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Complacent Arsenal lulled into false sense of security

Arsenal 2 Tottenham 3

Nasri 9, Chamakh 27; Bale 50, van der Vaart 67 pen, Kaboul 85

Arsenal missed the chance to go top of the Premier League after squandering a 2-0 half-time lead with an insipid second half performance. Younes Kaboul nodded home late on to give Tottenham their first away win in the North London derby since May 1993. It was also the first time Arsenal had lost at home after being two up since the Premier League’s inaugural weekend in August 1992, a 4-2 defeat to Norwich at Highbury.

After winning two difficult away fixtures at Wolves and Everton last week, Arsenal returned to the Emirates Stadium for the first time since their embarrassingly tame defeat to Newcastle two weeks ago. Arsène Wenger made two changes to the starting line-up from the win at Goodison, with Laurent Koscielny returning to the back four after his suspension and Denilson replacing Jack Wilshere, who had been struggling after a minor injury last week. Arsenal took the field as follows:

Fabiański

Sagna – Squillaci – Koscielny – Clichy

Fàbregas – Song – Denilson

Nasri – Chamakh – Arshavin

North London derbies are traditionally closely fought affairs, but in as one-sided a first half as we have seen in recent years Arsenal created four good chances and scored from two of them.

The first owed a lot to a calamitous error by Heurelho Gomes. The Tottenham keeper looked favourite to beat Samir Nasri to Cesc Fàbregas‘s neatly weighted ball over the top as he raced inside the flat-footed Benoit Assou-Ekotto. But as Gomes slid to gather he somehow allowed the French international to escape with the ball, and from a near-impossible angle on the by-line Nasri coolly rolled the ball into the unguarded net with his weaker left foot.

Nasri scored the opening goal from the tightest of angles in the 9th minute (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Fàbregas missed a chance to put the Gunners further ahead when he skipped into the box but dragged his shot wide of Gomes’ right-hand post. But it didn’t take long for the home side to double their lead. As a Spurs move broke down at the Arsenal by-line, a sweeping counter-attack saw the ball moved via Fàbregas to Andrey Arshavin, and the Russian’s precise cross from the left flank was met in predatory fashion by Marouane Chamakh, who managed to get a toe in front of Kaboul to prod the ball home from six yards out.

Chamakh scored again, but squandered good chances to increase Arsenal's lead (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Spurs offered little notable threat in the first half, with their four creative midfielders – Gareth Bale, Aaron Lennon, Rafael van der Vaart and Luka Modrić – comprehensively outplayed by the Arsenal quartet of Fàbregas, Nasri, Arshavin and Alex Song. Bale and Lennon spent much of the opening period retreating to support Assou-Ekotto and Alan Hutton defensively as Nasri and Arshavin’s movement out wide caused the Spurs defence all manner of problems, while Chamakh probed the channels, forcing Kaboul and former Arsenal captain William Gallas into one covering tackle after another.

At 2-0 the job was half done – but only half done. Any thoughts that Arsenal had of cruising to an easy victory were soon dispelled. Harry Redknapp hauled off Lennon and sent Jermain Defoe on to partner Roman Pavlyuchenko as Spurs switched to two up front. Within five minutes of the restart, van der Vaart teed up Bale, who made no mistake firing the ball across Lukasz Fabiański to halve the arrears. The goal changed the momentum of the game completely, and although Arsenal prised the door open a number of times over the next 15 minutes, too often they ended up walking into the door-frame as indecision struck or passes were carelessly misplaced.

Chamakh in particular was guilty of twice dithering on the edge of the Spurs box when either a shot or an immediate pass were available options, and he was just about to be taken off at the mid-point of the half when Spurs levelled the scores. Song fouled Modrić 25 yards out, and van der Vaart’s free kick struck the raised arm of Fàbregas. It was more a protective act than a deliberate attempt to block the ball, but it was a stonewall penalty nonetheless. Van der Vaart made no mistake from the spot, sending Fabiański the wrong way and then being booked (ludicrously) by Phil Dowd for his mild celebration.

Both teams reloaded for the final quarter of the game. Robin van Persie replaced Chamakh, and the Dutchman was soon joined by Tomáš Rosický and Theo Walcott, with Arshavin and Nasri giving way. Spurs sent on Peter Crouch for the ineffective Pavlyuchenko.

Arsenal, though clearly rocked back onto their heels by Tottenham’s comeback, nonetheless created the better chances. Sébastien Squillaci had a header disallowed – correctly – for offside. Gomes dived full-length to deny Fàbregas’s curler from 20 yards, and from the subsequent corner Koscielny cleared the crossbar when presented with a free header at the back post after great work by the dancing feet of van Persie.

