Arsenal 2 (Nasri 9, Chamakh 27) Spurs 3 (Bale 50, Van der Vaart pen 67, Kaboul 85)(Premiership)
For 45 minutes the day was going perfectly. Spurs barely turned up in the first half, seemingly overawed by seventeen years of defeats at our place. A two goal lead had been established without us ever getting out of second gear, and we were in complete control – Fabregas was running the show in midfield, Bale and Van der Vaart were entirely anonymous, and it seemed for all the world that we would take the chance to go top, a position that would be maintained as Chelsea would later lose at Birmingham.
Yet somehow, you sensed it wasn’t over. In fact, at half time, I wrote on Twitter: “Terrific half. One way traffic. Game not over though.“. That Spurs would come out in the second half with renewed purpose was inevitable. A entire stadium was aware of it. Yet somehow, the eleven on the field seemed completely oblivious. The tone was set in the opening moments after the break – Spurs harried and pressed, and we started resorting to hopeful Hollywood balls. Minutes later, Bale halved the deficit after sloppy defending saw Defoe win an aerial battle he had no right to win, and when Bale’s run was untracked, Van der Vaart found him to give them the start the desperately needed.
It was finally a test of our mettle, and quite frankly, it was a test we failed woefully. A mentally strong team would have been angered that their dominance had not put the game to bed, and would have come back hard at rivals whose defending in the first half suggested plenty more goals were on offer if they had a real go. Instead, we retreated into our shell, no-one willing to drive the team forward and pin the opposition back. It was exactly the invitation Spurs needed to chase the equaliser that had previously seemed beyond them, and they gleefully accepted.
Even at 2-1, you could see the frustration building. Wenger was prowling the touchline anxiously, and we started giving away a succession of cheap free kicks, surely the daftest thing it was possible for us to do – a) we’re susceptible to set pieces and b) the constant stop-start nature of the game prevented us creating any of the flow our style depends on. And we only had ourselves to blame.
That much is certainly true of the equaliser. They won a cheap free kick thirty yards out, but what followed should give Cesc nightmares. He inexplicably raised his arms before the kick was even taken, and not only that, seemed to be dragging Chamakh’s arms up into the air too. The ball found his outstretched limb, and the resultant penalty was as much as inevitability as it was the correct decision. The match was level.
Wenger responded by taking off Chamakh and bringing on Van Persie, but the Dutchman looked short of match practice and offered little. Again, we showed our mental fragility in what followed – there were still 23 minutes left, plenty of time to re-establish control and wrest the match away from our buoyed opponents. Instead, we continued to pump long balls up to our mystery seven foot striker and commit stupid fouls. Finally, one free kick found its target, Kaboul headed home, and Spurs had a day to savour. A comeback was never likely – we hadn’t responded to them raising their game throughout the entire half, we were unlikely to in the final few moments.
It could and should have been so different. The first half display was about as good as it gets – calm, assured, incisive and dominant. Nasri profited on some awful keeping when he miscontrolled Cesc’s chipped through ball – Gomes failed to come off his line quickly enough and the Frenchman rounded him to score from what seemed an impossible angle. And when a swift counter attack saw Chamakh poke home twelve seconds after Spurs had the ball in our area, we seemed set for a memorable derby day, and a sojourn to the top of the league.
And we could have had more – Chamakh was twice played through but despite being beyond the last defender, he dallied, looked for support and eventually lost the ball. It was indicative of our lack of ruthlessness – Spurs were there for the taking, and absolute hiding was in the offing, but we let them get back into it. And having done so, we rolled over pitifully.
It is difficult to single out the individual culprits, because that really wasn’t the issue – everyone individually had an adequate game from a technical point of view. But you need more than that in derbies. Hell, you need more than that in most matches – collectively, there was no drive in the second half, no desire to stand up to the increased fight of our nearest neighbours. And considering the lengthy list of players who have played in these fixtures before and should understand their meaning, that is pretty damning.
I also thought Wenger got his substitutions very wrong. By making three like-for-like swaps, nothing really changed. None of the alterations gave Spurs anything to think about, anything to disrupt their increasing momentum. And why, at 2-2, was Denilson left on? What exactly were we protecting at that point? I realise we were still heading for a point, but draws are not a lot of good in this league. If you’re level, go for the win – you will win some and lose some, but the reward of three points for a victory means that overall, you will be up. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the league – Chelsea have lost four of their fourteen games, yet sit above unbeaten United. Why? Because they haven’t been drawing games – they either win, or lose. It is our only saving grace in that it is true of us too – four losses by this point is usually terminal, but we’ve won eight of the other ten and remain in touch as a result.
Regular readers know that I always see the bright side – in fact I’m often criticised for it. But I can see absolutely no positive from today’s game – instead I see a spineless performance against a team we held a proud record against, an indication that lessons have not been learnt from previous capitulations in games we seemed to be cruising to victory in (notably Wigan six months ago). There is nothing good to take from that, because there is no indication that we won’t do exactly the same thing in a month’s time. Impressive away wins will ultimately count for nothing if we roll over like this again.
That said, Chelsea did lose, so the day was only 95% of a complete disaster. That we are just two points off the lead having lost three of our opening seven home games is remarkable – no team in the league, all the way down to West Ham, have lost more home games than us. That said, only the two teams above us have won more, a testament to our no-draws policy, and neither of them can match our away form. It is truly a crazy season.
But it doesn’t matter how many times our opponents gift us chances to take command of the league when we so regularly put in displays like that. The only consistent thing about us at the moment is our sheer inconsistency – we have been superb over the last ten days gaining valuable wins at Wolves and Everton, but all that hard work unravelled in 45 minutes of spinelessness.
Thanks to none of our rivals looking much more impressive than us, we are still very much in the race. But many more performances like that, and you can rule out any chance of silverware.
One last thing – following the game, Sky asked the question ‘is this a change in the balance of power?‘, and suggested that Spurs can now win the league. Seriously. Excuse my language, but kindly fuck off. Spurs have just won away at a Big Four side for the first time in 68 attempts, and have triumphed on our ground for the first time in seventeen years. And frankly, they’ve only done it because we played crap. There is no change to the pecking order. Lest you’ve forgotten, we’ve already coasted past them at the Lane once this season.
I sincerely hope that before we face them there again in the league, Wenger makes the players watch the inevitable DVD of this game. And then makes them put it right. They owe us.