The dust has now settled in North London. Arsenal and Spurs have taken two points from one another, yet the story of such a thrilling encounter will be viewed very differently by Mikel Arteta and Ange Postecoglou. As the pre-match North London derby cheer buzzed around the Emirates on Sunday afternoon, Arteta’s Arsenal were looking to extend their winning streak against their fierce rivals with another victory at the Emirates. Spurs had a reputation of arriving at the Emirates with little intention of playing football despite having some technical stars at their disposal, but this game felt different, proving to be so.
Nobody was quite sure what to expect of Spurs once Antonio Conte decided to set owner Daniel Levy’s world on fire with a scathing assessment of his players after that fateful draw with the eventually relegated Southampton back in March. The appointment of Postecoglou from Celtic in the summer raised the eyebrows of some sections of the fanbase after approaches for the likes of Julian Nagelsmann, Arne Slot, and Mauricio Pochettino were all reportedly knocked back, and nobody quite expected much of a Spurs side who looked down and out last season. Yet, the first few weeks of this season have shown a contrast in performance, output, and attitude, and that can only be down to the new lease of life embodied by the Australian.
Arsenal fans must have been sick of the sight of Harry Kane grabbing his customary goal from the spot seemingly every time he rocked up at the Emirates. The England captain has since left for Bayern — a decision neutrals will praise — and Spurs fans were absolutely devastated. Thirty goals last season, a mountain of praise, and rightfully so, from supporters and pundits alike felt irreplaceable, although the signing of James Maddison from the relegated Leicester City has revitalised a squad of players who simply did not want to be there for the majority of last season.
The former Norwich man has looked tenacious, ambitious, and destructive with his powerful runs through the midfield spaces thus far, turning opposition players inside out on numerous occasions and complimenting his forward partner Heung Min Son with darting runs beyond the South Korean winger. It was a Thomas Partey screamer that opened the scoring in the same fixture last season to break the deadlock after half an hour of becoming frustrated by Spurs’ deep block.
The away side didn’t want to play, nor did their manager. Antonio Conte, who was sacked back in March after accusing his players of being unable to play under pressure after a 3-3 draw at Southampton, set his team up with a dogged defensive unit of five tall defenders, a formation simply designed to defend their box and pray that the ball would eventually reach one of Harry Kane or Son to launch a counter-attack. The plan was inevitably exposed as the Gunners dominated proceedings and ended up turning Conte’s side over, culminating in a 3-1 win.
The fixture on Sunday afternoon, however, didn’t feel as foregone a conclusion as previous seasons. A Gunners’ win didn’t seem to be so clear as team news dropped — no Leandro Trossard nor Gabriel Martinelli — with Eddie Nketiah starting up front for Arteta’s side. As soon as the whistle blew, it was clear what the home side was looking to achieve. The goalkeeping topic was becoming tedious as David Raya turned up between the sticks once again, with Aaron Ramsdale looking rather glum on the Arsenal bench. Declan Rice anchored the midfield, and Fabio Vieira started ahead of summer signing Kai Havertz, as the usual suspects kept their place in the side.
The Gunners started with intent from both sides, as Spurs’ left-back Destiny Udogie picked up an early booking for a foul on the electric Bukayo Saka. The dynamic then shifted almost immediately, as the Gunners failed to take advantage of the Italians’ early caution, with most of the home side’s attacking prowess coming from the vibrant display of Gabriel Jesus. It was a strange tactical decision for Arteta and his coaching staff to deploy when both Udogie and Spurs’ centre-half Cristian Romero looked so up against it.
The first goal of the game came from a typical North London Derby Spurs blunder as Romero left a trailing leg out after a speculative Saka cross to prod the ball beyond Guglielmo Vicario. Arsenal were in clear control and had Spurs on the backfoot — exactly where they wanted them. The lively James Maddison continued to drop in the space between the two centre halves and had his pocket picked just minutes after the goal by the relentless press of Jesus, only for the Brazilian to fire over from ten yards out. The away side had been let off the hook for the first time in a fascinating encounter at the Emirates.
