Wednesday, October 5, 2011

So Much for the Gulf: Spurs 2-1 Arsenal

I prefaced last November's North London derby at the Emirates- a game Spurs came from 2-0 down to win- with a post entitled "Is The Gulf of North London Closing?".

Consider it closed.

Last term, Spurs had the upper hand in head to head league meetings- they produced another comeback from a two goal deficit to force a draw at the Lane- but Arsenal were still way out in front overall. Spurs never threatened a title challenge, and fell back out of the top four, unable to balance the twin demands of Champions League and Premier League.

Now, without the distraction of Europe's premier competition, and having held onto Luka Modric, they look a better bet than Arsenal to challenge for a top four place. For the first time in a long, long time, they probably have a better team than the Gunners. And the old hoodoo is well and truly over. The days when Spurs could not buy a win against their North London neighbours are a receding memory.

I remember, during Arsenal's long unbeaten run against Tottenham, many games in which the gulf in class was not particularly evident. Arsenal rarely produced their fluent best against Spurs, and Spurs often took the lead in these games, but always seemed to choke. Arsenal had the ability to grind out at least a draw, and often a win.

That old grit is gone. This was Spurs' turn to play an average game and scrape through.

It might have been different had Gervinho buried a very presentable first half chance. Van Persie, who was otherwise subdued, skinned Kaboul on near the touchline, and cut back for his team mate, who snatched a miserable effort wide of the near post.

Minutes later, Spurs scored a fine goal that was two parts skill and one part luck. Adebayor picked up the ball in the kind of space that Arsenal too often afford opposition attackers, and flighted a pass over Mertesacker to Van Der Vaart. The Dutchman controlled with his upper arm and, as the ball sat up, struck a clinical shot across Szczesny and into the net.

It had, to that point, been typical Arsenal. An advantage in terms of possession is not really an advantage at all for this team. While they seemed in control for periods, and could point to Gervinho's missed sitter, the fact remained that Spurs had twice forced Szczesny into heroics before the goal. First Scott Parker and then Van Der Vaart were denied at close quarters. How many chances woudl the home side have created if they were in better attacking form? Also, despite Redknapp's needlessly gung ho selection of Modric, Van Der Vaart and Bale behind a front two of Adebayor and Defoe, Arsenal failed to turn a numerical midfield advantage into incisive attacking play.

Second half was largely more of the same. Arsenal equalised when Song took advantage of Van Der Vaart's lazy attempt to close down, and crossed low for Ramsey to turn the ball in. Again, despite Arsenal's possession and their illusion of control, the best chance came at the other end. Adebayor was played through by Van Der Vaart but his shot was turned wide. Another brillint save by Szczesny.

Which made the winner all the more cruel. Sleepy play by Arteta and Ramsey allowed an opening to form down Arsenal's right from a quick throw in (Sagna had departed with a bad injury, and Jenkinson was deputising). The cross found Modric, and his shot was blocked, but Kyle Walker seized on the ricochet and blasted an effort that the Pole seemed to be behind. The swerving ball skipped over his fingers and into the net.

Szczesny, depite his considerable talent, is a young goalkeeper and mistakes are inevitable. More disturbing was Arsenal's reaction to the goal. Or rather, their lack thereof. Barely three passes were stitched together by the men in red during the rest of the game. As the clock ticked down, Arsenal often struggled to get out of their own half. They looked resigned to their fate. They failed to fight convincingly for themselves, for the club, or for their manager.

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