There was a lot of bluster coming out of the Tottenham camp in the lead up to Saturday's derby, so no wonder Harry Redknapp was bitter and graceless in his post-match comments. Robbie Keane's missive about Spurs having superior strength in depth proved particularly ill-advised, for his side looked largely toothless without Modric, Lennon and Defoe. For all their pretensions of swashbuckling football, Redknapp chose to leave Kranjcar out, pack the midfield, and use Keane from the left. This left Peter crouch, to whom Spurs constantly pumped long balls, mostly isolated.
And for all that, Arsenal weren't overly impressive, and maybe that's the most satisfying aspect for us and the most chastening for Spurs. For 40 minutes or so, it was fairly sluggish stuff, but there had been signs that Spurs were there for the taking. Andy Gray praised their well-organised play during that time and he was right to a point but they were probably only impressive because Arsenal's attacking was a bit off-colour. Nonetheless, Gomes had made a great save to keep out Fabregas, and Van Persie had snatched at a couple of passable opportunities (two of these chances came from Spurs giving the ball away carelessly, so the signs were there); at the other end, Keane looked to get in off a crouch knockdown, but the impressive Song tracked back to good effect, and just before the opener, Keane seemed to slip our offside trap but his touch let him down.
And then the vital goal, and it was, for a team with a reputation for over-complicating things, refreshingly simple. The defending was questionable no doubt. Sagna and Fabregas worked a one-two under little pressure to the right of the area, and where the former would usually perhaps begin to work the ball back across the pitch, he swung in an early cross. Ledley King was beaten to the bouncing ball by Van Persie who stabbed it in at the near post, Gomes' hand not enough to repel the effort. Bassong seemed to be missing in action, and King a little slow to react perhaps, but few are the goals that do not arise in some way from an error and I'd prefer to praise a bit of classic centre forward play by RVP. He's flying at the moment. Afterwards, Wenger called him a cross between Bergkamp and Henry. Now, that sounds like some kind of mutant super-footballer, but he has a point in a way. While not having the electric pace of Henry, he is much more a consistent goal threat than Bergkamp, and while not quite capable of the sheer creative genius of his countryman he is fairly adept also at dropping off and threading passes to his fellow attackers. And you know what? Neither of those guys, for all their godlike abilities, would have scored that goal on Saturday.
And it certainly raised the crowd, but that was nothing compared to what followed. In a moment that evoked memories of Jose Reyes' belter in the 5-3 against Boro in 04/05, Arsenal had the ball in the net again with Sky Sports barely finished showing replays of the first goal. I heard a roar from the crowd, saw the camera return to Fabregas bearing down on goal, and gleefully threading a shot past Gomes for number two. Thrilling stuff. And after the devastating sucker punch of Spurs' two-goal salvo in injury time last season, this was a particularly apt way to restore primacy in North London.
The replays showed what had transpired- Van Persie blocked a lazy pass straight from kick off, Fabregas evaded a lunge by Palacios, nutmegged the panicky tackle from King and fooled Gomes with his shot. It was schoolboy stuff from Spurs but a great goal nonetheless, and another moment to illustrate the greatness of Fabregas. He's not renowned for such driving runs- it almost looked like the work of a diminutive Steven Gerrard- but what it showed again was his peerless appreciation of the requirements and openings in each moment of a game. He saw Spurs rocking on the ropes, and where it is his natural style to probe and be patient, here he went for the jugular, and finished the game.
Not that I was willing to admit that at the time, after our troubles in the corresponding fixture last season and last week at West Ham. Two goal leads are a cause for nerves at Arsenal, and the players seemed aware of the danger second half. When Spurs had the ball, we defended with a vigour that I haven't seen in a home game since the 2-1 win against United last season. The next goal was clearly going to be vital, and we did have a sticky period just before finishing the job. The backline seemed to drop a little deeper, which was always going to suit crouch (who Vermaelen dominated throughout), now joined upfront by Keane. Gallas had to be alert to deny Keane once more. He was starting to look a little panic-stricken, and gave away a free kick right on the edge with a handball when challenging crouch in the air. Bentley's free kick was easy for the returning Almunia; he made it look difficult, as is his wont. Then Gallas pushed crouch on the edge- nothing doing this time. Then the nerves were killed off with a third.
Eduardo was floored with a rough tackle on the right but Sagna burst onto the loose ball and beyond the Spurs defence. He saw the linesman flagging for the foul and slowed up, as did the opposing players, but clattenburg had played a good advantage, and when the Frenchman finally realised this he cut the ball in low. Somehow, it evaded the grasp of Gomes and the lunge of the luckless King, and Van Persie was left to gobble up his second.
Thus the contest was ended and I could finally relax. Spurs offered little, but it was encouraging to see Wenger get agitated on the touchline, just after Eduardo had missed an opportunity to make it four, over an inability to communicate defensive instructions to Song and the infuriating Diaby. As acknowledged afterwards, Wenger saw the significance of holding onto a clean sheet.
I thought, yet again, that Diaby had a poor game. To me it's shocking that we've had such a run with him in the side. He plays like the anti-Fabregas. Forever taking too many touches on the ball, he will pointlessly try to hold off a tackle himself when a simple pass would suffice. This sees him surrender possession too much, and he does it all over the pitch. His passes never have the right weight, always short or long or not into the receiver's stride. He has some talent, no doubt, but lacks the intelligence to use it efficiently. Likewise, his physique is misleading because he rarely tackles with conviction and seems disinterested in the defensive side of the game. He was surely the source of Wenger's ire because Song has been playing diligently in front of the back four and has played a big part in our good moments this season. When we are in command of a game, and the opposition striving to turn it, we need another midfielder to drop back more and allow cesc to pick out the front three. Unless you think that Diaby is better at that. Ha. But I worry that he simply lacks the brain and the team spirit to sacrifice his attacking instincts. You'd possibly have similar reervations about Nasri if deployed in the same position but at least he does not disrupt the flow of our attacking as well as burdening the defence.
Anyway, Wenger definitely has to think long and hard about adding to our squad in January, because Song will be going to the African Nations and with Denilson yet to return from a fairly serious injury, the last thing we need is opposition teams marauding through our midfield unchallenged (and in any case I'm still unsure that Denilson can effectively perform the role that Song does).
But here's to a week that saw Spurs talk themselves into a corner and not have the fight to get out of it. Tomorrow I will ruminate at length to nobody about the relative strengths of the established top four and the chasing pack.