This is the new Arsenal: Torreira, Aubameyang signal the real start of the Emery era
LONDON -- Sunday, Dec. 2, was billed as "derby day" on the English television networks, with three consecutive local derbies. Fulham vs. Chelsea convened in west London, and Liverpool hosted Everton on Merseyside. Realistically, though, there was one standout game, and it was in north London.
Arsenal vs. Tottenham has been the Premier League's best fixture over the past decade, combining traditional local rivalry with league table significance. More often than not, it also produces great football. That's worth remembering, too, among the rush to declare everything about Unai Emery's reign as a significant shift away from the Arsene Wenger era.
Under Wenger, Arsenal had a fine record in north London derbies; the atmosphere at the Emirates was always excellent for the meeting with their fiercest rivals, and even the nature of Sunday's 4-2 victory felt familiar, as Arsenal came behind to win 5-2 against Tottenham twice in 2012.
Yet the significance of this victory is undeniable. Until now, Arsenal supporters were largely on board with Emery's regime: Results have been positive though performances have been less impressive. Aside from a 5-1 thrashing of a shambolic Fulham side, there was no statement performance, no victory you'll recall at the end of the campaign as a genuinely memorable game.
Arsenal started this game brilliantly, ended this game brilliantly and the wobble in between will be entirely forgotten because of the dramatic, enthralling nature of the win. Emery's regime now feels like something to celebrate rather than something to politely accept.
It was evident at full-time that the home supporters enjoyed this one, perhaps more than any Arsenal victory for a few years. There was constant noise, a confrontation with Tottenham players after they equalised and even some flares lit in the second half. The away section emptied far earlier than the home section, which isn't exactly a regular occurrence at the Emirates. Home supporters were instead on their feet to celebrate goals and, of course, when challenged by their own chants to prove they hate Tottenham.
After a few years spent debating Wenger's future, with protest banners in the stands and the sky, this feels rather more like a top-level football club should.
On the pitch, this feels like a team, too. Arsenal's record signing and highest-paid player, Mesut Ozil, was out with a back injury amid speculation he had walked out of training after being told he wouldn't start. Afterward, Emery said he didn't know when Ozil's back problem occurred and that he didn't even know whether Ozil was at the stadium. It sounded, to be frank, like he didn't really care; it can either be interpreted as evidence he has jettisoned Ozil entirely or evidence that he was delighted at how Arsenal's other players had shone without their star man.
The men playing in Ozil's specific role didn't perform particularly well, as evidenced by the fact both Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were removed at half-time and the duo of Aaron Ramsey and Alex Lacazette introduced to turn Arsenal's 3-4-2-1 into a 3-4-1-2. It was a relatively subtle tactical change, but Arsenal fans aren't accustomed to half-time double changes, or even half-time changes in system. This was Emery spotting a problem and fixing it immediately.
Arsenal were always in control of this tactical battle: Their early 3-4-2-1 caused Spurs' 4-3-1-2 problems down the flanks, forcing Mauricio Pochettino to re-shape in a 4-2-3-1. Then, when Arsenal moved to 3-4-1-2, Pochettino felt threatened by Arsenal's second striker, as he confirmed in his postgame news conference, and moved to a 3-4-1-2 of his own.
Later, Arsenal centre-back Shkodran Mustafi limped off injured, and Arsenal didn't have a spare centre-back on the bench, so Matteo Guendouzi came on and Arsenal went to 4-3-1-2. Both sides used three systems; this was the most tactical derby you'll ever witness. And Arsenal, usually the ideologues who play one way and one way only, came out on top. Tottenham, regarded as the Premier League's most flexible side, were outwitted.
While the likes of Mkhitaryan, Sokratis and Bernd Leno are still to prove themselves, Arsenal fans have taken to two particular signings in 2018. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has now scored 20 goals in 27 Premier League matches -- many of them were scored when playing in from the left, and a decent number came after emerging from the bench. Aubameyang is a technically outstanding player, but perhaps more importantly, he radiates energy and positivity, he brings excitement and a spark. He's the type of player who plays for supporters.
The other new hero is Lucas Torreira, who arrived in the summer and after a period of being eased into action, is starting to dominate regularly. A playmaker who also offers bite in the midfield, his passing range is something Arsenal have lacked since Santi Cazorla was regularly fit. His addition is something that definitely wouldn't have happened under Wenger, who was always reluctant to sign players from Serie A due to the different in tempo between Italian and English football. His recruits from Serie A -- Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Mathieu Flamini -- were all based upon Wenger's existing knowledge of the players rather than their displays in Italy.
And therefore Arsenal's third and fourth goals felt more significant here. The third because it saw Ramsey teeing up Lacazette, the two half-time substitutes combining to perfection, and the fourth because it saw Aubameyang teeing up Torreira, the fans' two new favourites combining to perfection, as well. Taken together, these goals also had meaning beyond the obvious: that Arsenal were coming from behind to defeat their most-hated rivals.
There are other rivals, of course. Arsenal fans also hate Manchester United and Jose Mourinho. And therefore this week's trip to Old Trafford to play a desperately poor United side gives Arsenal the opportunity to complete a perfect week.
Six months have already passed since Emery was unveiled as Arsenal manager, but this feels like the true beginning of his reign.