A Narrative Busting Victory: Talking Points From the North London Derby

Order is restored! On Saturday, Arsenal silenced an entire country of journalists with their dominating victory over their hated rivals, Tottenham, in the first North London Derby of the season. It was a passion fuelled performance, and the Gunners thoroughly beat their neighbours in every area of the pitch. The hosts simply wanted the match more, beating the players in white to most 50/50 balls, and came at Mauricio Pochettino’s men with a shocking level of intensity that they were simply not ready for. Nothing better exemplifies the dominance than Poche’s decision to substitute three of his best players, Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Mousa Dembele. He move did little to quell the Gunners’ grip on the match, and the final 20 minutes had an air of inevitability to them. It was a true statement win by a club that has been obliterated in the press by the same old, lazy narrative.

Le Prof takes Poche To School

For a so-called has-been and a tactical dinosaur, Arsene Wenger is making a habit out of beating his younger, trendier rivals in recent times. Whether it was the the suffocating defensive performance in the FA Cup Semi Final against Manchester City, the passion-fueled victory in the final against Chelsea, or Saturday’s domination of Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs, Wenger has gotten his players to not only show up and give their all in these big matches, but also to execute a brilliant tactical plan. It has flown rather severely in the face of the reputation that the Fenchman has earned in recent times for bottling big matches.

From the first whistle, the Gunners were pressing way up the pitch, giving a backline missing its best defender fits for 90 minutes. The talented attacking trio of Mesut Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette and Alexis Sanchez were tireless, chasing the ball any time it was played into a defender or a midfielder with his back turned to receive the ball. The Gunners used the Spurs’ best weapon against them, compressing the space in midfield and limiting their time on the ball. The backline almost played as a 4 + 1 stopper, with the defenders taking turns filtering forward into the base of the midfield to eliminate space for the visitors to play through. It worked to perfection, and despite a few tense moments when two central defenders stepped forward toward the ball, overall the communication and the execution were spot on. It was a magnificent performance, and the complexion of the match wasn’t even changed by some radical substitutions from the Spurs bench.

The Will To Win

Just as important as Wenger’s tactical success, the heart and fight shown by every player that donned the Arsenal shirt on Saturday was absolutely vital to the result. The duo of Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka absolutely bossed the midfield, making Mousa Dembele look all but invisible for much of the match. His midfield partner, Moussa Sissoko, was just as bad, only once finding any sort of success carrying the ball into the danger area. As perhaps the most criticised position in the Arsenal starting XI (though it changes every week), Ramsey and Xhaka showed fans what the match meant to them, with Xhaka having one of his most solid performances in an Arsenal shirt and Ramsey doing his whole iron-lunged adrenaline monkey routine that likes to come out in big matches.

The pivotal double pivot’s intensity, if anything, was matched by a backline that threw itself in front of any shot with reckless abandon, and a forward line that pressed as well as they had since the end of last season. Even Petr Cech got in on the action- controlling his box with a quiet confidence that is so important in big matches, as well as a few clutch parries on the Spurs’ closest attempts. It was an all around team performance, and one that has showed many across the country that wearing the Arsenal shirt DOES matter to these players. For one day, the divisions that have torn apart a once proud fanbase were healed by a comprehensive North London Derby victory.

Mesut and Mustafi

At various points, almost every player takes a turn as the most hated among fans, but few have done so as consistently as Mesut Ozil. Though far from as polarising, Shkodran Mustafi has also been the subject of much ridicule at times since arriving last season from Valencia, and together they both put on critic silencing performances, each garnering consideration for Man Of The Match. Ozil played with a passion that many don’t associate with him, and he was back to his usual classy self on the ball. However, even more than that, he was an integral part of the high press that Wenger utilised to pressure the backline into turnovers, and he covered an impressive amount of distance throughout the match. With time on the ball in short supply in most North London Derbies, Ozil had to exert his influence on the match in other ways. He was a physically willing combatant, and his hard work was given reward when his sweetly struck free kick found the head of his international teammate, Mustafi, for the Gunners’ first goal. He was simply magical.

