Not today José

There are few things in life that make me happier than seeing an upset Mourinho, wagging his little finger in vain. Coincidentally, seeing a man of such low moral stock as Érik Lamela get a timely comeuppance isn’t far behind on that list. In some ways, it’s a shame that Lamela gave José an “out”, something to fall back on and use to deflect from his own tactical shortcomings, but on the day, there was only one team with the desire and approach to win.

I’m still recovering from what the last 15 minutes of that game did to my insides, but it wouldn’t have been an Arsenal win if they didn’t make things difficult at some point. It thankfully wasn’t enough to mar the result and in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t take anything away from the performance either because Arsenal were the driving force from the start.

On paper, you’d be fooled into thinking that both sides were set up to play on the front foot but save for that poxy rabona, the first half was all Arsenal. Arsenal’s fresh-faced frontline saw Ødegaard, Smith Rowe and Saka playing behind Lacazette against the far more seasoned quartet of Bale, Moura, Kane and Son, who have been firing on all cylinders lately. Therein lies the gem of this game, though.

It’s not to compare the two sides simply because they’re who they are, but there was no doubt a point in time in which José Mourinho was being considered for the job at Arsenal. 18 months down the line, and one team is seen playing with identity, unwavering even in the face of a few stylistic “teething problems” and another playing for a manager that is far more concerned with what the opposition might do than his team’s own trajectory. It might have paid dividends for Mourinho in the past, particularly against Arsenal, but Arsenal were winners in more ways than one yesterday.

Watching that first half, it felt like a continuation of these last few months. Spurs taking the lead against the run of play in such a manner was the typical battery-acid icing on the cake, but Arsenal continue to keep coming back for second helpings in spite of these setbacks. Even without Aubameyang, and a fully fit Saka, there was fluidity, intent and end product and the team still looks like it’s on the verge of something. Tierney and Smith Rowe’s rotational overloads against sleeper agent Doherty were a constant threat and if Lacazette didn’t have two right feet, Spurs may well have been facing a familiar, but long overdue hammering.

Seeing Smith Rowe’s effort crash off the bar was agonising, not only at the time for not knowing if it would come back to bite us but because it was one of those shots that simply deserves to go in. More often than not, he’s been far more keen to connect play for others, which might be indicative of knowing his place in the pecking order, but his ability from range was well-known as he came through the ranks at Arsenal. He also trains with Mohamed Elneny and who knows what that man can teach you about shooting. Cédric Soares was also denied, desperate to fulfill the “Arsenal right back scoring against Spurs” quota but it wasn’t to be.

The fluidity wasn’t only evident in the performance but also the growing ease with which Arteta is able to move parts around without disrupting the balance. The double-8 pivot of Smith Rowe and Ødegaard continues to cause havoc for the opposition, but either seems to be capable of handing the responsibility on their own if need be. Saka’s precautionary switch didn’t bring the respite Spurs might have hoped for, as Pépé showcased new heights in his repertoire with superb athleticism to bring the ball down, and vision and technique to match in finding Lacazette. He may have fluffed most of his chances, but he made the crucial one count and had the last laugh again.

The same can also be said defensively. After a very good showing against Olympiakos, Bellerín was dropped in favour of Cédric, who then produced a very good showing against Spurs. The centre-back pairing seems to be more informed by the opposition, but it’s somehow emerged as Arsenal’s most abundant area of quality. As much as his volatility scares me, David Luiz is still an integral part of his team and on his day, can keep even the very best whisper-quiet and I’m already completely sold on his compatriot in Gabriel, who’s the best bit of business Arsenal have done in years along with Kieran Tierney.

In front of them sat Xhaka and Partey. After some leggy performances of late, I wondered if another North London derby would be too much, too soon for Partey but he seems to be getting back to his best and the pair of them kept their opposite numbers in Ndombele and Højbjerg out of the picture for the entire game. With Ødegaard ahead of him, both he and Partey had great success winning the ball back with ease and their elite reading of the game is evident. The more I see of Ødegaard, the more I like him and his goal was well-deserved with another brilliant, rounded performance. I worried when he first arrived how it would impact Smith Rowe’s involvement. It was obvious he needed some cover, but at the same time, I was apprehensive about seeing him forced out of what seemed to be his preferred pocket on the inside right, linking up predominantly with Saka and Lacazette. As it turns out Smith Rowe is also somewhat of a positional chameleon like Saka, there’s no love lost and having both Ødegaard and Smith Rowe in tandem provides another level of connectivity and assurance in possession.

Tandem by the numbers

Pass accuracy (%)Long PassesChances createdShots on targetDuels won
Smith Rowe9740/15/8
Source: http://@The Tactical Times

For what it’s worth, I’m still going to engage in a bit of light debunking given the furore surrounding some of the distractions decisions.

  • Lamela is a bastard
    • He was looking for trouble as soon as he came on, and despite not having any bites from a certain hot-headed Swiss midfielder and even scoring, he couldn’t resist being more of a bastard.
    • He kicked out at several players, which was enough to see David Beckham red carded in the ’98 World Cup against Argentina.
    • He made a late tackle that wasn’t even booked.
    • He intercepted a pass, but sliced through the back of a player to do so. Booked.
    • He deliberately swung an arm out. Second yellow, debatably enough for a straight red. Adiós.
    • His rabona will be lost in the rest of that club’s irrelevant annals.
  • Lacazette’s penalty (which he put away brilliantly, as always)
    • The same scenario cost Arsenal three points against Wolves when David Luiz was sent off. He was still reckless then, because he closed down and got too close.
    • Sánchez was reckless now, and it was this reason that Michael Oliver cited for awarding the penalty.
    • It doesn’t matter if Lacazette had already shot, mishit, passed or stood still. You can’t come flying in like that on a player.

It feels good to not be doing that for a contentious decision against Arsenal for a change (not that these were in any way contentious). The decisions still bothered me because they detracted from all of the good stuff. Spurs pulled their typical “putting on the pressure” except when it really mattered in the dying stages, and if not for the red card, looked set to go out with a whimper. It also provoked Kane into yet another disgusting challenge, that yet again went unnoticed. His offside goal and shaving of the post will be the last things people remember from that game, but the reality was, he was completely nullified for the most part and took his anger out on someone who bettered him like a petulant child.

While there were no costly blunders to speak of, there’s still some ways to go in game management and calming nerves. A red card to the opposition, while more complicated than it might seem, should not invite that kind of pressure. Luiz attributed that to nervy youthfulness and excitement after the game, which is fair enough given how many young players were out there, but performances like this will go a long way in helping them understand how to control games on the front foot. It’s even more crucial when there are still high-stake games to come in this season, which will no doubt ask similar questions of them.

For now, they can at least rest easy though because they did the business.

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