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Analysis

Tottenham dominate Arsenal in the fine margins

Seb Stafford-Bloor was at Wembley to see Tottenham win the last North London derby of the season.

If this was to be Tottenham’s last chance to rattle sabres with Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, Wembley was a fitting venue. It is Spurs’ temporary home, of course, but this felt like an occasion deserving of the national stadium’s frame. It was louder and bigger, multiplying all the derby neuroses.

Arsene Wenger has made a final lunge at greatness, spending almost £60m on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and acquiring Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the deal which took Alexis Sanchez to Manchester United. It’s left him with a team dripping in flair, but perhaps short on the rugged qualities which are examined so carefully within north London’s walls.

Tottenham remain a side without any airs or graces. Mauricio Pochettino chases progress through continuity rather than transfer-market and there were few surprises in his team selection. Toby Alderweireld remains in recovery after a long-term injury and the same side who started the 2-2 draw with Liverpool six days ago lined up again here.

Initially, the game only simmered. Both sides fired across each other’s bows, but without ever threatening to change the score. Harry Kane glanced a good chance over the bar and Aubameyang’s long stride took him beyond Davinson Sanchez and into space a few times, but with little consequence.

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The players huffed and puffed, the butterflies fluttered – a half of exit balls, man-on shouts, and chattering anxiety in the stands.

It was a forty-five minutes which was startlingly short of instinct, too. Both sides are at the best when they click through their impulsive gears, but the football was often overly-deliberate and far too respectful of the occasion. Passes were placed rather pinged, runs too often checked.
 
Both managers presumably addressed that in the dressing-rooms, but it was Pochettino’s message which was truly heard. Within five minutes of the restart, Moussa Dembele had nullified another Arsenal move, shimmied away from Jack Wilshere and played Ben Davies in down the left-hand side. The Welshman’s cross dropped perfectly in the six-yard box and, as almost per tradition, Kane thundered over the defence to score.

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It was a surge of momentum which Arsenal did well to survive. Minutes later, Kane would glance a second header just beyond Petr Cech’s far post and, with a further chance, warm the goalkeeper’s palms with a meaty volley. Cech would be called on again before the hour, this time to claw Christian Eriksen’s free-kick out of his top-corner, and – all of a sudden –  the game was just as it was a year ago, with Tottenham machine-gunning shots at the visiting goal.

Wenger went to his bench first, seeking thrust from Alex Iwobi and Alexandre Lacazette. Spurs retained their control, though, with Dembele flowing stylishly into the gaps vacated by the departed Mohamed Elneny and becoming the game’s dominant influence. Substitute Erik Lamela would run through on-goal after a fine team move and Kieran Trippier would find himself alone at the back-post, both being denied again by the resolute Cech.

Perhaps against their better interest, Tottenham grew more submissive as the end approached, ceding possession and inviting Arsenal to commit numbers. Wenger threw on another forward, replacing Granit Xhaka with Danny Welbeck and yet, still, the one chance he was looking for didn’t arrive.

Lacazette volleyed wildly over from a semi-threatening position as the clock ticked over into stoppage-time, but the stylistically vibrancy which Arsenal are known for – the lightning-fast triangles, the third-man runs – was glaringly absent. They were blunt and hopeful, never incisive or bright. Lacazette, again, would run through before full-time, skewing his shot wide when he should have hit the target, but it was a opportunity which fell to him, rather than one actually mined by his teammates.

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The final score read 1-0 and Tottenham pulses no doubt quickened as they passed, but this was never that close. Even after sacrificing their entire midfield in pursuit of a goal, Arsenal never looked likely to deliver one. Similarly, even though one £60m forward was substituted for another, Wenger’s decadently assembled forward line remained strikingly peripheral throughout.

The accepted wisdom is to treat these games in isolation, as standalone moments which carry little long-term relevance. Here, though, Arsenal were definitively shown for what they are: a side with the players to belong in the top-six, but one with the ideological flaws which prevent them from being anything other than an also-ran within that mini-league.

Tottenham, by contrast, were often highly impressive. They never quite reached the levels achieved against Manchester United, but they never needed to. On another day their profligacy would have come at a cost and their loose moments at the end might have been punished, but Pochettino will rightly celebrate his players’ dominance, his substitutes’ better effect, and his midfield’s almost comedic superiority.

As far as single-goal victories go, this was as comprehensive as they get to be.

 

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