Five Questions After the North London Derby

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The build-up to Saturday lunchtime’s encounter was all talking about one thing: the power shift in North London. Mauricio Pochettino’s men were deemed, for the first time in a very long time, the favourites to win the clash at the Emirates, with some journalists even opting to pick an unanimously filled Lilywhites team in their Spurs-Arsenal combined XI. But Arsenal put a spanner in many people’s predictions with a stunning 2-0 victory, to swing the pendulum of power back towards the Gunners, for a few months at least. What does that victory mean for both sides? Is this the start of something or Arsenal? And can Spurs recover to mount a serious title challenge?

 Was that actually Arsenal?

The Gunners’ performance against Manchester City before the start of the international break seems a very long time ago after that eye-catching display at the Emirates on Saturday. The Gunners looked up for the fight, and pressed as a team, which is remarkable considering the off-field contractual issues of some of the individuals in that particular squad. With Shkodran Mustafi playing his first game in a month, it was believed, pre-match, that he would suffer against the in-form front three of Spurs. But the triumvirate of Arsenal central defenders, including Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal, put in a remarkable display, throwing themselves into last ditch tackles and didn’t put a single foot wrong. Granit Xhaka had a very disciplined afternoon, despite picking up a booking at the half-hour mark, which allowed Aaron Ramsey to press forward much more than usual and get involved in a terrifying and direct attacking combination with the dynamic front three of Mesut Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette, and Alexis Sanchez. The Gunners’ attack force was relentless in their pressing game against a back three of Spurs which didn’t have a moment’s rest for ninety minutes. Jan Verthongen being closed down and forced to go to ground by Ozil in the seventh minute was a sign of things to come, while Lacazette constantly playing on the last man in the first period made Tottenham’s defensive line, which is normally high away from home, drop five to ten yards deeper. Arsene Wenger prepared the perfect game plan for his side, and him, the players and, also the fans can reap the rewards from this.

Was the pressure too much for Poch?

This was an unfamiliar situation for Spurs, as this was their first North London derby after finishing above the Gunners for the first time in over two decades. It’s very rare for any team to be favourites in a game against Arsenal away from home, especially considering that Spurs have only beaten Arsenal once on their own turf in nearly a quarter of a century, but Pochettino’s men came into the game expecting to steam roll past the Gunners, given both sides’ recent form. However, Pochettino seemed to lose in nerve with regards to his team selection. Pep Guardiola and Manchester City demonstrated how to beat Arsene Wenger’s side in a big game before the international break, playing a back four with wingers further forward to pin back Arsenal’s wing backs, which allows more space for the creative central midfielders, such as Kevin De Bruyne, to operate and cause problems. Spurs meanwhile, went man-for-man with the Gunners, and tried to play through them, which Arsenal found very easy to deal with. The choice to play three at the back also meant that Eric Dier was forced to play in an unfamiliar yet pivotal role in the back three, and Arsenal exploited his unfamiliarity in the role at every opportunity, forcing him into several first-half errors.

However, Pochettino isn’t totally to blame for his side’s defeat, especially considering he made some good changes to his team selection, despite his fault in his team’s formation. The decision to play Moussa Sissokho through the middle of midfield was a correct one, as the Gunners’ weak spot in their team is the inconsistent midfield partnership of Ramsey and Xhaka, and the Frenchman did bring the Lilywhites further up the field with his direct running from deep. But, at Sissokho’s expense, Spurs missed the incisive passing of Harry Winks, whose exclusion from the side came as a surprise, especially considering he was removed from the England squad in preparation for this game. The Argentine manager also can’t be blamed for his side’s marking for Arsenal’s first goal from Mustafi, nor the lack of sharpness in reacting for Alexis Sanchez’s second, so while he did make some fundamental, there is still no doubt about his quality as a manager.

Is this the turning point for the Gunners?

The big challenge for Arsene Wenger now is continuity. That was a perfect performance from the Gunners, but how many times can they repeat this, or will there be any more spineless defeats? It’s all about balancing the very large squad he has, using the Europa League to keep the players who didn’t take part on Saturday happy, such as Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere, while also giving defensive players like Francis Coquelin, Callum Chambers and Rob Holding the opportunity to react to being left out of an important game like the North London derby. With regards to his team selection, Wenger must keep that front three fresh and fit for as many Premier League games as possible, as even Tottenham’s impressive defence were unable to cope with Ozil’s incisiveness, Sanchez’s aggressiveness and Lacazette’s running in behind. That combination was also successful in their 5-2 win away at Everton, so that strike force is all about goals, goals, goals. You never know, if they keep scoring and enjoying their football, maybe reported want away players such as Sanchez and Ozil can be convinced to stay as a result?

Have Spurs actually progressed?

There are two big statistics regarding Tottenham Hotspur after this result. The first is that Pochettino has only managed one win in 17 games against the top six since becoming Spurs manager, a 2-1 win over a Manchester City side who finished fourth under Manuel Pellegrini in 2016, while they’ve also only managed four wins in 87 MATCHES away to Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. These are statistics that Spurs will need to break if they want to progress, and failing to do so will prevent them from being one of England’s top clubs, which can lead to wide spread departures of key players, potentially even their manager. It’s very easy to have a good home run, even Arsenal have managed 11 consecutive Premier League wins at Emirates Stadium, but it’s the away form that will dictate Tottenham’s fortunes this season, and so far, they are failing at that aspect. It’s actually very difficult to see, in general, how Tottenham have improved from last season. They added depth to their defence in Davison Sanchez, but without the presence of Toby Aldeweireld, their back line still looks suspect. Only sub-standard back-up options have been added to the Spurs squad this season, and while fans can point to their Champions League form and their recent win over Real Madrid at Wembley as signs of progress, it’s a Real Madrid side that is underperforming, even for their standards, and sitting ten points behind Barcelona in the La Liga title race, despite their evident quality. Overall,  Spurs still look a long way off from being Premier League champions.

Were England’s stars invisible once again?

This was the most surprising aspect of Saturday’s game. In a week where both Harry Kane and Dele Alli were removed from the England squad due to injury concerns, you would have expected both players to be fully fit and prepared for this encounter against their club side’s biggest rivals. But both players put in a performance that England fans are used to seeing from their players at the big international tournaments. Kane looked a yard off the pace, and even when he managed to create himself an opportunity to score, he was wasteful at every chance he got. Alli meanwhile, despite having a fiery temperament and a must-win attitude, was completely anonymous in the first half, and very much invisible in the second period, before being taken off for Son Hyeung-Min. It seemed as though he couldn’t be bothered for one of his team’s biggest games of the season, and his side is very much reliant on him to be the creative fulcrum of the side. On top of this, Eric Dier should be taking his game to the next level after being given the England captaincy for the two games during the international break, but put out a sloppy and almost an arrogant display at central defence. This must change for Spurs – and England – to achieve their goals in 2018.

What do you think? Do Spurs have a genuine problem? Can Arsenal repeat this on a regular basis? Could Pochettino have done more? Let us know in the comments below.

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