The North London derby is one of the biggest and oldest rivalries in all of football. Making the switch from Woolwich to Highbury in the early 20th century, Arsenal embittered Tottenham fans already present in the North of London, and ever since, games between Arsenal and Tottenham have always been electric and filled with passion. Saturday’s derby, hosted at the Emirates, was truly a game of two halves. It ended 1-1, with Arsenal cancelling out Nacer Chadli’s opener with a clean finish from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The draw wasn’t the most fulfilling for either team, and it may not have mattered much in the grand scheme of the Premier League table, but it did give the fans one very exciting second half of football, and it displayed a lot of promise for things to come, from both sides of the field.
I think Arsenal have an absolutely brilliant attacking line up. From how they started the match, with Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere, Özil, and Welbeck, plus having talents like Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sánchez on the bench, the Gunners have a team with plenty of firepower up front. What is lacking in their squad is defensive pace. Tottenham, on far too many occasions, broke on the counter attack with so much pace (that they have in abundance all throughout their squad), leaving centre backs Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker completely flatfooted.
One simple pass in between them and Tottenham, whether it be via Adebayor, Chadli, or Lamela, were through, simply because Arsenal’s defence was perhaps playing too high of a line. You need to play to your strengths, and the aforementioned defenders have their strengths in their size and their ability to muscle you off of the ball, but a foot race is not one of them, and when you’re playing against such a fast team, which, in my opinion, Tottenham are the fastest in the league, ample cover is such a necessity.
That cover, obviously, comes from the fullbacks, who many times were there to clean up – Kieran Gibbs is definitely my man of the match – but I still feel that there is a void that needs to be filled from the loss of Thomas Vermaelen. In this regard, Arsène Wenger has a bit of work to do in the January transfer window; they’re more than capable of being a top team in every other area of the pitch, but the back needs a bit of strengthening.
Having said that, Kieran Gibbs put on one of the best performances that I’ve ever seen him play. With the introduction of Alexis Sánchez into the fold during the second half, the two of them just wrought havoc on Tottenham’s fullbacks – so much so that they needed to freshen up by substituting Danny Rose for Eric Dier. I can remember a time when Gibbs was brought into the Arsenal squad and everyone would groan and say ‘oh he’s only temporary, once we find a solid replacement for Ashley Cole, he’ll be loaned off for seasons on end.’ Flash-forward to 2014 and he has become of the best left-backs in the Premier League. I know, that may be saying a lot when there are some genuinely gifted left-backs around England, such as Leighton Baines, Luke Shaw, Aleksandar Kolarov, to name a few, but Gibbs has the ability to be an excellent attacking left-back who has the pace to get back and defend as well – reminiscent of the style of football that Roberto Carlos used to play. All right, that may be a stretch, but you get my point: Arsenal, and indeed England, have themselves a more than capable left-back. For that, he’s my man of the match, but there was one more player, wearing white on the day, that could definitely spoil the show for Gibbs.
Younès Kaboul is that player. He was a rock on Saturday, throwing himself into any and every challenge that came his way. He had a real ‘you shall not pass’ attitude about him and he made some crucial blocks and challenges to deny the advancements of Welbeck and company. For the majority of the match you wouldn’t believe you were watching a derby match with the way it was played out so one-sided; Tottenham barely created anything of substance but for a few quick breaks, which amounted to little more than half chance. It was in defence where Spurs showed their best football. Between Kaboul and Hugo Lloris, the two Frenchmen kept the match from being a demolition by the Gunners.
The only saving grace was that Alexis Sánchez didn’t start the match; once he came on, Arsenal were well and truly in the driver’s seat, and never looked close to being overtaken. Why did Wenger leave him on the bench? Perhaps he had one eye on Wednesday’s Champions League encounter with Galatasaray; perhaps he wanted to give him a rest. In any event, the decision cost them all three points. Sánchez, along with Jack Wilshere, have by far been Arsenal’s standout players this season, and with the latter seeming to have yet another injury, the onus falls on the Chilean to link up well with Özil and provide some good assistance to Welbeck. Which he is more than capable of; he is a world-class winger and to have been left on the bench for an hour in a North London derby was unacceptable.
I don’t like to blame coaching decisions too much; coaches do what they feel is best for the team. Certainly Wenger thought that his line-up was good enough to beat Spurs – I’ll admit I did too – but when you have someone of Sánchez’s calibre fit and ready to play, he simply must be played. Pep Guardiola doesn’t leave Arjen Robben on the bench against Dortmund – you better believe that he’ll be playing his usual best – so why leave out Sánchez in one of the two most important matches of the year? It was a puzzling decision by Wenger, not his first, and certainly not his last, but he’ll be grateful that it didn’t cost him a home loss against a rival team.
The derby didn’t disappoint, they rarely do. Anyone hoping for a heated encounter full of excitement got their wish, but it was a game of defensive brilliance from Tottenham that I find to be the standout point in Saturday’s match. The back four played out of their skin and were phenomenal against a truly ruthless Arsenal attack that simply would not stop coming at them. The defiance shown by Tottenham’s defence is going to give them ample confidence going forward in their campaign, but goals win you games, and they’ll need to get a bit more creative against Southampton on Sunday, but defence wins you championships as the old saying goes, and Saturday’s match was one of truly hard fought defensive football, worthy of recognition.