Younes Kaboul completed Spurs' comeback with the 85th-minute winner

As is so often the case, having wasted the Arsenal’s best opportunity to retake the lead, Koscielny was culpable in the build-up to Tottenham’s winner. He slid in on Bale, conceding the free kick from which Kaboul powered home a close-range header.

Stung, Arsenal finally found some urgency, but when Walcott fired wastefully over from an angle in the last minute of normal time – an effort symptomatic of the team’s lethargic second half display – it felt like too little too late. Sure enough, Gomes was not overly troubled during five minutes of injury time as Spurs held on for an astonishing win.

After the match, Wenger sounded as downbeat as he has all season, as he told BBC Sport:

We lost our focus and we were punished for it, and we made some basic mistakes. We could not maintain the concentration for 90 minutes because at 2-0 up it looked too easy and we were punished. We eased off a bit, that is for sure.

As much as the loss of three points to their local rivals, Wenger rued the missed opportunity to go top of the Premier League:

We had an opportunity to go top of the league today that we didn’t take. You want [a mature team] to do it. When you have to deliver in our job, you deliver – and that hurts above all because that is vital when you want to be successful, when you want to win trophies.

Harry Redknapp certainly deserved credit for his half-time tactical change, but the dramatic turnaround owed as much to Arsenal’s loss of focus and lackadaisical attitude as it did Tottenham’s change of formation and unwavering belief. After two battling away wins which had revived hope of a sustained title challenge, this collective second half failure was as sudden as it was alarming, coming on the back of such a strong first half. Fàbregas, Arshavin and Nasri were as invisible and wasteful in the second half as they had been dominant and clinical in the first. And the entire team seemed incapable of holding Spurs at bay after the switch to two strikers, with van der Vaart pressing forward more than he had initially, exposing Arsenal’s soft underbelly.

Arsenal remain the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. They are a team which can ruthlessly shred opponents one week, and then roll over tamely the next. They have the spirit and focus to score late, often crucial goals on a regular basis, and yet they are too frequently knocked out of their stride by the smallest setback. And, despite many tough lessons over the past year or so, they so often stray across the line between confidence and complacency.

Turning this talented but schizophrenic squad into a unit with the consistent mental fortitude to mount a credible nine-month Premier League campaign may prove to be the biggest challenge of Arsène Wenger‘s managerial career. For now, with plenty of points in the bank on the road, his primary focus will be on arresting his team’s struggles at home. Arsenal have already lost three matches at the Emirates, the first time they have been defeated at home three times before the end of November since 1983. Ahead of Sunday’s fixtures, no Premier League team has lost more home games. It is hardly the solid foundation on which title runs are built.

This defeat puts a serious dent in Arsenal’s hopes, but I wouldn’t write them off just yet. Of course, they will need to do better and they can ill afford more off days like this. But with Chelsea losing again in the absence of key players and Manchester United continuing to struggle away from home, Arsenal are just one of a number of flawed contenders in the most unpredictable title race for several years. And they are unlikely to put in as poor a 45 minutes as we witnessed here. But in the immediate aftermath of this dispiriting loss, however, that is of little comfort to this fan tonight.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

5 Responses to Complacent Arsenal lulled into false sense of security

  1. aeroberg says:

    Today we’re lucky that Chelsea lost as well. Can’t build our season base on other people’s result. We need to rely on our own effort and result to win. I know it’s still early season but it is hard to envisage us winning anything this season with this kind of effort and seemingly never-ending complacency.

    • Tim says:

      I was definitely relieved that Chelsea lost but not that surprised. Birmingham’s home record, especially against the top teams, is outstanding – I think that’s now eight undefeated against the Big Four at home.

      We have to stop switching off like we did today. Even allowing for tiredness, if we had kept going the way we played in the first half, we would have won comfortably. I can forgive Nasri and Arshavin for being tired, having played full games (and in the case of Andrey also a long round trip on top of that), but what was everyone else’s excuse? Our dip in the second half looked to me to be one-third physical and two-thirds mental.

      I admire Wenger for defending the players, but you can hear in his voice that even he is getting fed up of making excuses for complacency. I don’t know whether the players could benefit from some time with a sports psychologist – I would imagine they do that already – but this goes beyond the manager’s ability to control. Ultimately, the players themselves have to step up to the plate and accept that 90% effort is not good enough, particularly against a motivated and hardly untalented team like Spurs.

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