Thursday 17 October 2019

Plenty of positives for Pochettino despite sharing derby spoils

Tottenham 1 Arsenal 1

Hugo Lloris saves Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s late penalty to deny Arsenal victory at Wembley. Photo: Getty Images
Hugo Lloris saves Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s late penalty to deny Arsenal victory at Wembley. Photo: Getty Images

Barney Ronay

It's happened again, it's happened again. Oh, Tottenham Hotspur. The harvesting of enough points to guarantee another season of Champions League football ahead of less frugal rivals: it's happening again.

On a mild north London afternoon Tottenham scragged their way to a bitty 1-1 draw with Arsenal at Wembley. For Spurs it felt like something more significant, an ugly point gained from behind, while playing for much of the afternoon with a ragged, brittle, angsty edge.

It was a point to prevent a poor week becoming a desperate one. In reality this was a heartening display for Tottenham's supporters, a game dragged back while half the team played below itself, and with a central midfielder in Victor Wanyama who seemed unable to fulfil any part of the brief - passing, covering, even running around looking purposeful - with any real success.

It was a point that left Mauricio Pochettino happy to chat in a fond, rambling way through his press conference. It is not hard to see why. For Pochettino, the season never actually boiled down to a battle to finish in the top four. It was always a battle to finish in the top four, one that is back on track now, with the added bonus of a likely passage to the Champions League quarter-finals.

Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey takes the ball around Tottenham's Hugo Lloris on the way to scoring the opening goal. Photo: Getty Images
Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey takes the ball around Tottenham's Hugo Lloris on the way to scoring the opening goal. Photo: Getty Images

Against this Tottenham are, for reasons that remain unclear, the most widely chastised of the Premier League's high-achievers. There has always been a certain jeering unease in the top flight towards a refusal to spend money, the kind of response you might expect in some sweaty, booze-sodden Friday night saloon bar as you sidle up to order your third Orangina of the night.

The urge to cast shade on this fine footballing project is evidence of how simplistic the narrative around football can be. Chuck in the reliance on coaching and youth systems - Spurs spent £18m net in the past five seasons - and it is either idiocy or mischief to conclude Pochettino has done anything other than an excellent job.

But then, we live in a time of inane hyperbole generally, a world of GOATs and frauds, of half-understood extremes. In reality most things that happen, happen somewhere in the middle; shades of red and green. This was one of those games, and a result with much to commend itself for both teams.

With Harry Winks injured Pochettino fielded his most muscular XI, with five beefy looking units across the middle of the field. And yet for an hour in mid-afternoon this did look like a choke in action, nine points dropped in a week.

In reality Arsenal played well, looking more than ever like an Unai Emery team. The starters made 16 successful tackles in the first half alone. Nobody passed the ball that well. But Arsenal looked like a team.

The opening goal was superbly taken by Aaron Ramsey, and also an embarrassment for Tottenham's defensive block. With 14 minutes gone a punted clearance reached the centre circle. Davinson Sánchez stooped to head the ball with all the conviction of an arthritic horse dipping its head to drink from a stream.

Alexandre Lacazette played an instant pass in behind into . . . well, what exactly? How is it possible, you wondered, to retain such a vast green space behind your own defence despite fielding five defenders and two deep midfielders? Ramsey took the ball on, held off Wanyama and finished well.

The equaliser came from a moment of luck. Harry Kane was pushed in the back by Shkodran Mustafi as he ran in behind him on to Christian Eriksen's free-kick. But Kane was offside when the kick was taken, and offside enough to get ahead of the player who fouled him. There was no doubt about the kick itself.

Arsenal should have won it from a soft penalty of their own given for a minor jostle on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. His kick was weak; Hugo Lloris got down well to save it.

And so both of teams rolled on, buoyed by a point, and both a little closer to a final league place that would represent - with apologies all round - a level of sober, non-sensational, but still significant success.

Observer

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