Arsene Wenger’s 15th anniversary as Arsenal manager was marked by a 2-1 Premier League defeat to Tottenham at White Hart Lane that provided further proof the Frenchman is facing the most troubling period of his reign.
The defeat, sealed by a long-range effort fromKyle Walker that Wojciech Szczesny should have saved, was characterised yet again by some desperate defending from the Gunners, who now have only seven points from their opening seven games of what has proved a demoralising season. It is their lowest points tally at this stage of a campaign for 36 years.
The Gunners fell behind after 40 minutes whenRafael van der Vaart scored for the fourth time in a North London derby, though there was a hint of handball as he pulled down a pass from former Arsenal man Emmanuel Adebayor.
Arsenal responded after half-time when Aaron Ramsey equalised from close range but the defensive vulnerability that has characterised their season to date did not leave them at White Hart Lane, even if Szczesny was an undeserved victim when allowing Walker’s shot to sneak past him.
The result takes Spurs into sixth place and five points ahead of their great rivals with a game in hand. Arsenal remain stuck in 15th after losing their fourth game of the season.
Wenger’s 15-year service at Arsenal – which was reached on Friday – contained a record against Spurs that read only four defeats in 36 games in all competitions, but at no point in his reign have the sides been as closely matched as they are now. That much was reflected in the fact that for the first time Spurs were made pre-match favourites to beat the Gunners in a Premier League match.
The narrowing in the disparity in quality between the two teams is as much due to a slump in Arsenal’s stock in recent seasons as improvement up the Seven Sisters Road, and a team that is conceding on average two goals a game demonstrated again on Sunday that the art of defending is one that eludes them at present.
Szczesny was called into action after only seven minutes when Scott Parker collected a pass from Van der Vaart and toe-poked an effort that the Polish goalkeeper spread himself to save. Though Arsenal enjoyed a decent slice of possession, they saw Ramsey give the ball away repeatedly and one such lapse resulted in Gareth Bale crossing for Van der Vaart, who scooped the ball over the bar.
The Dutchman, booked for a late challenge on Kieran Gibbs, then took advantage of some inattentive defending from Ramsey as he escaped the Welshman in the box to meet a cross from Jermain Defoe with an intuitive flick with the outside of the boot that Szczesny saved once again.
Arsenal’s best chance of the half came just before the half hour mark when Robin van Persie darted away from Younes Kaboul and pulled the ball back for Gervinho. Arriving in the box, the Ivorian only had to slot the ball home but dragged his shot wide. Wenger was apoplectic on the touchline.
Despite an assured performance from Mikel Arteta and a promising display from Francis Coquelin, making only his second league start after the 8-2 hammering at Old Trafford, Arsenal were unable to take control of the tie and when Spurs did break through the midfield they found the Arsenal defence all too welcoming.
Certainly Van der Vaart was in too much space when collecting Adebayor’s neat lofted ball after 40 minutes and withBacary Sagna at fault when failing to be strong in the challenge, the Dutchman dispatched a shot back across goal and past Szczesny for the lead.
Van der Vaart did appear to control the ball with the very top of his left arm or his chest while pulling it down, and the moment was lent further controversy when Van der Vaart ran to the Tottenham fans and leant into them as they celebrated. A more judicious referee could have deemed either offence as a second yellow card.
Bale had time to send a ferocious bending effort narrowly wide and the Welshman resumed the second half in similar fashion when lashing a shot over the bar from 25 yards.
However, it was international team-mate Ramsey who shrugged off his poor first-half performance to leave his mark on the game. The midfielder was left all alone at the near post as Song burst down the left and he met the cross from theCameroon international with an emphatic finish high into the net to make it 1-1.
Arsenal had improved markedly after the break but their defensive vulnerability never escaped them and Spurs tore them apart too easily on 58 minutes when Van der Vaart and Bale combined to set Adebayor free. One-on-one against the club that helped him forge a career in England, the striker was denied by a brilliant save by Szczesny as the Pole flung out his left arm to stop the low effort.
With Spurs threatening sporadically to break through Arsenal’s backline, the visiting side were dealt a real blow after 67 minutes when Sagna landed badly on his ankle and had to be replaced by Carl Jenkinson. The France international was taken off on a stretcher, suggesting the club have another injury to concern their overworked medical staff.
Just as it had against Blackburn, Sagna’s removal precipitated a defensive lapse. Arsenal switched off from a throw in and although Song blocked from Luka Modric’s shot, the ball rolled into the path of Walker who rifled home a fierce effort from 30 yards. The young right-back hit it well but Szczesny should have got more than a finger to the saveable effort.
Spurs could have made it 3-1 soon after as Song and Per Mertesacker incredibly let a high ball bounce between them. Bale simply ran on to the ball but failed to punish the shocking piece of defending when poking the ball wide of the post.
Bale then teed up Defoe for a decent effort that forced a good save from Szczesny, while Modric went close when slamming a shot into the side netting. Such was Arsenal’s desperation, they sent Mertesacker up front in the closing stages, but they could not avoid another damaging defeat.