The build-up to the derby is easily my least favourite few hours of the year. It’s everything: the fear, the intensity, and the constant “what if we lose?” mentality that builds up and up in the hours before kick-off.
Honestly, it’s bloody agony.
As such, derby day – more specifically North London Derby day – is not nice or in any way pleasant. Anyone who tells you it is either a certified psychopath or has a what most objective analysts would consider a ‘normal’ investment in football.
Given my investment went past ‘unhealthy’ many years ago, Arsenal vs. Tottenham is simply an impossible fixture to enjoy.
With all that in mind, coupled with Arsenal fighting back after falling 2-0 down in the first half through slack defending and then one of the most scandalous tackles in the penalty area I’ve ever seen, a draw seems like a pretty positive result, and one I’d have taken at the start of the day.
There is, however, a daring sense of what might’ve been, such was the extent of Arsenal’s domination as the game wore on. Ultimately, however, Arsenal and Tottenham shared the points in a game that raises far more questions, for both sides, than it answers.
Like anyone with a beyond-unhealthy investment in Arsenal Football Club, I’ve spent many hours since trying to sort through the fallout to the game.
It’s too easy to sit here and lazily criticise; every reader knows what went wrong on Sunday: the defending, Granit Xhaka’s persistent existence in the starting XI, the defending, the link between midfield and attack, the defending, Nicolas Pepe’s final ball, the defending.
Instead, I’ve sorted through the still-smouldering fallout and asked what should be a simple question: What actually went well for Arsenal?
The strikers, as usual
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette are both undisputedly superb footballers, who time and time again have dragged Arsenal back into matches, or been metaphorical and physical battering rams used to fire the Gunners to more points than we should get from a long list of matches.
Make no mistake, Arsenal did not play well on Sunday, and principally have Lacazette’s superb two touches in tight spaces and excellent, weak-footed finish to thank for having any sort of lifeline in this game.
Similarly, in the second half, Aubameyang also showed why he is so much better centrally than out wide, with an instinctive, dexterous piece of movement to sweep in behind Jan Vertonghen for Arsenal’s equaliser.
It presents an interesting, problem for Unai Emery: how on earth do you fit these two into the same side, playing in their natural position, without compromising the entire rest of the side?
It was almost a catch 22 at the Emirates: Arsenal would not have got back into the game without the hard work and clinical finishing on Sunday, but without Aubameyang moving central after Lacazette went off, would not have scored that equaliser, either.
It’s an issue for Emery to manage, but as far as managing issues go, having two world-class players for one position is better than having none.
Matteo Guendouzi, who shaped his future in 90 minutes
This was a game where the boy became the man. The Frenchman was superb in all areas of the ground, consistently progressing the various phases of build-up, providing an outlet for the defenders and attackers, and using his exquisite passing skills to set up Aubameyang’s equaliser.
What the 20-year old most impressed with, however, was his maturity and leadership deep in the bowels of the game. His confidence to always present for a pass was such a valuable asset to have, as it allowed Arsenal to play out of trouble and relieve pressure, rather than turning over possession continuously, as the side have been guilty of doing previously.
I’ve previously written about what Guendouzi needs to do to overtake Granit Xhaka in the starting line-up this season. He might not need to overtake him after that performance, he might already be ahead!
It was a breakout game. Watch his path carefully, as I would wager it will map out the path from prospect to world-class. Just don’t tell Barcelona.
Game management, so kudos to Unai Emery
I actually thought Emery managed the game quite well. The players were off at the start of the first half, but the tactics were not: press Spurs defenders extraordinarily high, and cut off the long supply to their strikers and the short supply to their creative midfielders.
The template for beating Spurs on paper is simple, the less ball Heung-min Son and Harry Kane get high upfield, and the less ball Christian Eriksen gets in any space on any part of the pitch at all, the less they will score.
Unfortunately, to implement a tactical plan correctly, you need quality and complimentary defenders, and Arsenal currently don’t have either of those.
Although he made a mistake with the makeup of his midfield three, Emery’s formation was the right one, and Arsenal should look to become a 4-3-3 team in the long term. Emery’s substation to add Dani Ceballos in place of Lucas Torreira – who really doesn’t look fit – should earn him credit too, for the Spaniard added thrust, and a badly-needed link between midfield and attack, and is surely working his way into becoming a regular starter.
The fighting spirit, an unexpected emerging trait
Arsenal were one of the worst sides in the league at earning points having fallen behind last season, so when the score ticked over to 2-0 on Sunday, the game looked over.
However, despite the lack of talent in the defensive half of the pitch, there does seem to be a new flicker of spirit in this Arsenal side this season. The Gunners were calm and mature in working their way back, picking their moments, and actually looking more defensively solid as they piled more pressure on Spurs.
This is a possession-based team, full of players that are built to play with the ball, including defensively. The more of the ball Arsenal have, the better they look going both ways, as some of the defending can be so laughably bad that it’s better that Arsenal’s defenders simply get less opportunities to have to actually defend.
A lot of pressure in football is perceived, making it mentality-related, and this was a clear weakness for Arsenal last season. However, between an away clean sheet at Newcastle, holding off a spirited Burnley at the Emirates, and a two-goal fightback in the derby, Unai Emery’s side seem to have added some mental steel this season.
This will be a valuable asset for both the long-term culture of the team, and the short term results.