Tottenham and Arsenal show shortcomings in dramatic Wembley draw
LONDON -- In recent years, the North London derby has come to be regarded as the Premier League's most enthralling game: high on energy, high on goals, high on drama. By contrast, the Tottenham vs. Arsenal 1-1 draw at Wembley on Saturday -- at least until the closing minutes -- was more reserved.
Neither side was capable of going full-throttle: Spurs did not press with any intensity and moved the ball slowly through midfield, while Arsenal dropped back and did not offer a consistent counter-attacking threat. Rather than a showcase of these teams' technical qualities, the game underlined their shortcomings.
The most disappointing aspect of Arsenal's display came in injury time, when Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang's weak penalty, which he won himself after being fouled by Davinson Sanchez, was saved by goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. It was a missed opportunity for the Gunners to put Spurs under serious pressure in the league table, yet Arsenal's current situation was actually better summarised two hours beforehand with the announcement of their starting XI.
Unai Emery's selection featured no Aubameyang, who is considered incompatible with Alexandre Lacazette in big matches when more numbers are needed in midfield. As the manager confirmed afterward, he decided on just one forward and then chose according to availability for the midweek Europa league trip to Rennes, for which Lacazette is suspended.
Mesut Ozil, outstanding in a 5-1 thrashing of Bournemouth three days ago, was predictably omitted, and even Lucas Torreira -- Arsenal's best performer before Christmas -- was also only on the bench. Maybe this illustrates strength in depth, but a fairer analysis is that when looking at a combination of tactical and financial concerns, Arsenal simply are not getting their most valuable players on the pitch together.
But they nevertheless did open the scoring with a goal out of the blue, from a counter. Davinson Sanchez tried to jump in and win the ball ahead of Lacazette but missed his header, allowing the French international to slip in Aaron Ramsey, who had the entire Spurs half to himself.
Something of a Wembley talisman, having scored two FA Cup final winners at the stadium, the Arsenal midfielder brought the ball toward goal and had time to check over both shoulders to check he wasn't being shut down before rounding Lloris and sliding into an empty net.
But Ramsey actually endured a difficult game, continually conceding possession, and was substituted relatively early in favour of Ozil. There is a peculiarity about Arsenal being built around Ramsey as a No. 10 -- given he has already confirmed a summer departure to Juventus -- while Ozil, the club's highest-paid player, cannot get into the side.
Arsenal's other major problem is at the back. While they defended solidly for long periods, the nature of their concession will infuriate their supporters. There was a question as to whether Kane was offside when a free kick was played into the penalty area, but Shkodran Mustafi's decision to barge him in the back was both inexplicable and in keeping with his tendency to make ridiculous errors. Kane converted the penalty with typical calmness.
Mustafi was playing out of position at right-back and looked uncomfortable throughout, at one point mishandling the ball under little pressure and then clumsily pole-axing Danny Rose in an attempt to compensate. Laurent Koscielny and Sokratis Papastathopoulos played well in the centre, but at 33 and 30 respectively, it is difficult to believe this is Arsenal's long-term solution at the back.
While Arsenal had problems at both ends, Spurs' issue was in the centre of midfield. After going behind, they found themselves dominating possession, but moved the ball slowly and predictably in midfield. Not enough was made of their wing-backs' freedom, and play was rarely switched into the acres of space down the flanks.
The absence of Harry Winks was particularly obvious; Victor Wanyama and Moussa Sissoko lacked his coolness in possession, which left Jan Vertonghen as Spurs' chief distributor, playing straight balls in behind for Rose, or excellent long diagonals to Kieran Trippier. At times, Vertonghen appears Spurs' best centre-back, best left-back and best deep-lying playmaker!
The home side's other failure for long periods of the first half was their inability to get a midfielder in behind Kane and Son Heung-min, who were occupying Arsenal's centre-backs and dragging them into wider positions. This created a gap for a runner to exploit; Dele Alli, still out injured, would have loved such a situation.
But it took until the final five minutes of the opening period for Christian Eriksen, playing as a No. 10, to take the opportunity. From Kane's chip into his path, Eriksen's effort forced Bernd Leno into a good save, before the German goalkeeper immediately sprung up to thwart Sissoko's follow-up with an outstanding, instinctive left-handed stop.
Spurs improved after half-time. Eriksen moved deeper and Erik Lamela, who replaced the evidently unfit Wanyama, injected extra energy into the final third. Mauricio Pochettino's side merited their equaliser, although as the manager tinkered with his team in the latter stages, eventually moving to a 4-4-2, they found themselves with Rose playing alongside Sissoko in midfield.
Although Rose has been used in that position before -- a brief cameo against Real Madrid -- he was clearly unsuited to the role. Twice he dribbled determinedly into a crowd of Arsenal players, thumped a long diagonal out of play, and ended the game being absolutely flattened by a Torreira challenge that brought a straight red card for the Arsenal substitute.
After the game, Pochettino attempted to explain that Rose has the technical qualities to play in midfield, but also acknowledged he lacked the familiarity of receiving the ball in central positions and effectively conceded Spurs simply did not have anyone else to play there, with Eric Dier also out and Mousa Dembele not having been adequately replaced since he started to decline around 18 months ago.
Pochettino also claimed Spurs "were better in every respect" and suggested it was "a fantastic game, an exciting game, with two sides wanting to play," but that seemed an odd analysis. Instead, it felt like a very fair draw between two sides unable to play their A-games and who, instead, are more concerned with patching up problem areas.