expecting a Spurs onslaught, and even though the hosts dominated the opening exchanges, Arsenal were able to limit their opportunities. Ospina’s diving stop from Lamela was the only real moment of alarm as the combination of Coquelin and Elneny was able to deny Erikson and Alli space to create chances. Arsenal slowly grew into the game having got through the early period of pressure and were able to sneak into the lead before half-time.
Welbeck was able to spin in behind the defence before laying the ball back to Hector Bellerin, who had crept up to the edge of the penalty area unnoticed. Rather than trying to blast the ball towards goal, Bellerin picked out Ramsey, whose flicked finish from 12 yards out was sublime. The Welshman can be incredibly frustrating, but it’s easier to live with the failed flicks and tricks when he scores goals like that in the North London derby.
Arsenal then could have doubled the lead before half-time when the mental weakness of Spurs showed itself as the Gunners had a few half chances and were suddenly the dominant team in the game. That continued into the second half as Arsene Wenger’s team looked in control. I expected a fired-up Spurs to come out positively in the second period, but Arsenal looked much more composed and pumped up for the game. That was until Francis Coquelin intervened.
I’m a big fan of Coquelin and love the selfless work he does for the team, but to get sent off in a derby like that, with the team in control of the match, was utterly stupid. Already on a yellow card, there was no need to dive into a tackle on Harry Kane on the touchline. It was indefensible. Arsene Wenger’s look as Coquelin walked off summed up how he felt let down by his holding midfielder.
Inevitably, that changed the feeling of the match. It gave Spurs a boost, whipped up the crowd and forced Arsenal into a frantic reshuffle to try and provide support in midfield for Mohamed Elneny. The space that Coquelin had been shutting down was suddenly open and exposed the back four more. David Ospina made a remarkable save that needed goal-line technology to prove hadn’t crossed the line before Toby Alderwireld was able to fire into the net after the ball dropped kindly to him following a corner.
Moments later, Harry Kane was able to bend the ball into the far corner via the post and suddenly Spurs were ahead with over 25 minutes to go playing against ten men. After such a solid and disciplined performance prior to Coquelin’s red card, I was fearing an embarrassing result as it felt the floodgates were about to open. Even compared to the terrible week we’ve had, a 4-1 or 5-1 defeat to Spurs having been 1-0 would have felt apocalyptic.
But Arsenal rallied themselves. The ten men fought for every ball and tried to use the pace of Welbeck and Alexis to get in behind Spurs as they pushed a bit higher up the pitch with the man advantage. Knowing it was a do or die game, Arsene Wenger rolled the dice and brought on Olivier Giroud for Mohamed Elneny, leaving Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil as a midfield two that wasn’t very defensively inclined. But it worked as Giroud occupied defenders and helped make space for others.
With 14 minutes to go, the Spurs defence misjudged their offside line as they looked to squeeze up against the ten men. Ramsey found Bellerin, who in turn slid a perfect ball in behind the defence for Alexis Sanchez to run into and finish into the far corner for 2-2. It was clear that Alexis needed a goal to get some confidence back, and after his quotes during the week about the team lacking the winning mentality, it was great to see him be so instrumental in dragging the ten men back into the game.
With chances always likely to be few and far between with ten men, Arsenal had to be clinical, something they’ve struggled a bit with this season. Alexis delivered when the chance came, and hopefully that can spark him into a similar vein of form to the one he got on earlier in the season.
Arsenal’s ten looked more likely to win the game than Tottenham’s eleven as the game went on, and Aaron Ramsey might have done so but for a last-ditch tackle from Kevin Wimmer.
Questions have to be asked as to why Arsenal couldn’t show the same levels of desire and spirit in adversity in other games. We know the team have it in them to fight, but it seems difficult to bring it out of them at all the key moments, rather than just a few of them. Until that is rectified, Arsenal are unlikely to win the league. But they can take great pride in how they fought back on Saturday and use it as inspiration for the rest of the season. The blueprint has been set, there’s now no reason not to follow it and see where it gets the club come the end of the season.
As for Francis Coquelin, you owe your team-mates, your manager and the Arsenal fans an awful lot.