The first point to make about the weekend is that this NLD match meant much more to Arsenal than it did to Tottenham. Tottenham were riding high in third place while Arsenal were reeling from an exit out of the FA Cup and an impending exit from the Champions League.
There has been a transition process underway in North London for the last two seasons. I would argue that now that transition is completed. It’s not that Arsenal are a better team than Tottenham this season, only true Gooners in all their delusion would argue that. It is not that “Class is Permanent,” as the Emirates faithful seem to believe. I think that it is precisely because Tottenham are a better team now than Arsenal that they let this match slip away from them.
So if you happened to watch this match without knowing which team was which, and presuming you had been living under a rock for the last two years, you would be forgiven for assuming that Arsenal took the easy lead with opportunistic plays and then Tottenham stormed back with determined midfield presence and precocious wingplay. This NLD hearkens back to the days when Tottenham prepared all season to face Arsenal, but the Arse treated Spurs as an afterthought. But only now, the roles are switched. If you don’t believe me, look at all the press statements made by players from each team over the course of the whole season. Gallas has urged Tottenham players to continue to strive for first place while a slew of Arsenal players have tried to reassure fans that they will finish above Spurs (including Jack Wilshere’s bet on Twitter).
Tottenham capitalized early on a weak positioning by the Arsenal defense and doubled their lead thanks to Kieran Gibbs not being good at his job. At this point, Tottenham fans couldn’t believe how easy the match was for them. I couldn’t believe how lucky we were as Arsenal were getting chances against an oddly porous Spurs back line. Benoit Assou-Ekotto wasn’t fully fit after recovering from groin surgery and was almost completely outplayed by Theo Walcott. Kyle Walker wasn’t poor but picked up a knock early in the second half, luckily he was matched up against Yossi Benayoun. The combination of Ledley King and Younes Kaboul failed to provide the defensive stability they did in their outing together against Wigan. Another note on Ledley King, sadly this season has proved a little too quick for the Spurs captain. He was once heralded as the best centerback in England when fit, but his performances at Arsenal and earlier at City showed that he is not infallible and has lost a step on his opposition.
Parker and Modric failed to control the midfield against three Arsenal players in the first half, and the second half addition of Sandro somehow made the situation even worse. Parker was a second too slow on his interceptions and his tackles all game. Modric was unable to get into his rhythm without the protection of Parker beside him but also due to a lack of adequate outlets in the second half. When Spurs removed Krancjar and Saha to bring on Sandro and van der Vaart, the formation went from something of a 4-4-2 to more of a 4-3-2-1, or Christmas tree. This meant we weren’t really playing with any true wingers, and van der Vaart’s performance (while he has a crazy record against the Arse) did not justify taking off an in-form Krancjar. And then there’s Bale.
Bale is not a world-beater playing in his new free role. Sometimes he gets lucky like he did against Norwich City when the 4-1-4-1 devolved into a 4-3-2-1 and he nabbed a second half goal from his free roaming position. This works against the lesser teams, and by all means Harry can let the Welshman run free against the likes of Bolton, QPR, and Blackburn. I’m not sure if Bale excels at this role during practice, but the team suffers with this strategy against competent sides. And we all saw Gareth Bale go down easy. Whether it was a foul or not, everyone can agree that he went down easy. This is a disconcerting trend that is starting to emerge. Against Liverpool, Bale went down upon modest contact and against Arsenal it’s very much a possibility that he dove entirely. I’ve seen the match and the highlights and the replays, and to me it looks like there was contact from Kieran Gibbs, and then Bale may have been trying to avoid stamping Szczesny’s face, but very clearly went down instead of attempting to stay on his feet to play the ball. Diving and embellishing is not what Tottenham Hotpsur Football Club is about and I hope that Bale nips this tendency to flop in the bud and gets on with his world class wing play.
Harry Redknapp deserves his fair share of blame for what happened at the Emirates on Sunday. Neither of his tactical substitutions made a positive impact (at times I forgot that Sandro was on the pitch in the second half). However, besides tactics, Redknapp owes it to his players to address the England job nonsense. ESPNSoccernet’s lead story on the match focused on how “Harry Redknapp’s CV took a real hit on Sunday,” and not what the match means in terms of Champions League qualification for either team. Harry was stubbornly reluctant to change his formation or tactics once it became apparent that they were not working. Player fitness played a role in style Harry sent the team out to play, but he did not adjust to the events of the game. After the halftime break, Spurs did not threaten the Arsenal goal or take advantage of sloppy defensive play and the addition of Sandro did not allow for flowing attacking moves or provide the cover he was supposed to. Moving to a defensive outlook against a team that just scored back to back goals is not the Tottenham way and Harry messed up on that point.
However, this match does not mean that Arsene Wenger is a better manager than Harry Redknapp; Harry just got it wrong on the day. Just as it does not mean that Arsenal are a better team. On the other side of things, this match showed that Tottenham are not yet completely secure in third place and need to avoid complacency for the rest of the season.
First and foremost, Tottenham need to figure out how to get a result against Manchester United at the Lane this weekend. Parker is out for this match with a red card suspension. Van der Vaart and Walker both picked up injuries against Arsenal, which precipitated the recall of Adam Smith from Leeds for potential cover at right back. Sandro will need to shake off the stench of his performance against Arsenal and channel his inner Jiu Jitsu again before a likely start against the Red Devils.