Arsenal may have just waved goodbye to one of the most exciting months in recent memory, complete with stunning moves on the transfer window and two consecutive victories to open the year, but the campaign truly hit its stride as September arrived with the prospect of the first North London Derby of the season. As a spectacle, the match at the Emirates Stadium did not disappoint, complete with penalty drama, appeals for VAR, and a comeback to rescue a point as the Gunners clawed their way to a 2-2 draw.
The Occasional Protagonists
This summer, Unai Emery has made a point of stating that he wants his team to be protagonists in all matches, wresting the initiative away from opponents and out-working them to all three points each time out. While this is very much a work in progress on the training pitches of London Colney, the Gunners fired off the blocks with purpose on Sunday afternoon, seeming to stun Tottenham with their intensity and the rapidity in which the ball was finding its way into the feet of the dangerous attacking trio of Alexandre Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pépé.
This was not, however, to be the day that Emery would witness a complete performance in his favoured style, as the Arsenal attack was quickly blunted by a settling Tottenham side. In typically advantageous fashion, Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs had the lead dropped in their laps just ten minutes in by sloppy play throughout the Arsenal defence and an agonising sitter of a rebound left by a sprawled Bernd Leno to gift a goal to Gunner-killer Son Heung-min. After spending the better part of a half fighting to answer the blow, problems compounded when Granit Xhaka’s clumsy lunge at Son in the box sent the South Korean to the floor and had referee Martin Atkinson pointing to the spot. Harry Kane’s assured conversion left Arsenal in a two-goal deficit nearing the end of the half.
Lacazette’s emphatic goal to cut the deficit before the half gave the team and the Emirates crowd a much-needed boost before the halftime whistle, and was perhaps only fair given the balance of play in the first 45 minutes. The Gunners were even more assertive than they were to start the match throughout the second half, and Aubameyang’s equaliser with 20 minutes to go was a fitting reward for the relentless response to being knocked off course in the first half.
The problem this season has not been whether or not the team possesses the ability to play in the style their manager demands, but whether they can do it consistently over 90 minutes throughout the long season. Emery and the team will no doubt come away with plenty to work on following the draw, but there is a real urgency and intent within the squad that suggests progress is being made toward that goal.
A New Era Dawns
As the Gunners dug deep to claw their way back into the match following Tottenham’s early lead, it was most revealing which players on the pitch seemed to rise most to the challenge. Matteo Guendouzi was influential throughout, his boundless energy seemingly immune to the weight of the challenge to claw back into the match. His assist on Aubameyang’s game-tying goal was pure instinct, and it showed just why Arsenal fans are near-unanimous in their praise for the young Frenchman. The French Football Association apparently agrees, as he was called up to the senior squad on Monday to replace Paul Pogba for a pair of fixtures in September.
Nicolas Pépé, entrusted again by Emery with this start in an important match so early in his Arsenal career, continued to show glimpses of the player he one day could be for the club. Despite only just arriving at the end of the transfer window, he has wasted no time in catching the focus of his new teammates, who already look to exploit his pace with direct passes over the top of the defence. He finished with seven shots on the afternoon and an assist, indicative of his natural inclination to make things happen in front of goal for his club. Big things are coming for the Ivorian sensation, even as he hits the inevitable roadblocks that a first Premier League season often places in the path of even the world’s most precocious talents.
In the second half, still chasing that final goal, Unai Emery turned to Dani Ceballos for the last bit of creative inspiration to complete the comeback. The Real Madrid loanee instantly offered another dimension to the Arsenal midfield with his aggressive, attacking style opening up the middle of the pitch to more combination play. Ceballos rebounded well from an uneven performance against Liverpool’s swarming press last weekend to give the Gunners much-needed cohesion when transitioning out of their own end.
It is becoming abundantly clear that this new era at the Emirates has brought with it a new generation of players who look ready to carry the Arsenal crest forward. In the case of Guendouzi, his introduction to the World Cup champion French team may see his star explode onto the international stage too.
