A tale of two ‘keepers
This may seem an odd choice – and bare with us on it – but to start the analysis of Saturday’s North London Derby let’s take a look at both goalkeepers.
It’s not so much for the errors they committed – Hugo Lloris was at fault by jumping over Cristian Romero’s touch back for Gabriel Jesus’ goal and Aaron Ramsdale found himself in no man’s land in the sequence leading up to Harry Kane’s penalty – but instead it’s worth focusing on what they did with their feet, because if there’s one thing that encapsulated the difference between the two sides that was probably it.
On the day both were identical in a sense in that they attempted 14 passes and completed 11 each, but where they attempted those balls from could not have been more polar opposite.
Of Ramsdale’s 14 passes just six were attempted from inside his own penalty area, while all but one of Lloris’ balls came from inside his own 18-yard box. This speaks volumes about where the pair spent most of their time on the pitch.
Going into this game what made it even more fascinating than usual was the fact that Arsenal and Tottenham in their current forms were almost the antithesis of each other. From that perspective there were no surprises in this game.
Spurs sat deep for much of the match looking to frustrate Arsenal and catch them on the counter attack as they have done for much of the season under Antonio Conte. It was the passivity of this approach that was arguably pivotal in giving Thomas Partey the space he needed on the edge of the box for his opening goal.
The Gunners meanwhile looked to be aggressive and front footed in their play by pinning their visitors back with an intense press and front-footed positioning. Ramsdale spent much of the game high, but he was not the only one. Mikel Arteta had his side camped their full backs Oleksandr Zinchenko and the excellent Ben White on the edge of their visitors box and worked Spurs’ defence until it eventually suffocated in to submission.
It’s the kind of football that Arsenal brought up on a diet of Arsene Wenger love to see, quite simply because it’s more fun to watch. The Emirates Stadium was buzzing at full time of course because of the result, but they have been so on board all season because of the style of play they’ve been treated to.
Critics will argue that it left them open to the counter and on another day Tottenham may well have been more clinical with their limited opportunities on the break. Arteta though views it as a risk worth taking, and with a derby day victory under his belt, it’s hard to really argue.
Has anyone actually ever seen William Saliba sweat?
North London Derbies are supposed to be tumultuous affairs where even the most seasoned of veterans find themselves caught up in the gladiatorial atmosphere that accompanies them. Not for Saliba though.
The Frenchman was playing his first ever match against Spurs but from the way he approached it you would have thought he did it every day of his life. Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son and Richarlison are among the three most difficult attackers to deal with in world football, but Saliba simply strolled through their challenge with ease.
Two months into his Arsenal career starting for real and he is still yet to have been dribbled past even once. In that time he has won possession more than any player in the Premier League, and in the North London Derby he won possession more times than anyone on the pitch with 11.
To make matters even more impressive he won all his aerial duels, made the most passes, had the most touches and made the most clearances on the day. Light work for the 21-year-old.
The excellence of the Arsenal wonderkid saw another of yesteryear recount a fascinating tale of how he ended up in north London. “I’d like to mention the special name, the fact he was so good he made it look easy is William Saliba,” said Cesc Fabregas who was watching on as a pundit.
“I’m sorry but this boy was in France on loan and I was watching him very closely because an ex-Arsenal scout asked me three years ago when we were playing St Etienne in a cup match. I was rested so I was in the stand, he said ‘watch this boy, I want to sign him’
“He was 18, 19 and he was the best player on the pitch so that shows you the potential of this guy, he looks so easy, he could be Arsenal’s centre-back for the next 15 to 20 years.”
It’s high praise from the Spaniard who has seen a good centre back or two in his time. But with these performances that he’s putting on a regular basis how could you disagree?
The 21-year-old is cruising through games with such ease that you feel P&O would be missing a trick by not making him a brand ambassador. The sky is the limit for the young Frenchman who Arsenal simply have to tie down to a new deal.
Big six opponent? Completed it mate
Are Arsenal the real deal? That’s the question that has been doing the rounds more than any other so far this season.
Sure, they’re top of the Premier League, but in their one fixture against a ‘big six’ opponent the Gunners failed to claim victory. Had you been on the internet prior to Saturday’s North London Derby then you would undoubtedly have been confronted with that criticism of Mikel Arteta’s side regardless of how well they actually played at Old Trafford.
So here it was. A chance for Arsenal to announce well and truly to the world that they are a side to be taken seriously. Is that too much pressure to have put on one game? Perhaps, but the Gunners certainly didn’t play like that.
Even within this run of seven wins in eight Arsenal have faced adversity and so far their default response has been that of a side that truly believes in what they’re doing. As Harry Kane slotted home the equalising penalty it would have been easy for the Gunners to buckle under the Gail force bluster of critics willing to write them off as nothing more than pretenders, but instead they pushed back and headed face on in to the storm.
After a jittery end to the first half they came out for the second with a steadfast belief that if they kept playing the way they had been all season then eventually they would eventually prevail. It didn’t take long before that trust in the process was rewarded as Gabriel Jesus pounced on Hugo Lloris error to restore their lead. Antonio Conte seemed to think after the match that Emerson Royal’s red card “killed the game”, but even if Spurs had managed land another gut punch you get the feeling that this Arsenal side would have been able to roll with the blow and come back out swinging.
The monkey of a ‘big six’ scalp is now well and truly off their backs, but speaking after the game Mikel Arteta admitted that he was delighted with how his team had risen to the pressure of claiming such a victory. “100% needed because when you play such a big game you want to win,” he told football.london when asked if his side had needed that victory to silence their critics in his post-match press conference. “Those opinions are correct because when you look at the start and just put it in that context you can do it, but it’s about how you give and receive information and how that affects you or not.”
From Gabriel’s post after the game, it’s clear that those doubting Arsenal’s progress under Mikel Arteta this season had got to some of the players. With those critics now silenced, you have to wonder how far this Gunners side can go.
Well, why don’t we sit with that question for a bit?
When the season began on August 5th if anyone had even begun to suggest that Arsenal would be in a title race then you quite rightly would have carted off wearing a straight jacket. But nearly two months on it’s proving more and more tempting to acknowledge the reality that this could actually be a thing.
Before we all get giddy on the pints of excitement flowing freely around north London at the minute though it’s worth considering the levels of consistency across a season that is required to win a title in the current climate. When Arsene Wenger won his first league title in England in 1998 it was with 78 points. Such a thing today is simply impossible.
Sides like City and Liverpool are so consistent that to even be in the conversation for winning the Premier League you’re looking at a 90+ season which is something that Arsenal have only done once in the competition’s history. Consistency is something the Gunners have had by the bucket load so far this season though, so perhaps we shouldn’t be dismissing it out of hand.
Regardless of what is being said externally Mikel Arteta is refusing to be drawn in to any narrative that suggests his team are in the hunt for a trophy that is well ahead of schedule. “I’ll leave that to you guys honestly,” he said when questioned on what point it would be OK to call Arsenal title contenders. “We just started and we’re really happy with where we are. We understand that you can’t control because emotion is related. The table says what it says and we don’t look at that.”
What the Spaniard was willing to admit however, was that a win against a side like Tottenham shows that his team can go into any match in the Premier League confident that they can win by playing their own brand of football. “For me, the message is to the players and everybody here at the club that we are able to play at this level against this kind of opponent,” he told football.london. “That should give them confidence and belief.”
There has been a lot of talk about sustained growth away from football in the news this week, but when you’re looking at repeatable development in this Arsenal project it’s that sort of mentality that delivers it. Some might even argue that it’s the kind of mentality upon which title wins are built, but the Gunners won’t get carried away just yet.