Tottenham 0-2 Arsenal: 16 Conclusions on the new Premier League favourites and familiar Spurs failings

Hugo Lloris fumbles a Bukayo Saka cross into his own goal as Arsenal beat Tottenham 2-0 in the Premier League Credit: Alamy
Hugo Lloris fumbles a Bukayo Saka cross into his own goal as Arsenal beat Tottenham 2-0 in the Premier League Credit: Alamy

There’s a new favourite for the Premier League title after a one-sided North London derby. Hint: it’s not Tottenham…

 

1. Sometimes 16 Conclusions can be quite a challenge. Sometimes there’s just not that much to say about a game of football. Sometimes it doesn’t really mean anything. Sometimes games are quite evenly matched and the run of the balls at a certain moment settles matters. Sometimes it’s hard to find things to say about both teams and you get accused of bias for focusing on the one that was conspicuously good/bad (bad is much more fun to write about, by the way).

And sometimes there’s a game where one team is so good and the other so desperately bad that it’s nice and easy. Half the conclusions praising the good team, half slaughtering the bad one. Lovely stuff.

 

2. The headline is that with an eight-point lead and being well worth every point of that lead, on the back of Manchester City’s late collapse at Manchester United, Arsenal are now favourites for the Premier League title. That’s not an opinion, it’s an across-the-board fact with every major bookmaker in the country. They are now firmly on course to achieve something truly extraordinary and have a sufficient cushion to do so should they lose home and away to City over the weeks ahead.

Right now it’s hard to see Arsenal losing those games, though. City have the pedigree but Arsenal have the momentum and belief. Arsenal are the team playing the better football. Arsenal the team playing the more effective football. Arsenal the team playing the more consistent football. City’s current malaise has brought United and Newcastle back into the equation, with only City’s (and, let’s be fair, Arsenal’s) reputation preventing the Gunners being prohibitively short favourites. Certainly if roles were reversed we’d be approaching no offers territory.

 

3. Arsenal were superb. It’s easy to say Spurs made them look good, and Spurs certainly made them look even better, but there were two sides to this Arsenal performance and result that were of equal significance and will both be equally pleasing for Mikel Arteta.

In the first half, when Spurs were a dreary, confused shambles of a side, Arsenal seized the initiative. They scored two, could have scored many more, and, in a derby that has in recent years come to be dominated by whichever side is at home, exposed the widening gulf that now exists between these two clubs currently heading in wildly differing directions.

4. In the second half when Spurs at least produced some degree of how-could-they-not improvement, Arsenal held firm and while Spurs had their spells and moments and glimpses there was never any time where it seemed like they would get themselves back into the game. At not point did Spurs scoring the third goal of the game appear significantly more likely than Arsenal doing so.

And by the end of the game Arsenal were completely taking the piss out of their beaten and broken opponents, most joyously when Gabriel Martinelli controlled a ball on his back because he could. Spurs fans were rightly quick to defend Richarlison earlier in the season when he was charged with the crime of playing the game with a bit of joy and happiness by doing some keepy-uppies, so they have no choice but to sit back and take this one.

 

5. While Arsenal’s superiority was evident all over the pitch, nowhere was it clearer – certainly in that alarmingly one-sided first half – than in the utter mismatch between Bukayo Saka and Ryan Sessegnon down Arsenal’s right.

Arsenal knew within minutes they were on to a good thing there and probed at it relentlessly. Gabriel Martinelli was almost a spectator on the left-hand side as Arsenal focused on their most obvious route to success. So frequent and dangerous were Arsenal’s attacks down that side, so easily were they overwhelming Spurs, that the game had the feel of one in which the struggling side is down to 10 men. It looked for all the world like Arsenal had a numerical as well as technical and tactical advantage.

Opting for Sessegnon and his pace over the experience and big-game nous of Ivan Perisic was an understandable call from Conte but it was one that went disastrously, game-definingly wrong and the Spurs manager will have to own that.

It was painful to watch at times. Sessegnon remains a young player of some promise, but it’s also worth noting that he is 14 months older than Saka. Both goals came down that side and while the vast bulk of the blame for the first goal must lie at the feet – or more accurately fumbling hands – of Hugo Lloris it was also a mess from Sessegnon. It wasn’t the first or last time it happened in a 45 minutes Spurs were lucky to end only two goals behind.

 

6. That first goal will infuriate all connected with Spurs, though. It was a clever run from Saka and even at that early stage Arsenal were already value for it, but it was so utterly avoidable. The cross from Saka was literally heading away from goal until the interventions of two Spurs players. Lloris and Sessegnon don’t really deserve to be singled out for criticism given the soporific nature of the all-round display in the face of Arsenal’s high tempo and pressing, but they were the two players most conspicuously off the pace in that chastening first 45 minutes.

 

7. Everything about Arsenal’s play was so good, though. They were brave in playing through Spurs’ press – no matter how half-arsed – and crisp in both pass and tackle. They had already harried Lloris into a mistake, playing on his increasing uncertainty with ball at feet, before the first goal as warnings went unheeded.

 

8. And there was something similar about the second goal too. Spurs had already stood off Martin Odegaard to give him a sighter before he rifled the ball into the bottom corner unchallenged from 25 yards to deservedly double the Gunners’ lead. The failure to learn lessons or heed warnings has become a recurring theme for Spurs on their current poor run and these egregious examples in the biggest fixture of the lot will hurt desperately.

 

9. And yet… for all the obvious, myriad ways in which Arsenal were superior to Spurs you could probably also make a decent hypothetical case that if you could somehow engineer a situation where everything else about the game was identical but the two keepers swap teams then there is every chance Spurs win the game. For all that Spurs were outplayed, outthought and outfought, there were moments – usually involving Harry Kane or Dejan Kulusevski or both – where Spurs did get themselves into some decent positions.

