Arsenal took useful reference points from Wembley, not just a solitary point

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
March 3, 2019
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It was, as the cliche goes, a draw which felt like a loss. Had Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang thrashed his penalty past Hugo Lloris and not seen it pushed away, Arsenal supporters would have spent the rest of the weekend crowing jovially. He didn’t, so neither did they. In its aftermath, the latest North London derby can be characterised by refereeing dysfunction and a bizarre Anthony Taylor performance which left nobody happy.

But other than just that single point, which understandably feels like scant reward, Arsenal took plenty away from Wembley. While the 4-2 between these sides back in December felt like a victory built on intangibles, a kind of controlled anger which overwhelmed Spurs, this was a methodical performance which worked almost perfectly.

There are caveats. Tottenham were missing Dele Alli, who has proven highly influential in this game in the past, and Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min were clearly some way short of their best. But those excuses can be made and applied in almost any game. The main encouragement from an Arsenal perspective, was that Unai Emery prepared and executed a multi-faceted gameplan for a specific opponent and – by and large – it worked.

Compare that to previous Arsenal performances at White Hart Lane and Wembley. In the league, Mauricio Pochettino is yet to suffer a home loss in the derby and while there are several ways of explaining that, one of them has been his team’s privilege of constructing the shape of these games. In recent history, Tottenham have been allowed to dictate the tone of these matches. That’s certainly an implied point about Arsene Wenger’s tactical inertia and his belief in the ball’s primacy, but it also speaks to how generally antiquated his teams became of the years. They were predictable, but they were also always liable to be bullied.

That manifested in several many ways. Perhaps the most noticeable, specifically in the derby, was their inability to think their way beyond Spurs’ aggression. Pochettino’s players are always willing to turn a game into a fight; history records that when things don’t go their way tactically, one of their typical responses is to raise the speed of a game and change its tone and nature. In the past, Arsenal have had no response to that. Either their original approach was successful or it wasn’t and, if not, they became hugely susceptible to shifts in momentum. Twice they held the lead at White Hart Lane, twice they lost it. In 2017 they may have recovered courtesy of an Alexis Sanchez shot which squeezed past Hugo Lloris, but that match is still remembered for them falling onto the backfoot having begun well and taken the lead.

So from that angle, Saturday was encouraging, even with the missed penalty and other imperfections. When Kane equalised from the spot, the atmosphere inside Wembley changed; suddenly, Spurs had all the power and, with quarter-of-an-hour left, the smart money would have been on them finding a winner. They didn’t. They came close a couple of times, but then so did Arsenal. The penalty incident came from a smart break up field, characteristic of the way Emery’s side had been playing for the first hour, and it wasn’t isolated. Arsenal forced corners and crossing situations and by no means to Alderweireld, Vertonghen and Sanchez have the rest of the afternoon off. In fact, although the penalty award was soft and part of referee Taylor’s attempts to make good on his mistake down the other end, it was still an opportunity which Arsenal earned.

In time, perhaps with future precedents, this will become part of the club’s new identity under Emery. Before he arrived, he was perceived as a details coach, as someone who spent great time on the game’s small details, and who involved his players in long, sometimes laborious video analysis sessions. It’s a tenuous link, for sure, and there’s really no way for outsiders to know this, but Arsenal do now look like a side who are better prepared – one who understand their opponents’ weaknesses better or who can, as circumstances dictate, rebalance themselves when a game has turned against them.

In that final quarter at Wembley, Tottenham enjoyed the weight of possession and territory, but that seemed part of a strategy. Emery’s players looked happy to cede control of the ball on the basis that, with pace on the field, it would inevitably lead to counter-attacking opportunities. In fact, had Lloris not denied Aubameyang, we would view Arsenal’s approach as the classic rope-a-dope and praise Emery – rightly – for its construction. The scoreline blurs those lines, but it shouldn’t obscure the reality.

Perhaps the clearest context is in imagining what that game might have looked in previous seasons; Arsenal wouldn’t have retreated and their need for the ball would almost certainly have created the space Tottenham needed to win the game. At 1-1, Mauricio Pochettino had great firepower on the pitch: Kane and Son, of course, but also Eriksen, Lamela and, for the last few minutes, Llorente too. The smartest move Emery made all day was deferring to that strength, thereby – and despite their advantages – denying Tottenham a single clear chance between Kane’s penalty and the end of the game. That was balanced with a menace apparent right until full-time; it was very healthy, it wasn’t just a backs-to-walls retreat and hope.

This needn’t be translated into a grandiose statement about where Arsenal are heading – after all, what Emery adds on top of this new dexterity is really what will count – but it’s clearly an improvement on what they were. They’re smarter. They’re also braver. They looked stronger in an environment in which, during recent years at least, they have been made to look very frail. Not this weekend, though, and that bodes well.

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