(Photo by joshjdss – via Wikimedia Commons)
In a week when trouble in Buenos Aires put volatile derbies into the forefront of every football fan’s mind, a new era of North London derbies ignited in a blaze of touchline scuffles, furious celebrations and pulsating football, resulting in a 4-2 Arsenal victory.
Over the last two years, one of England’s most famous rivalries has been rid of two constants, Arsene Wenger and White Hart Lane. As a result, plenty of questions were asked of both Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur as they prepared for this season.
How would Arsenal cope with losing their manager of 22 years? When would Spurs finally move into their new stadium? How would their lack of transfer activity affect the team’s performances?
Thus far, both teams have coped relatively well. But still, change is the biggest threat to a local derby. Only in the build-up to derby matches will you hear cries for homegrown players to start; in the fans’ minds, it is only they who truly understand their hatred for the opposition. Would the Arsenal squad, which has undergone sweeping changes in personnel over the last 18 months, understand the magnitude of the occasion?
Only four Arsenal players who started on Sunday – Sead Kolasinac, Hector Bellerin, Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka – were also involved from the start of last year’s home fixture against Spurs.
During Sunday’s game, both sides played as if possessed by the gravity of the fixture. Eric Dier’s goal celebration – raising his finger to his lips as if to silence the raucous Emirates crowd – was the chief catalyst for the ensuing friction between the two sides. As he wheeled towards the corner flag, he was ferociously met by the wrath of Arsenal new boys Stephan Lichtsteiner and Matteo Guendouzi.
The scrap that followed between the jubilant Spurs players and the Arsenal bench may have been ugly, but it provided the spark the game needed.
Each of the goal celebrations that followed was rich with the kind of passion that makes derbies great. Perhaps the most captivating image was Lucas Torreira ripping off his shirt after scoring his first Arsenal goal. As he sprinted behind the goal, it brought back memories of Tomas Rosicky celebrating the third goal in Arsenal’s 5-2 victory against Tottenham in 2012. As Torreira slid to his knees, he replicated the pose of the man cast in bronze outside the stadium. In his eight years as a Gunner, Thierry Henry never lost to Tottenham.
On the touchline, Emery was in a frenzy. In 90 minutes of constant gesticulation, he was a whirlwind of energetic instruction. A mark of his success was the noise of the crowd, which was as loud as the Emirates has been for years. Emery has galvanised the Arsenal support, which in turn, galvanised the players.
So what does the victory mean for Arsenal? It was certainly the finest result under Emery’s reign. Failing to lose to Liverpool was positive, but to be a top team, you need to be winning, not drawing, to the other top teams. Arsenal did not simply beat Tottenham: they dominated them. They made consistent performers such as Dier and Jan Vertonghen look out of their depth.
On the day, Emery’s tactical nous sealed the victory. Sending both Aaron Ramsey and Alexandre Lacazette on at half-time was a bold move, but it paid dividends. Furthermore, the 5-man defense that started the game suits Emery’s squad well. It minimizes the defensive risk when both full-backs push forward and allows his attacking stars, Lacazette and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, to flood the middle, where they are most dangerous.
Mauricio Pochettino was less tactically astute. He overlooked Toby Alderweireld and played the previously untested centre-back pairing of Vertonghen and Juan Foyth. Both made mistakes that directly contributed to Arsenal goals. Vertonghen’s eventual sending off was a culmination of his afternoon’s frustrations. Pochettino seems to excel in his long-term strategy and player development, rather than his game-to-game tactical adjustments.
Now, Arsenal are currently ticking two of three boxes. Firstly, they are beating the weaker teams, something they consistently failed to do away from home last term. Secondly, the win on Sunday proved that they can perform against the big teams at home. Finally, they must prove they can take points off the big sides when on the road.
Wednesday’s Old Trafford showdown will be a perfect time to tick that final box. Manchester United may be devoid of confidence, but they will be desperate for a statement result. If Arsenal can take a draw or victory back to London, it will be impossible to disregard their top-four chances.