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Comeback Arsenal, all is forgiven

Arsenal 5 Tottenham 2

Sagna 40, van Persie 43, Rosicky 51, Walcott 65, 68; Saha 4, Adebayor pen 34

Once the euphoria has worn off, Arsenal fans will remember that they are still facing a seventh consecutive trophyless season. However there is no better antidote than a rousing win over local rivals Tottenham, and the lift that both fans and players will experience as a result of this thumping comeback victory may yet provide the same impetus for a late-season run that the 5-3 win at Stamford Bridge did earlier in the season. At the very least, it presents a genuine highlight in a season which has seen more lows than highs for Arsene Wenger‘s side.

Wenger made six changes from the side which exited the FA Cup at the hands of Sunderland last weekend, with the most notable inclusion being Yossi Benayoun, who started only his fourth league game in his year-long loan spell at the club.

Szczesny

Sagna – Koscielny – Vermaelen – Gibbs

Song – Arteta

Walcott – Rosicky – Benayoun

van Persie

At White Hart Lane in October, Wojciech Szczesny mishandled Kyle Walker‘s long-range effort as Spurs edged the game 2-1. Since then Tottenham have maintained a consistently high level of performance, while Arsenal’s form has veered dramatically between the sublime and the frankly ridiculous. Last season, of course, a spectacular turnaround saw Spurs overcome a 2-0 half-time deficit to win 3-2 at Emirates Stadium courtesy of a late Younes Kaboul winner.

From the ridiculous to the sublime

Both sides contributed fully to a pulsating first half, as Arsenal defended as poorly as they have all season to gift Tottenham a two-goal lead, only to cancel it out with two goals as good as any they have scored in this campaign.

Vermaelen inadvertently played a major role in the opening goal (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

With Arsenal fielding their strongest back four for the first time in the Premier League since the opening weekend of the season, it took Tottenham just three minutes to cut them wide open. Emmanuel Adebayor – who else? – picked up the ball wide on the left and, as the red shirts parted like the waters of the Red Sea, he had oceans of space in which to play an easy through-ball for Louis Saha. The former Everton man cut inside and fired in a shot which deflected unwittingly off Thomas Vermaelen‘s shin and looped with almost comical slowness over Wojciech Szczesny. It was the tenth goal Spurs have scored in the opening 15 minutes this season – the most in the Premier League – and it came courtesy of yet another basic defensive error.

If Arsenal’s already fragile confidence took a knock, it didn’t show as they mounted a concerted response, advancing with purpose as Spurs were content to sit deep and look to counter-attack. Kieran Gibbs went down in the box under a challenge from Kyle Walker, but referee Mike Dean was correct to wave play on. Robin van Persie fired narrowly wide with his right foot, then wriggled away from Scott Parker to strike a crisp 20-yarder which deflected behind off Younes Kaboul‘s heel. From the resultant corner, Brad Friedel made a spectacular one-handed stop from Tomas Rosicky‘s near-post header.

However, with both Gibbs and Bacary Sagna essentially playing as out-and-out wingers Arsenal were always susceptible to a sucker punch. And just after the half-hour Luka Modric‘s defence-splitting pass found Gareth Bale sprinting easily through the middle of the pitch, outpacing Gibbs and forcing Szczesny off his line to dive at the feet of the former Southampton youngster. Bale tumbled over the keeper’s outstretched arms. Replays suggested there had been no contact, but Dean nonetheless awarded the penalty and Adebayor despatched it, becoming only the second player ever to score for both sides in North London derbies.

Sagna chose an opportune moment to score his first goal of the season (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Arsenal also have a speedster who was plucked from St Mary’s, but Theo Walcott‘s confidence and decisiveness were in stark contrast to Bale’s. Clean through on goal and at full speed, he eschewed the opportunity to take on Friedel one-on-one and instead passed to van Persie, surrounded by three white shirts, who was quickly crowded out.

But with the murmurs of discontent growing around the Emirates, Arsenal suddenly turned the game around in the closing minutes of the half. Van Persie drilled a shot against the foot of the post, but Gibbs recycled the ball to Mikel Arteta, whose pinpoint cross was met by Sagna, who nipped in front of Bale to score his first goal of the season with a firm header.

The best was yet to come. As Arsenal surged with confidence, Benoit Assou-Ekotto‘s half-hit clearance fell to van Persie 25 yards out. He wriggled away from two defenders before striking a sumptuous left-foot drive past Friedel’s despairing drive for the equaliser. Against all expectation, Spurs were left clinging on desperately for the half-time whistle.

Rosicky and Walcott nail the coffin shut

A rare goal by Rosicky completed the turaround (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Arsenal started the second half as they had finished the first, with Friedel quickly called into action to turn aside Yossi Benayoun‘s sharp effort. Five minutes later the Israeli international was involved in the build-up as Arsenal took the lead for the first time.

The men in red worked the ball left to right across the pitch, as Alex Song found van Persie dropping deep. The captain quickly moved it on to Benayoun, who advanced and drew in defenders before releasing Sagna on the overlap. The right-back’s low cross was met at the near post by the late-arriving Rosicky, who chipped it past Friedel from close range for his first goal in 50 Premier League games. The goal completed a stunning mirror-image of Spurs comeback here last season.

With the visitors now forced to come forward and Arsenal still intent on attack as the best form of defence, the game became increasingly stretched. Rosicky stole the ball in midfield to send Walcott streaking through, and on this occasion the winger made the right decision in shooting, but saw his shot across goal miss the far post by inches.

