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Spoils shared, season spoiled as Arsenal let two-goal lead slip again

Tottenham 3 Arsenal 3

Van der Vaart 7, 70 pen, Huddlestone 44; Walcott 5, Nasri 12, van Persie 40

For the second time this season, Arsenal took a two-goal lead against Tottenham. And for the second time this season, they failed to convert that advantage into three points as Spurs recovered to earn a share of six goals and the points. It seems slightly churlish to point it out after such a thrilling match, but it was a result which ultimately did neither team much good. Arsenal slipped to third, behind Chelsea on goal difference and six points adrift of Manchester United, while Spurs are two points behind fourth-placed Manchester City.

Arsenal rested Jack Wilshere, who had looked weary in Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool, and dropped Emmanuel Eboué, the villain of the piece in that game, from the squad altogether. Alex Song and the fit again Bacary Sagna returned to the starting line-up.

Szczęsny

Sagna– Djourou– Koscielny – Clichy

Diaby– Song

Fàbregas

Walcott – van Persie – Nasri

Arsenal entered this game unbeaten in 15 league games, but having drawn four of their last five. At the Emirates in November, they had squandered a 2-0 half-time lead as Spurs scored three second half goals to win 3-2.

Walcott opened the scoring inside five minutes (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

A five-star first half

In a breathless first half played at a frenetic pace in a proper derby atmosphere, the two teams showcased everything that is both good and bad about them, combining fast, penetrative attacking play with frequent cases of the collywobbles at the back.

Barely four minutes had elapsed when Arsenal sliced the Spurs defence apart. Cesc Fàbregas wielded the scalpel with a weighted pass through the middle which Theo Walcott raced on to and applied a clinical finish past Heurelho Gomes.

The lead lasted barely two minutes. Vedran Ćorluka crossed from the right and found Rafael van der Vaart, who gave Wojciech Szczęsny no chance with a precise finish to even things up.

Nasri restored Arsenals lead (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

But Arsenal were undeterred. Robin van Persie tested Gomes with a fierce drive from an acute angle. Then Samir Nasri strode purposefully forward with the ball and fired in a shot from 22 yards which went through Michael Dawson‘s legs. Although Gomes was unsighted, the ball seemed to be close enough to him to deal with, but by the time he started to move the ball was already beyond him and nestling in the net. 12 minutes: 2-1.

There then followed a 20-minute spell with little in the way of chances but a great deal of industry accompanied by the odd over-enthusiastic tackle. Abou Diaby in particular was lucky to escape a caution for a nasty sliding tackle from behind on Luka Modrić. Walcott, played in by van Persie, dragged a shot inches wide. Modrić saw an effort beaten away by Szczęsny.

Van Persie scored for the sixth away game in succession (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

And then the game exploded back into life in the final five minutes of the half. Former Arsenal captain William Gallas unwisely tried to chest ball down in the box, Walcott seized on to it and dinked over a clever cross. Van Persie’s header was brilliantly saved by Gomes, but the Dutchman made no mistake with the rebound. It was the sixth consecutive away game in which van Persie had scored, tying Didier Drogba‘s Premier League record.

But again Arsenal conceded quickly, as Tom Huddlestone seized on a loose clearance to drill home a fine 25-yard half-volley through a crowd of bodies to halve the deficit at the break. For the second game in a row, White Hart Lane had witnessed five goals in the first half, although 3-2 probably flattered Spurs somewhat.

Arsenal capitulate once again

Harry Redknapp made two changes at half-time, taking off Ćorluka and the injured Gareth Bale and replacing them with Aaron Lennon and Younes Kaboul, and the arrival of the former for the largely ineffective PFA Player of the Year clearly unsettled the Arsenal defence, with Song being booked after bringing the England winger down.

Twice in the early minutes of the half Fàbregas charged forward menacingly at the heart of the Spurs back four, but without an end result. Then van Persie lashed a spectacular long-range volley past Gomes, but the flag was already up. Replays suggested the Arsenal man was probably level.

Szczęsny conceded the equalising penalty, but otherwise had a fine game (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

It was a pivotal moment. Walcott, racing free, hesitated when he should perhaps have shot, but Spurs increasingly assumed control of the game. Pressing high up the pitch to deny Arsenal’s midfield time and space, they gradually pinned the visitors back into their own half, seemingly unable to string three passes together.

An equaliser looked likely, with van der Vaart and Lennon looking the most likely sources. When it did arrive, it came as little surprise that both were directly involved. Lennon raced after a long ball and got there just ahead of Szczęsny as he charged out to meet him. Contact – a clear penalty. Van der Vaart sent the Polish keeper the wrong way from the spot. 3-3.

Tottenham shaded the final 20 minutes – they certainly had the better passages of possession – but both sides had their chances to seize all three points. Modrić, van der Vaart, Peter Crouch and substitute Sandro were all denied by Szczęsny. Fàbregas saw two efforts stopped by Gomes. In the end, a point each was about right. And it was probably just as well, as you wouldn’t trust either of these teams to defend the lead had they taken it in the closing minutes.

Arsenal have now won just one of their last eight games; Tottenham one in nine. Although both remain in contention for their respective objectives, it is hard to escape the feeling that the season is sliding away from both North London clubs.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsène Wenger was disappointed to have squandered the lead, blaming fatigue after Sunday’s game:

It’s disappointing because we had the lead and we were caught from being 3-1 ahead. The attitude was fantastic and we played the game we wanted to play. I feel we dropped physically in the second half, you could see that the Liverpool game had a bearing. Of course it was an exciting game where both teams could have won.

