It seems no matter how much the Gunners try this season, stringing together multiple quality performances in a row is a feat that continues to elude them. A week on from the euphoric debut of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the reshaped Arsenal attack, it was blanked again, succumbing to Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 at Wembley Stadium. The first half was an evenly matched affair, but Arsenal had no answers for the Spurs once they decided to attack down route 1, providing Harry Kane with just enough service to steal all 3 points for a cocky and brash Tottenham team.
Playing Not To Lose Costs Gunners
Over the last several seasons, Arsene Wenger has been criticised for being perhaps a little too inflexible with his tactics. No matter the opponent, critics say, Wenger wants to play his way, even if it plays into the opponent’s hands. The reality however, is that Wenger has become a bit more pragmatic in recent seasons, and sometimes it arguably costs his team. You could tell immediately from kickoff on a Saturday that the Gunners had shown up intent on not losing, the forwards hardly pressed at all, content to sit back almost entirely in their own half. Daring Tottenham to try and play through them. This worked for a time in the first half, as it was an evenly contested, frantically paced goalless battle that showed neither team willing to give any space for their hated rivals to exploit.
Having recognised this strategy, it appears Mauricio Pochettino instructed his team team to start peppering Harry Kane with the service he sorely lacked in the first half, and it took just 4 minutes for the Premier League’s top scorer to find the scoresheet, flicking a header on a whipped in Ben Davies cross expertly into the corner, past Petr Cech. Having played the whole match on the back foot, the Gunners found it hard to switch gears and open up their game to create meaningful scoring opportunities. Instead, Tottenham found their own chances to score increase after the Kane goal, with Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen both having golden opportunities to extend the lead. Even the substitution of Alex Iwobi for Henrikh Mhkitaryan couldn’t help the Gunners improve in their transition from defence to attack. Arsenal didn’t look a threat to score until time was dwindling away, when Alexandre Lacazette had two golden scoring opportunities that he couldn’t put away to salvage a point for his club.
Second Start Struggles
As electrifying and exciting as Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were in their first ever start for Arsenal last weekend against Everton, Saturday showed the dangers of over-hyping one good performance. The former Dortmund duo struggled mightily at Wembley Stadium, with Aubameyang finding little space to work his magic around the goal, while Mkhitaryan got marked tight all match and took a hammering from the aggressive Spurs midfield. Neither seemed quite ready for the intensity of a North London Derby, with the Armenian succumbing several times to pressure and firing multiple wayward passes and crosses throughout the match. Aubameyang was poor as a pressure release outlet for the defence, as he did little to battle for balls in the air when the defence or Petr Cech were forced to hoof it long. He may possess a slender build, but fans in North London are going to expect a hell of a lot more effort from a 6’2 striker in the air than he showed on Saturday.
It is still far too early to panic about either player, as the Spurs were stifling in defence and would have frustrated most attackers in the world with a team defensive performance like Saturday’s. Mesut Ozil, who traditionally drives the attack in big matches, was made equally ineffective by the tight marking Spurs. Mkhitaryan was not nearly at his best being asked to continually track back to mark overlapping fullbacks. In attack, he searched in vain for space between the tightly spaced Tottenham lines, and he had expended a lot of energy by the time he was replaced by Alex Iwobi in the second half. Their second start as Gunners will have left them with a bitter taste in their mouths, but they are still working to find their ideal roles in the Arsenal squad, and their talents suggest that improvement is on its way.
Surprise Ramsey Injury Hurts Gunners
One player that was present for the sublime attacking display against Everton a week ago but missed the North London Derby because of a minor groin injury was midfielder Aaron Ramsey. The Welshman was just coming off of the first hat trick of his career against the Toffees, and his late arriving runs into the box have been a nightmare for opposing defences to track this season. He has very quietly been putting together his finest season since 2013/14 for the club, bringing much needed goal threat from deep to take some of the pressure off of the forwards. However, injuries continue to derail his seasons, forcing him to miss multiple matches several times a year. He had only just returned from a thigh strain, gotten back to what appeared to be full fitness, and then misses an extremely important match with an injury sustained in training.
The Gunners were crying out for his surging presence in the centre of the pitch on Saturday, and Mohammed Elneny and Jack Wilshere could not combine to bring the same sort of dynamism that Ramsey is capable of. The loss costs the Gunners dearly in their bid for top 4 this season, and it is imperative that he returns quickly. Arsenal look a far more balanced team right now with him in the side, which is a far cry from how he was viewed just a couple seasons ago, where his fit in the starting XI was anything but certain.
Koscielny Outdueled By Kane
In many ways Laurent Koscielny’s play in the North London Derby was a metaphor for his season as a whole. For most of the season he has looked relatively normal, but moments like the Harry Kane goal, and the tense minutes surrounding it in which the Spurs had multiple chances to extend their lead, show that he is both physically in decline, and has never fully eradicated a penchant for mistakes in his game. Kane simply abused the Frenchman on his goal, using him as springboard to launch into the air and nod his shot into the net. Koscielny has long been one of the most physically gifted centre backs in the Premier League, but he was overmatched by the younger, fresher Kane.
Age, back, and Achilles woes have robbed Koscielny of much of that explosiveness that used to be a match for all but the most dominant physical players. He has improved mentally over the years, but he will never be known as a positional tactician on the pitch and his physical decline could well mean his days as the leader at the heart of the Arsenal defence are numbered. In many ways, it is Shkodran Mustafi that has assumed the role of match saving defender this season, and the club are known to be interested in defensive help this summer. His performance in the North London Derby was not one of his best, but unlike past seasons, he is reaching a point in his career where the club might have to start asking a very difficult question of themselves: is it time to consider moving in from both their captain and their vice-captain sooner rather than later?
Time to Follow the United Way?
As Arsene Wenger dejectedly acknowledged after the match this weekend, the road to the top 4 has become an extremely difficult one for the Gunners this season following a loss to 3rd place Tottenham. Chelsea and Liverpool have had their share of struggles in recent matches, but Arsenal would still have to play near flawless football until the end of the league campaign to have a realistic shot at making the Champions League through that route. However, unlike seasons past, the Gunners might just have another way into the competition.
Manchester United were in a very similar situation to the Gunners last season. Sitting on the outside looking in at the top 4 and with a squad that was deeper on paper than their performances would suggest in reality, Jose Mourinho decided to sacrifice the strength of his starting XI in league matches to field rested, full-strength lineups in the Europa League. His gamble ultimately paid off, as the Red Devils won the trophy and the berth in this year’s Champions League. Arsenal find themselves in a winnable round of 16 matchup this week against FK Ostersunds in Sweden, and a win in this round will leave them as just one of 8 teams left. Despite the abnormally strong pool of team this season, including Borussia Dortmund, Napoli and Atletico Madrid, Arsenal could potentially have a better shot at winning in Europe than making top 4. However, neither of those 3 clubs would make for an easy match up, and should Wenger put all of his eggs in that basket and fail, he will be forever second guessed by supporters. Whatever he decides to do, it must be with the Champions League in mind, otherwise, the club will find it hard to reload and reshape themselves into a title contender without the wage bill relief of Europe’s top competition.