A poor first half, but Walcott's pace and finishing would clinch the game in the second (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

However, the much-maligned Walcott would have the final laugh, delivering a double blow within three minutes to squash any hope of a Spurs comeback. First van Persie did brilliantly to receive the ball and hold off two defenders before playing him in to finish with a cool chip over the advancing Friedel. Then Song turned provider, as this time Walcott drove into the box and placed a low drive inside the far post. In less than half an hour, Arsenal had gone from 2-0 down to 5-2 up.

With a dispirited Tottenham suddenly looking narrow and bereft of ideas – an accusation often levelled at Arsenal this season – it was the hosts who came closest to adding to the score in the final quarter of the game, with Rosicky’s fizzing drive the most notable effort. But in truth Walcott’s brace ended the game as a contest, and it summed up Spurs’ afternoon when Parker was shown a second yellow for a clumsy challenge on Vermaelen three minutes from time.

Post-match reaction and analysis

After the game, a delighted Arsene Wenger was more than happy to wax lyrical about his side’s incredible comeback:

Today we gave a performance that on the spirit side, the technical side, the drive of the whole team, on the style of the game we want to play everything was perfect despite a very bad start. I felt in the first five minutes Tottenham started well, after that it was all us for 85 minutes.

We were always on top of the game. We were 2-0 down but refused to lose the game and kept going no matter what happened. Once we were back to 2-2 you could see that if we maintained the pace, we would win the game. We had a good balance between offence and defence, between creativity and going into the space behind the defenders and good maturity.

He praised Theo Walcott, who had been the main target of the fans’ frustration in the first half:

The crowd was starting to get on his back and you wonder if [it won’t] do him a favour by leaving him on. But I felt that he has the qualities that, considering the rest of the team, are highly needed. He is a player who can be straight and go behind the defenders – nobody else is like that. He is a very direct player, he can sometimes miss a first touch but considering the balance of the team I thought it was important to keep him in the side.

And he refused to rule out the possibility of finishing above Tottenham, who are still seven points ahead:

It is still possible. I felt even before the game that it was possible if we keep our consistency. Everyone in the Premier League can lose points. They have a difficult schedule, and we have a difficult schedule, but if we continue to play like that, why not?

Sadly, though, he had further injury news to report:

Vermaelen has an ankle problem, and Rosicky a back problem. Whether they are available for Saturday is a big doubt.

For 40 minutes, this had all the hallmarks of one of those Arsenal performances: one where the team dominates both possession and chances but succumbs to one or two moments of madness. Although some allowance should be made for the fact that Kieran Gibbs is still finding his way back from injury, he looked anything but a defender throughout the first half as his positional discipline let him down repeatedly. Too often both full-backs were caught upfield as attacks broke down, leaving Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny to patrol half the field as three or four white shirts bore down on them. More often that not it was the England youngster who was at fault. Gibbs does offer a lot coming forward and showed much better awareness in the second half, but it is clear that he falls into the category of full-backs who are more adept in the opponent’s half of the pitch than their own. Other than the two goals – and it is impossible to excuse the collective failure on either – Arsenal defended well, aided by the absence of Aaron Lennon on the right.

Where Arsenal won this game was in midfield. While Modric and Bale were a threat with, respectively, their quick feet and, er, quick feet, Parker had one of his less effective games and Nico Kranjcar was so invisible he was hauled off at half-time. Full credit to the midfield trio of Song, Arteta and Rosicky, who showed plenty of bite off the ball and lots of urgency and creativity on it.

Robin van Persie was, well, van Persie. Strong with his back to goal and quick of mind when facing it, the captain scored the all-important equaliser before half-time and with better luck might have bagged a hat-trick. Nonetheless he increased his Premier League-leading tally to 23. Yossi Benayoun flitted across the full width of the pitch, more than compensating in guile what he lacks in physicality. And Theo Walcott, to his credit after a lacklustre first half, showed tremendous self-belief after half-time with two fantastic finishes.

This was, offensively, Arsenal at their very best, showcasing their attacking class while simultaneously doing nothing to hide their defensive frailties. Negatives aside, however, this was a thrilling performance which eases the pressure on Arsene Wenger and will silence the know-it-all doubters who have been vehement in their criticism of Walcott and Rosicky in recent months. Both can be frustratingly inconsistent, but in this crucial tone-setting match it was this pair who did more than most to turn the result in Arsenal’s favour.

The three-goal victory put Arsenal back above Chelsea into fourth spot on goals scored, with the sides level on goal difference. Another tough challenge awaits next Saturday with a trip to Anfield, but in this form Arsenal have nothing to fear and everything to gain as the season enters its final dozen rounds.

Arsenal man of the match: Tomas Rosicky. One of many great performances, but the Czech in particular caught the eye with his energy and directness. Linked midfield and attack superbly, and burst into the box with perfect timing to score. His best performance in six years at the club.

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

9 Responses to Comeback Arsenal, all is forgiven

  1. NJ-Belgrade-Tel Aviv Gooner says:

    Nice post. Rosicky definitely man of the match for me as well. Give that man confidence and we may find some of what made AW buy him in the first place.

    • Tim says:

      Rosicky has had some terrible performances this season, but also some very good ones. Like Theo, I think he’s become an easy target for many fans this season. But, despite his appalling goal-scoring record, the man has always possessed class in spite of the injuries which have blighted his career. He’s in the twilight of his career now, but he brings experience and quality and can still be a good squad player in my opinion. Such a shame he is now injured and a doubt for the Liverpool game.

  2. Sheree says:

    Never mind the North London derby, who won the tiddlywinks tournament?

  3. James says:

    I knew you would enjoy this game. It’s always nice to get one over your rivals — even if you have to do it the hard way.

    • Tim says:

      I did indeed enjoy the game – the last 50 minutes of it, anyway. In so many ways it’s ten times as good to have done it the hard way. Unless you’re susceptible to heart attacks, that is.

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