Despite dropping another two points, he argued the title race remains open:

Completely open. We have to get ready for the next game and fight as we do. This team has a remarkable attitude. Even if, at the moment, we are not rewarded by the number of points [we are getting]. We are remarkably consistent because it was a difficult game tonight, with an average performance we would not have come away with a point. We are on a 16-game unbeaten run but recently we haven’t got enough points because of too many draws. That’s what we want to turn around until the end of the season.

And he continued to defend his team’s character:

It is not all negative because, after what happened to us on Sunday, to recover and come back with such a spirit, I personally believe that this team has an outstanding personality. Not many teams would have survived what has happened to us recently.

There is an element of chicken-and-egg about Wenger’s last statement. While the team has not laid down and died – the first-half performance here was as exuberant as we have seen from them since New Year – the likelihood is a United or a Chelsea would simply not have allowed themselves to get into this position in the first place. Would either of those teams have lost the Carling Cup final the way Arsenal did? Or thrown away a 4-0 lead at Newcastle? Or been consumed by panic after scoring in the 98th minute? It seems unlikely. The easiest way to get out of trouble is not to get into it at all. The fact that Arsenal are trying manfully to dig their way out of a hole does not excuse the fact they should not have fallen into it.

The truth is that this was actually quite a good performance until Arsenal started to fade physically in the final half-hour. Tottenham’s home record – just one defeat in 16 this season – is formidable, and the verve with which Arsenal scored their first-half goals was something which had been lacking for several weeks. “Playing with the handbrake off”, as Wenger would call it.

Despite conceding the penalty – it happens – Szczęsny had an excellent game, charging off his line with authority and not being afraid of a collision if necessary (as Bale will attest). It could be argued that he cost Arsenal two points, but in reality his late saves secured one as Spurs poured forward in search of a winner. Sagna was outstanding in a defence which, individually, did little wrong and yet collectively conceded three goals. Many have questioned Fàbregas’s heart and leadership qualities this season, but they would be hard pressed to do so here, as the captain demonstrated great urgency both with and without the ball. Diaby and Song were not at their best, but Walcott and Nasri were a constant threat out wide and van Persie was desperately unlucky not to be flagged offside in ‘scoring’ what could have been the decisive fourth goal. (Although, given Arsenal’s inability to defend a lead, you just never know.)

Ultimately, Arsenal just appeared to run out of steam, unable to fight fire with fire as Spurs pressed aggressively throughout the second half. It was a by-product of having played a tough 102 minutes against Liverpool just three days earlier – Spurs had had the weekend off – but also a sequence of games since Christmas where they have never been able to ease to victory in matches and have had to fight tooth and nail for 90 minutes week in week out. That kind of effort eventually has to take its toll, and we saw the result of that here.

While it is difficult to be optimistic about the title race after having now dropped ten points in the last six games, the numbers tell a stark story. If Arsenal and Chelsea can both beat United then – all other things being equal – the three clubs will all be level on points. Of course, that’s a big if. And it also assumes Arsenal can at least match the other two in a closing schedule which also takes them to Bolton (this Sunday), Stoke and Fulham. But the hope, however unlikely, still remains – even if the majority of Arsenal fans are already looking beyond this season to the summer transfer window.

All the team can do now is take things one game at a time. While the fate of the Premier League depends on others, there are still 15 points left to play for. Barring a major collapse on United’s part, anything less than the full 15 simply will not do. Arsenal’s last five games – against a less challenging set of opponents – have netted just seven points. Therein lies the challenge, and the reason for Arsenal’s decline. If Arsenal had played more like they did in the first 40 minutes over the past two months, the Carling Cup would be in the cabinet and the Premier League trophy would be within touching distance. But they haven’t, and they aren’t.

Disappointing though it was to lose a two-goal lead, the title was not lost at White Hart Lane last night. However, it might just have been conceded there. It is difficult to escape the feeling that Arsenal have emerged from the last-chance saloon empty-handed one time too many.

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

4 Responses to Spoils shared, season spoiled as Arsenal let two-goal lead slip again

  1. Mike says:

    It seems you and everyone else have (yet again) chosen to ignore the fact that we were victims of another major injustice. No mention of Van Persie’s perfectly good goal that was ruled out for a non-existent offside and would have taken it to 4-2. Just imagine the furore in the media if that had happened to your precious Man U. Bad decisions have cost us at least 10 points since Christmas alone but do we hear anything about that. No. You say how we threw away a 4-0 lead at Newcastle, yet again no mention of the harsh sending off and two ludicrous penalty decisions against us that led to the capitulation. You just love knocking Arsenal at every opportunity. When the boot is on the other foot………….Man U get one bad decision against them against Chelsea and we never hear the last of it.

    • Tim says:

      Interesting you seem to think I am a United fan!

      I’ve mentioned the fact that Robin seemed to be onside, and that this was a pivotal moment in the match – just as I referenced the clear penalty conceded by Koscielny at Blackpool which wasn’t given against us. Similarly, in my write-up of the Newcastle game I covered all the incidents you mention – the fact is that, even with those bad decisions, we should still have won that game.

      I understand you’re angry. Most of us are angry. But I find it surprising that you think I am knocking Arsenal. That is categorically not the case.

  2. Football says:

    Arsenal lacks focus, determination and mental strength. I still can’t believe they weren’t able to hold on to that 2 goals lead and blew another chance to get back into the race title. Chelsea are more capable of winning this race.

  3. Pingback: Walker fires Spurs win as Arsenal shoot themselves in the foot again « The armchair sports fan

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