The Creative Conundrum
Despite trailing for nearly an hour of game time on Sunday, in some respects the Gunners put in their best attacking performance of the season, threatening Hugo Lloris and the Spurs defence with the quick-strike dynamism of Pépé and Aubameyang on direct diagonal balls throughout.
However, problems still persist when teams take away those outlets and force Arsenal to build play out from the back in possession. Too often it appears as though the defenders and central midfielders become isolated from the attack, forced to play it passively amongst themselves before opting for a speculative ball over the top. The 4-3-3 shape Emery utilised on Sunday proved effective defensively against Pochettino’s well-drilled side, but it did exacerbate the need for a player to tie the team together when building out from the back.
Dani Ceballos helped after his introduction in the second half, but Unai Emery also turned to Henrikh Mkhitaryan to help feed the pacey Aubameyang and Pépé, but he had far from the desired effect despite creating one chance in his brief appearance. His appearance puts Mesut Ozil’s status in the team into even further question, as Mkhitaryan departed for Roma on loan just hours after the match finished.
With one of the few glaring weaknesses left in this Arsenal attack being the lack of a player who can consistently distribute to the talented front 3 from the hole in front of the midfield and behind the attackers, it seems an obvious place for Emery to give Ozil his chance to shine. One thing for certain is that it is now or never for the German playmaker to force his way back into the team, because with the ever-improving cadre of young midfielders on the rise, and a group of hungry young wingers and attacking midfielders like Reiss Nelson and Bukayo Saka chomping at the bit to see some action this season, the Basque head coach does not lack for options should he choose to reintroduce a more creative element to his side in pursuit of a bit more attacking balance.
A New Blueprint
Throughout much of Sunday afternoon, the Arsenal defence looked largely composed and in control, but there were still moments in which inexcusably massive pockets of space opened up between the defence and midfield, leaving Tottenham with far too many chances to take points they hadn’t earned away from the Emirates Stadium. However, the second half contained what could only be described as some of the best defensive football of the Emery era to date.
After both teams had settled into the second half, and long before the match would be stretched to the point of breaking as both teams fought for a match-winning goal late on, Arsenal quietly executed a suffocating defensive shape to near perfection that left Spurs struggling to get to the halfway line. The Gunners settled into a mid-block that slowly squeezed up the pitch the more Tottenham dithered in their own end. The discipline of the Arsenal shape totally killed whatever momentum Spurs had hoped to carry over from their first half lead, and it was a major factor in Arsenal regaining control of the match in time to earn a point for their efforts.
The defensive tactics in the second half were not exactly new from Emery, but they offered a glimpse into what the team might look like when playing with the tenacity and consistency that fans have hoped for since Emery’s arrival in 2018.
Right on Track
Arsenal might have gotten off to the best start in the last nine seasons, taking the maximum points from the first two matches of the season, but the last two against top-six foes have gone less well, with just one point combined from Liverpool and Tottenham.
Despite feeling as if there were more points to be had against Spurs, overall Arsenal remain right on track towards achieving their targets this season. While many will focus on their record against top-six opposition and the struggles the Gunners have had lately with their more capable rivals, it has been their tendency to drop easy points against lesser foes that has cost them valuable places in the league table over the years.
The season-opening victory on the road against Newcastle suggests that fans should expect an improvement in the team’s form away from the Emirates against lower table opposition, and provided they do not totally implode against the rest of the top six, a Champions League position is not out of the question.
With valuable reinforcements due to return and the classy Kieran Tierney yet to make an impact as the club’s heir apparent to the left-back position, it is safe to assume more is yet to come from this talented 2019/20 edition of the Arsenal, and they stand in good stead on seven points from four games, level with Crystal Palace in 4th place in the Premier League. The Gunners won’t face a major challenge again until the end of September, when they will travel to Old Trafford for a clash with Manchester United. Until then, Arsenal can cement their place as top four challengers in games against Watford and Aston Villa.