Mustafi has had a tumultuous start to life at the club, his form declining rapidly last season (much like Hector Bellerin’s after his ankle injury) after a strong start. He is an aggressive defender, and when the backline is communicating efficiently, he is a really effective front-footed defender. However, his aggression sometimes lead to easy goals for the opposition as he would step up and miss his challenge. Despite recovering and playing an absolute gem of a match in last season’s FA Cup Final, the summer was filled with rumours of him not fitting in with his teammates and a possible departure. He has been much better this season, settling into the central role in a back three, with Koscielny tasked with marking the channels. It has freed the German up to play instinctually and aggressive without compromising defensive structure.

Mustafi has proven himself a big match player for the club, and afterwards, was unable to check his frustration with the media. He snapped at a reporter who asked about the departure rumours this summer, his blunt response leaving no doubt how he felt about the question. The German is developing a reputation for big game play, and his willingness to throw himself in front of shots is commendable. He will likely earn back many of the fans he had when his signing was first announced if he keeps up his passionate play. If only the team’s best lineup was available against Manchester City two weeks ago, we might be having a very different conversation about the title race today.

The Continuing Saga of Mike Dean

You knew he had to be involved somehow, right? Yes, the referee with the decision making nous of Donald Trump and the eyes of Stevie Wonder struck again in the North London Derby, but shockingly, his decisions inadvertently (because with Dean, helping Arsenal is NEVER intentional) aiding the Gunners’ bid for victory. It did appear that both of the goals scored were aided by an early move into an offside position, but Arsene Wenger, who saw his team denied a legal goal and concede a goal from an OBVIOUS offside position against City, was having nine of that sort of talk after the match. The Frenchman has a point, as any website that grades referee performances know, the Gunners seldom are given the match-deciding break.

Beyond the offside goals, Dean struggled with his consistency, quick to book Arsenal players, while simultaneously reluctant to do the same for the visitors. Fouls were committed but not called and called but not committed throughout, and Dean flashed his trademark taunting smile at several of the most indignant shouts for a foul. He struggles in almost every Arsenal match in which he is involved, and his shoddy performance puts a damper on what was a dominant display by the Gunners, giving the media a chance to blame his decisions rather than admit their arrogant writing leading up to the match was dead wrong.

Eating His Words

Saturday’s emphatic victory gave way to a bit of unexpected drama as Arsenal fans, rightly incensed by a provocative North London Derby combined XI, penned by Adam Crafton of the Daily Mail, were given a satisfying moment by the club’s social media staff. Mr. Crafton, attempting to spark an emotional response (read: clicks), elected not to choose any Arsenal players for his team. It was a blatant thumbing of the nose to Gooners by a widely circulated publication, and the writer was well aware of this. The narrative of an Arsenal in decline is so prevalent in the British football press that most just seem to accept it as a fact; it has become a lazy culture of group think and former players, many of whom had their teams blown off the pitch by Arsene Wenger’s French Revolution two decades ago.

After Ozil’s brilliant match, the club decided to respond to the article on Twitter with a cheeky gif of the German maestro wryly sipping a cup of tea in front of a red background. The tweet was humourous, and in the moment the sweetest sight imaginable to those same fans who had been reading nothing but doom, gloom and predictions of failure for their beloved Gunners. Crafton was attacked mercilessly, and has since claimed to have received death threats and other unspeakably rude comments in response.

To be clear, that sort of disproportionate anger and threatening behaviour should never be condoned in any form. However, the way journalists have been flocking to the defence of Crafton, and in the process, putting the blame for those unruly fans directly at the feet of the club, has been particularly childish. These people have no issue writing unsubstantiated, damaging gossip, piling on struggling players, or eviscerating a manager who hasn’t gotten the best from his team, so why shouldn’t they face criticism from the same audience that their articles are intended to incite in the first place?

About the Author

Nate Smith

Writer for Arsenal Insider and BorussiaDortmund.co.uk and a wannabe musician, Nate spends his days trying to become smarter than he was when he woke up and laughing at his own terrible jokes. Opinions are (mercifully) his own.