fter all the optimistic talk, the north-London derby was a sobering reminder for Arsenal of just how much still needs to be done, just how pervasive are the problems Mikel Arteta inherited. And while the victory lifted Tottenham above Arsenal, and for all this in some respects resembled a classic José Mourinho mugging, it was a result that did little to clear the doubts about the manager and his approach.
Spurs won because their defence were less chaotic than Arsenal’s but the picture, really, was of two attacks seeking an identity. At least it was possible to discern a Tottenham attack, which wasn’t the case against Everton or Bournemouth.
But the worry is that Mourinho is a manager who believes in organising his defence and essentially allowing his forwards to improvise. He prefers to mentally condition his players to make the right decisions, rather than precisely structuring attacks as Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola do. Neither goal stemmed from any invention on Tottenham’s part.
The first originated from the whirl of haplessness that seems always to surround David Luiz. His disappointed shake of the head, curls shimmering with regret, arms outstretched as though to dissipate blame, is far more of a trademark now than his sidefooted free-kicks used to be.
On this occasion, though, the Brazilian was less to blame than Sead Kolasinac, whose pass wrong-footed him to set Son Heung-min away. The second was a simple set piece, Toby Alderweireld taking advantage of Son’s superb delivery.
Lucas Moura’s effort in the opening seconds had at least brought to the end his team’s run of 143 minutes (including injury time) without a shot on target. In total they managed nine, more than in their previous four games put together. Arsenal, in the end, made the errors Spurs were waiting for, as might be expected from a team who have failed to win any of their previous 27 away games against “big six” opposition.
At the same time Arsenal failed to take advantage of the long spell at the beginning of the second half in which they totally controlled possession. This was only the sixth time Arsenal’s three most expensive signings – Alexandre Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pépé – had started a league game together, an indication of the confused approach to squad building. (The fourth most expensive, and the highest earner at the club, Mesut Özil, was again not even on the bench.)
Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang endured a frustrating game against Spurs. Photograph: Kevin Quigley/Kevin Quigley NMC Pool
There is an argument that a finisher as good as Aubameyang is slightly wasted wide, although using goalscorers wide is an increasing feature of modern football. As Alex Ferguson once pointed out to justify using Wayne Rooney wide, attacking on the diagonal can create more space than playing in straight lines through the middle.
But there is a problem with Aubameyang looking to cut inside into areas occupied by Lacazette – who despite beginning his career on the wing is a far more orthodox centre-forward than, say, Roberto Firmino, who naturally drops deep to create space for Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané attacking from wide.
That is compounded by Pépé, who also wants to drift into central positions from the opposite flank and is extremely left-footed. Those problems were seen 10 minutes into the second half when the Ivorian was played into a crossing position by Dani Ceballos’s backheel but had to check back on to his left foot and float over an inswinger when an earlier cross driven across the box right-footed would have been more dangerous.
In addition, two such narrow forwards mean there is a need for the wing-backs to provide width but Héctor Bellerín and Kieran Tierney found themselves frustrated by the defensive work of Moussa Sissoko and Lucas Moura on the outside of Tottenham’s 4-4-2.
Lacazette, through no real fault of his own, has become emblematic of that confusion, although he is generally an enigmatic presence. He seems never quite to have lived up to the promise of his youth. He was voted Arsenal’s player of the season in 2018-19 but his role has never been entirely clear. That is perhaps beginning to change under Arteta: his goal bore the hallmarks of Arteta’s organisation and what seemed a clear plan to pressure Serge Aurier. It was the dispossession of the full-back by Granit Xhaka that presented Lacazette with the ball.
But this was a reminder of just how far there is to go if Arteta is to make Arsenal competitive again. Bright young players – none of whom started – an ambitious plan and a manager with a clear sense of purpose are all useful resources but the culture of the club cannot be changed overnight.
Tottenham will enjoy the win, may finish above Arsenal and could qualify for the Europa League but fundamentally this was a scratchy slightly unsatisfying game between two mid-table sides.