“Psychologically and emotionally, I felt it was more than just three points,” Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta said.
Unfortunately for Tottenham, the same was true of them. This looked like more than a 2-0 defeat, more than two more goals conceded at home, more than just another dysfunctional performance.
When the last North London derby at this stadium ended 3-0 to Tottenham in May, it was written in these pages that Antonio Conte’s side showed “fantastic management of the game”, were calm under pressure and gave a “poised and clear-minded” performance against opponents who completely collapsed” .
This time, it was Tottenham who collapsed in the face of a cohesive strategy, common thinking, a team and a club on the rise.
“That day was difficult – we learned some lessons,” Arteta added. “The team and the club are more together, too.”
Again, it’s hard not to make comparisons because you think about how united Tottenham are now. Perhaps the Arsenal comparisons are unfair, but these two clubs will forever be intrinsically linked – by geography, culture and hatred.
A match doesn’t have to decide where a club is, but this derby has always been a useful barometer for Tottenham County. And what we saw was frustratingly predictable.
The initial bright start to the match was followed by a quick decline: a slightly intimidated defense; a poorly received goal; Bad reaction to adversity and a 2-0 half-time deficit. Then, as expected, there was a huge improvement in the second half as Tottenham’s strength, productivity and attacking threat were much better. They’ve missed some silly, error-filled displays with late comebacks on several occasions this season – but not against a side of Arsenal’s caliber and confidence.
If Tottenham’s clean sheet triumphed over Crystal Palace and Portsmouth felt like a potential turning point or foundation on which to build in the second half of the season, this performance has shown it is built on quicksand. Conte did not agree.
“The performance, I’m not disappointed,” he said, speaking of how his team started well and showed a “fantastic reaction” in the second half, playing aggressively and creating chances. “We haven’t lost our heads,” he added, before describing Hugo Lloris as one of the best current goalkeepers in the world.
While Rome was burning, Conti said that at least the sky wasn’t on fire.
He didn’t mean everything he said, and there is of course an argument for staying positive and, most importantly, supporting your players in public. But the team’s display optics were awful. If this is a good performance, especially in the first half, what is a bad performance?
It is clear that given their position in the league, Arsenal have improved immeasurably since May. But did Tottenham back down? They need better players in certain positions, they need another striker who can score, they need a creative midfielder, they need a top-class right-back, they need another centre-back. But all of this was true in May.
The difference between the past and the present is that Tottenham can no longer defend as an organized unit. It is not difficult to beat them. And they cannot control the match, especially against good opponents. They have convincingly lost all four matches against teams above them in the table.
These are the characteristics of Conte’s book. Minimum requirements, in fact. Without them, it’s hard to see what’s left of Spurs, other than the odd 20-minute burst of momentum when trying to come back late.
Tottenham have conceded at least two goals in their last five home matches (1-2 against Newcastle, 1-2 against Liverpool, 4-3 against Leeds, 0-2 against Aston Villa, 0-2 against Arsenal). Conte can rightly point to injuries as an excuse as to why his team is not attacking cohesively. But defense? We’re talking form, discipline, and the ability to move the ball around from behind without looking like you’re asking directions in a foreign language.
This is on conti. His choice here was Ryan Sessegnon over the much-experienced Ivan Perisic. Sessegnon adds pace and extends play, but that didn’t do much good for Spurs when he missed crosses. Perisic is also a huge threat from set-pieces, one of Spurs’ biggest strengths this season. Sessegnon created Spurs’ only chance of the first half when he slid in Son Heung-min from an over-the-top volley, but his surprising selection was a gamble that didn’t pay off.
Faced with Arsenal’s energy, Tottenham simply had no escape. None of their players scored a midfield position in Arsenal’s half in the first 45 minutes. Dropping that deep is fine if you’re defending solidly and counterattacking with poison, but Tottenham did neither.
Compare that to the first half of that 3-0 victory in May. Five Tottenham players have averaged positions in Arsenal’s half. They attacked at pace, with meaning, with a plan.
The contrast in sharpness, strategy, confidence and goalkeeping candor between those two days was stark. And it was a reminder of how far Tottenham have slipped in the past few months.
They may get another reminder on Thursday when they take on Manchester City for the first time this season.
But if they did, it wouldn’t hurt or resonate as much as this.
(Top photo: Chris Brunskill/Fantastasta/Getty Images)