Aaron Ramsdale being named man of the match by Gary Neville on Sky was slightly try-hard and quirky – especially given the nature of Saka’s first-half performance – but it was still well within the bounds of the reasonable. His handling was necessarily assured throughout (in direct contrast to his opposite number) and a series of good saves was elevated by one excellent one with a left toe to deny Sessegnon a goal early in the second half which could have changed the whole feel of the game.

One idiotic Spurs fan was so vexed by it all that he even tried to kick Ramsdale at the end of a game whose feel remained resolutely unchanged. In keeping with everything else that happened today the Spursy miscreant missed and then ran away.

 

10. Replacing Lloris has made its way to somewhere near the top of the lengthening Spurs to-do list with remarkable speed this season. It says a great deal about how long overdue the Spurs rebuild now is that the parts that didn’t actually need rebuilding when the rebuild should have started are suddenly the most urgent. In the short term there is a very decent case for giving a run of games to Fraser Forster, a man who has 42 clean sheets in 135 Premier League appearances. It’s not like handing responsibilities to an untested rookie, and right now it’s hard to imagine his error-to-minutes ratio could be any worse than Lloris’.

Even at his best – which is and was very good indeed – he has always had a nasty error in him. There was a running gag years ago about Lloris and “another rare error”. He’s managed to render that particular banter moot, albeit not in the way he might have wanted. But even now, his horrific first-half blunder prompted discussion from the commentary team about his character, about his ability to clear his head after making such a mistake. What was missing was an acknowledgement of the quite why we all know he has this quality…

 

11. There was a fleeting moment of excitement for Spurs right at the end of a wildly distressing first half. First Harry Kane’s header was smartly saved by Ramsdale before the corner fell for Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg to slice wide. So far, so Spurs.

But as the ball made its sorrowfully shanked way off the field, Hojbjerg went to ground and for a brief moment it looked like a penalty had been given. Now a pet peeve of ours is that convention seems to permit defenders to perform all manner of atrocity on a striker free of consequence as long as said striker is able to “get his shot away”. This would nevertheless have landed at the more bizarre end of such incidents given Hojbjerg wasn’t so much fouled as managed to pretty much crash into a rogue Arsenal leg while watching his mishit sail into the distance.

 

12. Those seeking to defend Conte and Spurs will point to the improved second-half performance. To which the obvious response is that it couldn’t have been any worse and that the passive, ambitionless first-half performance was not a new wrinkle for Conte or Spurs.

Spurs have not led at half-time in any of their last 10 Premier League games. In all competitions, that number rises to 14. In those 14 games, Spurs have scored precisely one first-half goal – and they still found themselves 2-1 down at half-time that day, against Leeds.

And this was also the fourth home Premier League game in the last five where Spurs have found themselves 2-0 down. In the other, against Leeds, they trailed 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 before burgling a win late on. The comebacks have been often stirring but becoming inevitably less frequent. The sticking plasters are no longer covering the gaping wounds.

 

13. While Arsenal revel in an eight-point lead at the top of the table with everyone below them looking vastly more flawed in vastly more ways, Spurs are yet again at a fork in the road. Whether it ends now or in a fortnight or in six months, the Conte Experiment is surely over. And with it too should go Daniel Levy’s attempts to Chelsea shortcut his way to success because he blew the moment to do it the right way in 2017 when Spurs had the best young team in the country and Levy, with some mitigation given the stadium build was a large and necessary distraction, failed to back the manager. That team and coach carried on for a while, even somehow reaching a Champions League final along the way, but an opportunity was missed.

 

14. To add to the frustration in the white-and-blue half of North London, it’s not just their own missed opportunity that rankles, but the sight of Arsenal succeeding in precisely the way Spurs should be looking to do it. Promoting youth, backing a young, progressive manager and picking up smart signings from the fringes of bloated superclub squads.

 

15. And however bleak things might look right now for Spurs, however galling it will be to rip things up and start again again, it can all change quickly. Look at how fast Erik ten Hag has been able to turn the stricken Manchester United tanker around. What absolutely can’t be allowed to go unchallenged is the idea that if Spurs can’t succeed with an elite coach like Conte then they can’t succeed full stop.

Because at the moment there is nothing elite about Conte’s work with Spurs, wedded as he is to a formation and style that demonstrably does not suit the players at his disposal. Levy is far from blameless, but for £15m a year he is entitled to expect a manager who can offer something in a game of this magnitude between the desperate, last-ditch yet half-hearted defending of the first 45 minutes and then a Hail Mary switch to a shambolic 4-2-4 because you’re 2-0 down and time is running out.

 

16. The grimmest thing for Spurs now is the fact that with two meetings with Manchester City in their next three Premier League games things are likely to get worse before they get better. And to make that even worse it’s not even immediately clear what would constitute “worse” in the current circumstances.

It’s certainly easy enough to imagine that Spurs getting results in one or both of those games would be a cause of greater cheer for Arsenal fans than Tottenham ones. A repeat of last season’s six-point haul from City would pretty much hand Arsenal the title. But hey, it would also go a long way to securing fifth place for Spurs, so it’s not all doom and gloom. Draws would do Spurs and City little good while being decent for Arsenal. Yet lose them both and suddenly Spurs will find themselves back among the dregs like Liverpool and Chelsea, sucked back into mid-table and spiralling. And Arsenal still might win the league anyway. We knew it had to happen one day, and Spurs have finally done it. They’ve played themselves into a position where whatever they do in their upcoming games it’s going to be Spursy.

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