Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Tottenham 0 Arsenal 1

Going into this game, neither side was clear favourites to win. Tottenham was in a poor run of form, suffering a 4-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge and a 3-1 thrashing at home in the last 8 days, but the way they got beaten was more of a problem. Tim Sherwood publicly criticised the lack of character after the capitulation against Chelsea, but he did not seem to have the response he wanted from his side on Thursday night. But the form-book goes out of the window when it comes to a derby day. If a north London derby win didn't motivate players, what would ? Despite the Red side's dominance in north London, having finished above their local rivals for the last 18 years, they have won none of the last 5 Premier League north London derbies at White Hart Lane (W0 D2 L3). Another worrying piece of stats was our win ratio when Mike Dean, this day's referee, took charge of our games.

Above all, our biggest worry was our squad depth. Özil was added to our lengthy injury lists after Arsenal's trip to Munich. Wenger revealed that the German playmaker was likely to be sidelined at least three weeks through the hamstring injury he sustained just two minutes into the Bayern game. In the same injury updates ahead of the north London derby, the boss also informed the press that Aaron Ramsey, whose return was scheduled for this game, was in fact still not available. The Club had to put back his rejoining in full training due to some "difficulties" in his rehab. The Welsh midfielder's come-back was delayed for further two weeks.

Arsene Wenger made three changes to the starting XI in their 1-1 draw with Bayern Munich in midweek. Szczesny, who was suspended in the Champions League, replaced Fabianski. Amid the injury crisis, the only bright spot was a left-back situation. Both Gibbs and Monreal recovered from their injuries in time for this game and the former started in place of a make-shift left-back, Thomas Vermaelen. Tomas Rosicky replaced the injured Mesut Ozil. The bench was much improved from the Bayern game in terms of defensive options, but offered very little offensively. Young Gnabry and Sanogo were all the attacking choices we had on the bench. Kallstrom is now back from his back injury and could have made his debut to the Premier League, but as it turned out, he didn't even make the bench.

Tomas Rosicky's goal in 72 seconds gave us a lead. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had a glorious chance to extend the lead. On the back of two disheartening results and disappointing performances of late, the home crowd could have turned against their team, which could have in turn triggered a similar capitulation to those in their previous two games. Unfortunately, the Ox miscued his chipped effort wide when he had so many options and time in his hand. The same player had sight of goal again in the first half, but his effort was deflected wide. With the players available amid the current injury crisis, Arsenal had to play counter-attacking football. This was not a bad idea as Tottenham played a high defensive line in order to congest midfield and press high on the pitch, but we were missing one important player to play this style of football - Theo Walcott. Nevertheless, we still looked dangerous all the time especially in the first half and created a number of chances on the break. Podolski was especially effective in getting behind the high defensive line on the left flank as well as the goal scorer, Rosicky. The Ox was also a threat especially when he won the ball in midfield.

A section of fans were not happy with Arsenal's negative approach. But we tried to add to the goal tally and after failing to put the game beyond Tottenham's reach in the first half, the team was right to decide to protect the lead. We couldn't afford to lose this game or even draw. Besides, there were little attacking options on the bench.

We must admit that Arsenal were far from their fluent best. A mere 74% passing success rate speaks volumes for that. Rosicky admitted that they have to improve offensively if they want to win the league. Paul Merson was even harsher by stating that Arsenal would not win the league by sitting back and riding their luck till the end of the game after scoring an early goal as a better side than Tottenham would not let them get away with it. Riding our luck? Our defence was magnificent. Tottenham couldn't find defense-splitting balls, ending up with an incredible number of crosses, which our two centre-backs dealt with admirably. In the past seasons, Arsenal would have never dreamed of playing this kind of football when they could not play their brand of free-flowing football. This team has grit and solidity in defence to grind out a result in this kind of games and that's the main reason why we are still where we are this season.

Tim Sherwood's comment after the match that Tottenham outplayed Arsenal caused controversy. Credit to them, Tottenham delivered a strong performance, a big improvement over the recent weeks that the young English manager must be happy with. They dominated in possession (59%) and put us under pressure for a long spell. However, we had more clear-cut chances. Spurs had 17 shots in total, but only 2 were on target, whereas the Gunners had 3 shots on target out of 7. Tottenham's best chance came only when Szczesny made a mess of clearing a cross, but our two centre-backs put their bodies in front of Chadli and blocked his close-range attempt. The Gunners should have had a penalty when Vertonghen held Koscielny in the box with his arm around the French defender's neck and pulled him back. For some reason (perhaps Mike Dean didn't see it), it went unpunished. In the latter stages of the game, Mertesacker delivered a low drive from Santi's free-kick only to be denied by a superb reflex save from Lloris.

The result was massive. The win did not only brought us the bragging right (north London is red again! In fact, for the third time this season), but also put us back in the thick of the title race. After Chelsea's shock defeat to Aston Villa early on Saturday and Man City and Liverpool both winning their games earlier at weekend, pressure was on Arsenal, but they battled hard to win with a traditional "1-0" score line. At the same time, we have virtually put the final nail in the coffin of our north London rivals' hopes of finishing in top-four and above us. One writer pointed out that Arsenal are now most likely to have secured a Champions League spot. This point went largely unnoticed among the Arsenal fans because this season Champions League qualification is no longer our "trophy", not at the moment anyway. Although we are outsiders, we are still in the Premier League title chase. Also, we have a good chance of winning a real trophy in the FA Cup.

We are now 4 points behind the current league leaders Chelsea with a game in hand. At the moment, Chelsea are in a strong position as we cannot leapfrog them even if we win our game in hand. But if we can beat them in the next game, the whole dynamics of the title race could change. It's going to be a real 6 pointer.

Players ratings

Szczesny: 7
Thanks to Tottenham's profligacy in front of goal and our back-four's solid protection, the young Pole had only one save to make. His failure to clear the cross could have cost us dearly.

Sagna: 7
Kept Eriksen quiet. Assured display.

Mertesacker: 8
Made 20 clearances and won 7 aerial duels.

Koscielny: 9
Marshalled Adebayor very well. Made 3 tackles, 2 interceptions and 15 clearances, including last-man tackle and clearance. His passing success rate was an impressive 94% when the whole team's accuracy was significantly low by their standard. Sky Sports and whoscored. com named him the Man of the Match.

Gibbs: 7
He was unaware of Townsend's runs on a few occasions. He was the main culprit for Arsenal's poor passing success rate with a 58% accuracy rate.

Areta: 7
Did his job OK. Made more passes (51) than any other Arsenal player with a 88% passing success rate.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 7
Set up Rosicky's goal through a fortuitous touch. Had two good goal-scoring chances, but he failed to convert them. On the other hand, he made 5 interceptions and 1 tackle. Always a threat for counter-attack. Replaced by Vermaelen in the 85th minute.

Rosicky: 8
Scored a stunning goal. Made 2 key passes. He is an absolute Gunner, loving north London derbies and scoring two great goals against Tottenham this season. Replaced by Flamini in the 69th minute.

Cazorla: 7
Made 4 tackles and 3 interceptions.

Podolski: 7
Made a few good runs on the left flank in the first half, but faded in the second half. Replaced by Monreal in the 77th minute. 

Giroud: 6
Not his kind of game. 


Flamini: 6
Came on in the 69th minute to replace Rosicky. Made 1 tackle and 3 interceptions.

Monreal: 6
77th-minute substitute for Podolski to shore up defence.

Vermaelen: 6
Replaced the Ox in the 85th minute to safely see out a 1-0 victory.

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