Monday, 20 November 2017

Power shift?

Arsenal 2-0 Tottenham 

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The lead up to the North London derby on Saturday was dominated by talk of a power shift towards Tottenham. Having long been in the shadow of their bitter rivals, Spurs were now seen as the dominant force who would no doubt inflict more damage on Arsenal and heap more dismay on their supporters. Several UK newspapers ran articles in which distinguished journalists and former players were asked to name a combined XI from the two squads and not many Arsenal players featured in any of those teams selected. The Gunners, it seemed, didn’t have a prayer.

Come kick-off time, every single player in a red and white shirt had something to prove and from the very first whistle to the last, each and every single one of them proved all those critics wrong. The Gunners were exceptional, with every player playing out of his skin, with hunger, desire and passion to mirror that of the fans inside the stadium. They could all be proud of their performances, yet one player above all others appeared to be on a one man mission to prove his worth to the side. When Mesut Ozil’s name was read out by the stadium announcer as part of the starting XI many Arsenal supporters groaned or rolled their eyes. For all his talent and ability, Ozil has not proved himself to be a man for the big occasion during his time in North London. Most of the time the game seems to pass him by with the German on the periphery of the action, having been out muscled and bullied off the ball. Maybe the criticism from fans, pundits and ex-players finally got to him, as Ozil was a man possessed on Saturday. The perception that he doesn’t have it in him to chase the ball down was expelled once and for all as he chased and harried the Tottenham players throughout the game. On one occasion in particular, during the second half, the German sprinted back from deep inside the Tottenham half, all the way back to win back possession for his side inside his own half. While his tireless work off the ball was a joy to behold, his decision making and ability to pick out the right pass when in possession was at its very best. With the constant movement of Lacazette and Sanchez up front, Arsenal were able to pose a constant threat to the Tottenham back line. A defence that has long been heralded as one of the best in the country was all at sea and cut to shreds time and time again by the Gunners’ quick and incisive attacking play.

Arsene Wenger must have been extremely pleased with his side’s efficiency on the ball as they moved the ball at an extremely quick tempo and didn’t fall into the frustrating habit of playing square passes along the back line. The first thought whenever possession was reclaimed, was to get the ball forward as quickly as possible and this in combination with their excellent commitment to a high press, meant Tottenham simply couldn’t cope.

Arsenal made their intentions clear straight away, as the front three of Lacazete, Ozil and Alexis Sanchez set about pressing the Tottenham defence high up the pitch, restricting their options when on the ball and forcing them to hit long balls up to Harry Kane. The whole team applied pressure to their opponents as one and this resulted in Tottenham failing to create any chances of note. Harry Kane, Deli Ali and Christian Ericksen were nullified and could not influence the game at all. Kane in particular was completely dominated by Koscielny and Mustafi. The German in particular put in an exceptional performance. Ozil may have walked off to a stadium wide standing ovation and received the official man of the match award, but Mustafi was a close second. Mustafi was the embodiment of the passion and commitment required to win a derby math as he won aerial challenge after aerial challenge and threw his body on the line to block shots and deny the opposition.

The fact that Ozil and Mustafi combined for the opening goal of the game was just reward for their brilliant performances. Sanchez won a free kick which replays suggested was dubious but Ozil still had to put in the perfect delivery and Mustafi still had to rise head and shoulders above everyone else to power home a perfectly well placed header which had Hugo Lloris beaten all ends up, leaving the Frenchman as a mere spectator as it went in off the far post. Pochetino complained bitterly, later claiming his side were the better team until that point, but the Argentine was fooling no one. This was just deserts for a wonderful performance from the home side and more was to follow minutes later as Lacazette’s excellent movement saw him race clear before squaring the ball to Sanchez. The ball was fired into him but the Chilean showed excellent control to take the sting out of the ball before firing high into the net to double the Gunners lead. Arsenal now had the advantage and they refused to relinquish it, maintaining the high intensity to their game right until the final whistle. Tottenham just couldn’t live with them and never stood a chance. Arsene Wenger must have surely been scratching his head. His team is clearly capable of producing top quality performances, but just cannot seem to be able to do so on a regular and consistent basis. If the manager were able to unlock the secret to getting these players to perform consistently then Arsenal could clearly challenge at the top of the table, but unfortunately the manager is still yet to solve that conundrum, although on Saturday it is unlikely that many Arsenal fans cared.

At the final whistle the players lapped up the plaudits and applause from the adoring home crowd, while the visiting players headed towards a largely empty away end with most of their supporters having snuck out before the final whistle. Despite the predictions beforehand this certainly didn’t appear to be affirmation of any power shift. North London has been red for quite some time and that doesn’t look like changing anytime soon. Come back when you’ve won 13 league titles!

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