The Jesus miss was ultimately symptomatic of what was to come for the Gunners as Spurs began to turn the screw. Maddison started to pick up more empty spaces, often vacated by the uncoordinated and unbalanced Arsenal press — a perilous situation to be in for any side against the quality of the Englishman — as Spurs looked more likely to go into the break with control of the game. At their mercy, Arsenal full-back Oleksandr Zinchenko failed to track the brilliant Son with an overlapping run beyond Dejan Kulusevski as the Korean swung a perfect cutback into Brennan Johnson, only for David Raya to deny Spurs’ new signing with an outstanding hooked save on his goal line.
On top of such an emotional moment for Raya, the broadcasters had to have their say as well. The ball had barely left David Raya’s six-yard box before the cameras cut to Aaron Ramsdale on the Arsenal bench, as the Englishman was pictured clapping his goalkeeping colleague with his hands raised well above his head, seemingly saying and uttering praise to Kai Havertz sat next to him, but Raya was beaten for the first time in an Arsenal shirt just four minutes later.
Maddison picked up a loose ball on the edge of the Arsenal box and expertly turned away from Bukayo Saka and squared to Son, who times his run perfectly to finish off the far post, before wheeling away to celebrate directly in front of the Arsenal faithful. The goal came at the perfect time for Spurs, who had deservedly put themselves in a commanding position as the momentum built for Postecoglou’s side.
With just 40% possession throughout the first half, it was time for Arteta to respond to the adversity his side had found themselves in despite dominating the early stages. As another injury crisis appeared to be looming, Declan Rice was replaced by Jorginho at the interval, much to the surprise of the Arsenal faithful.
The £100 million man had been an assertive and calming presence in a congested midfield battle between himself and Spurs’ Yves Bissouma, and the reality of the change struck home just minutes after kick-off. Along with Rice’s departure, the struggling Fabio Vieira was replaced by Kai Havertz, a change that didn’t seem to fill the Emirates with a great deal of belief, all things considered.
Despite the half-time conundrum of unexpected changes, the Gunners were soon back in front after Ben White’s close-range effort was blocked by the hand of Romero. White, along with the rest of his teammates, bellowed in disbelief as Rob Jones failed to initially point to the spot. After a few seconds of tension, the VAR intervened, and Jones was sent to the monitor, who was subsequently awarded the home team. In spite of Postecoglou’s post-match observations and a certain ex-Spurs player lumping abuse upon Jones on social media, the rules are clear, and it seemed ludicrous of both to question the decision.
Nevertheless, the tenacious Saka stepped up, full of poise, and placed the ball straight down the middle beyond Vicario to send the Emirates into bedlam. However, just 98 seconds later, Spurs were back level. The usually calming presence of Jorginho, known for his expert ability to control the pace of the game and recycle the ball with considerable effect, was caught in possession by Maddison, who played in Son to finish adroitly for his 150th goal for the club. The silence amongst the home crowd was deafening, as the noise of fifty-seven thousand home fans was immediately drowned out by the jubilant roar of the away section.
With the scores level and the tension rising, Arteta made what was ultimately his final change of the day. Gabriel Jesus left the field, much to the displeasure of large sections of the Gunners’ fans. Saka was also withdrawn after signalling to the bench that he was unable to continue, seemingly due to being kicked into oblivion by Spurs full-back Udogie.
Despite a late surge, Arteta’s side never really looked like grabbing a winner. Their turgid, tired-looking play was symptomatic of a poor second-half display. Captain Martin Odegaard, who had just committed his future to the club by signing a new five-year contract, looked physically and emotionally drained. Arsenal’s best player was never in the game and was dominated by the brilliant midfield duo of Yves Bissouma and Pape Matar Sarr — a disappointing outcome considering the Norwegian’s excellent start to the season.
The second-half performance in particular will give Mikel Arteta plenty of food for thought going into the Gunners’ next Premier League fixture against Bournemouth on Saturday, as a toothless attacking display exhibited alongside yet another defensive error at home leading to a goal sits firmly at the forefront of the Spaniard’s thinking for their next game at the Emirates against a side who have taken maximum points from their first six league games, Manchester City.
The derby will be seen as one of the most captivating matches of the calendar year, and for the neutral, it was a shame it had to come to an end. Ange Postecoglou will be over the moon with his side’s performance, but the reality for Arsenal is that the gap between the fierce rivals seems to have closed a lot sooner than most expected.
By: Tom Norton / @XTPer90
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Steve Welsh – PA Images