Arsenal captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was dropped for his apparent tardiness but it was Tottenham who failed to show up on time in the north London derby. Ten-man Spurs pushed in the closing stages but it was far too late. Beaten 2-1 at the Emirates.
The stirring attempt to conjure an equaliser after Erik Lamela’s sending off only damned what had come before. Why had Jose Mourinho’s side been so passive? What reason was there for such an insipid opening given that they had won five in a row coming in?
Mourinho has his methods, boasting a remarkable record against Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. He had won his previous two against Mikel Arteta’s version too. Perhaps he and his players were too tempted by the template that had worked against top teams earlier in the season. But this was no Mourinho masterclass.
In fact, Arsenal’s first goal came from a glaring tactical problem that had been obvious from the outset with Kieran Tierney getting the better of Matt Doherty to provide the assist. He and Emile Smith Rowe were rampant on the left with Gareth Bale offering little help. “We prepared the game to exploit these areas of weakness,” Arteta told Sky Sports afterwards.
What will have hurt is that Spurs were able to cause so little problems of their own. This was not an Arsenal team to fear. The opportunity was there to impose themselves on the game.
“I think it does not mean much,” Mourinho told Sky Sports beforehand when asked whether his team’s fine form would be a factor. “It’s the derby. It’s emotion. I don’t think it matters.”
But where was that emotion? “No intensity, no pressing,” he said afterwards when describing that first-half performance. “Some important players hiding. Really bad.”
The team selection did not scream caution but the approach did.
“What Arsenal had all match was a pattern of play,” Jamie Redknapp told Sky Sports. “Spurs play out from the back but I don’t think they have any idea how to play out from the back.”
The result was that while Mourinho selected his celebrated front three, finding them was another matter. Heung-Min Son pulled up injured following his first burst forward but that was 15 minutes in. Harry Kane had only one touch inside that first quarter of an hour.
It set the tone.
Arsenal had 17 touches in the opposition box in the first half. Spurs had three. Arsenal had 10 shots in the first half. Spurs had one. The only bonus was that it was spectacular.
Lamela produced the outstanding moment of quality in the game with his outrageous Rabona finish to open the scoring. In victory, it might have been a moment to savour for the ages. In defeat, it serves as a reminder that moments are the only thing this team is about.
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Mourinho can point to a number of them in explaining away this defeat. The injury to Son. The deflection for Arsenal’s first goal that allowed Martin Odegaard’s shot to beat Hugo Lloris. The penalty decision against Davinson Sanchez that allowed Alexandre Lacazette to win the game from the spot. The red card. Kane’s late free-kick that struck the post.
Reduce the match to these moments – these details – and it is easy to cast Tottenham as unfortunate victims of circumstance and that was the gist of Mourinho’s post-match chat.
“No post-match interviews for referees? That is a pity,” he began.
“The referees have a difficult job sometimes. I didn’t complain but when I watched on the iPad – it is what it is. If someone has a different opinion it has to be an Arsenal fan with a season ticket as that’s the only time I’d accept a different view as then he has the passion. Apart from that I wouldn’t accept from anyone who has a different view as it’s too obvious.
“It is a mistake by Michael Oliver. Players get tired with so many matches, coaches get tired, maybe referees get tired? He had a game midweek in Europe, maybe he is tired. Usually I’m very unlucky as my record with him on penalties is astonishing – with Chelsea, Manchester United, Tottenham, it doesn’t matter. I’m just very, very unlucky with such a good referee.”
Just bad luck, then. Particularly given his team’s late push.
“In the final 25 to 30 minutes the team tried to get a result,” he added.
He is right. Even Arteta admitted that Arsenal failed to control the game despite their numerical advantage and it owed much to luck that the home side were able to hold on.
But why not play with more endeavour from the start?
It was a reminder that Mourinho’s men did not need to cede the initiative, it was a choice. This was a chance for them to take a big step forward by ramming home the message that their recent revival could represent a sea change; that Bale’s return to form could be the catalyst for Spurs to play a more optimistic brand of football.
Instead, their limitations of their outlook remain all too clear.
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