Thursday 22 March 2018

Arsenal rally tears up old certainties

Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey scores his side's first goal during the Barclays Premier League match at White Hart Lane. Photo: Adam Davy
Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey scores his side's first goal during the Barclays Premier League match at White Hart Lane. Photo: Adam Davy
Alexis Sanchez celebrates with Aaron Ramsey after scoring the second goal for Arsenal. Photo: Paul Childs/Action Images
Tottenham's Harry Kane in action at White Hart Lane yesterday. Photo: Paul Childs/Action Images

Dion Fanning

When George Graham had shaped Arsenal into a team which was supremely efficient and deeply functional, he would instruct his side on a Saturday afternoon that might have taken them somewhere like Norwich to "get the three points and get out of this country town".

In later years, when Arsene Wenger had added some expressive grace to Graham's traditional values, Arsenal came to view the short trip to play Tottenham Hotspur as a visit to 'Three Point Lane'.

Yesterday was supposed to be confirmation that the days of Arsenal resolve, certainty and expectation of victory were at an end. Three defeats in a week, including last Wednesday's at home to Swansea, had exposed the deep flaws in this Arsenal side which were the same flaws that have existed in every Arsenal side for the past eight years.

But this Premier League is unpredictable for many reasons, and one of them, it became apparent yesterday, is that whatever weakness exists in one club at the top of the table, there is a similar, if not identical, deficiency to be found in each of the other challengers.

Tottenham had the opportunity to put an end to Arsenal's ambitions in the title race, and possibly to bring the Wenger era closer to a conclusion at White Hart Lane. But, despite having an extra man for 39 minutes in the second half, and coming from a goal down to lead 2-1, Spurs could not win.

Mauricio Pochettino said afterwards that the home point yesterday had kept Arsenal three points behind Spurs, but for the second time in a week, his side had wasted an opportunity to move to the top of the table.

It may be that the weaknesses in others still propel Tottenham to the top in May, but yesterday was a reminder that they have travelled very far in a short space of time under Pochettino and, in any normal season, they arguably would not find themselves in contention for the title.

But this is not a normal season as was demonstrated once again. Wenger had gone into the game in danger of being undone, but ended it talking about the spirit and character of his side as if nothing had changed, as if the past week had never happened.

In between, everything fluctuated during a compelling game. Arsenal took the lead after a tentative opening 35 minutes which had included a magnificent save from a ricochet off Erik Lamela's knee by David Ospina.

Petr Cech's injury was seen as another devastating blow, but Ospina made save after save while never giving a sense that he was entirely in control of things, especially when he kept the ball out while standing behind the goal-line in the second half.

When Aaron Ramsey gave Arsenal the lead, Wenger's side had a period of pressure before the interval in which they could have made things even worse for Spurs, who appeared to be stunned by the turn of events.

Arsenal, of course, will always find a way of stunning themselves and ten minutes into the second half, Francis Coquelin's unnecessary challenge on Harry Kane brought his second yellow card.

This was the point when Arsenal imploded, something which is usually irreversible. Within seven minutes of Coquelin's sending off, they were 2-1 down thanks to goals by Toby Alderweireld and Kane.

The rest seemed inevitable. Arsenal were reeling and were down to ten men. They knew how it felt, but they also had experienced it from the other side. Their last victory in the Premier League came against Leicester, who led going into the second half only for Danny Simpson to be sent off with 35 minutes remaining.

Arsenal needed until injury-time to get ahead on that day, but Kane's magnificent second goal looked like becoming a defining moment in the title race. Spurs had risen to the challenge, even if they had been helped by the weaknesses of their opponents.

By spirit, Wenger could have been talking about a bewildering defiance which encompassed Coquelin's sending off and a recovery which saw Alexis Sanchez equalise and the ten men press for a winner.

Wenger said afterwards that Coquelin had been told at half-time to be careful as he had already picked up a yellow card. It may say something about the ability of this side to absorb the messages from the management that he not only failed to be prudent in necessary challenges but launched himself into an unnecessary one when he threw himself at Kane.

Perhaps it was the spirit of Arsenal or the character which Wenger said afterwards he has never questioned (why not?) which got them back into the game, but it was also down to Tottenham's weaknesses.

There is so much to relish in Pochettino's side, certainly in comparison to other challengers like Arsenal and Manchester City. They do not look like the kind of group to be overwhelmed by the pressure, but there are other factors at play.

All week people had asked the tired question, 'Does anyone want to win it?'. In fact the sides at the top of the table might have been demonstrating how badly they wanted to win it. Wenger talked yesterday about the "relentless" pressure from Arsenal's supporters. Tottenham's players may be unaware of their club's history but the yearning from their fans for the first league title since 1961 - their yearning for anything, really - might yet be a factor.

Tottenham will now have to deal with a gruelling two-legged Europa League tie against Borussia Dortmund, even if Aston Villa next Sunday should provide a gentle return to the Premier League, as Villa are a side intent on proving that not every game in England's top flight involves a fight. Yesterday Spurs let Arsenal back into the game, and they were lucky too that Michael Oliver didn't send off Eric Dier for a clear second yellow card when he pulled at the shirt of Olivier Giroud.

Arsenal's players immediately surrounded Oliver, and it may have been that their protests worked against them as the referee perhaps felt he would be seen to be levelling things up if he booked the player. Whatever his thought process, the referee got it wrong. But Arsenal were not derailed and pushed for a winner which was a surprise in itself. Maybe it was not the biggest one of the season, but it might have been enough for now. On a day when everything about Wenger's management was under threat, survival in the title race would do, even if the old certainties no longer apply.

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