Arsenal must make this the norm, Spurs the exception
At Emirates Stadium
Arsene Wenger’s stubborn resistance to the voice of the masses has been listed among his faults during Arsenal’s plunge into reduced circumstances this season.
Wenger has often appeared alone with his principles amid calls for changes in personnel, policy and even the manager himself in some cases as Arsenal’s stretch without a trophy extends to seven years.
Even those who argue against a change in Arsenal manager have voiced the view that the current Arsenal manager needs to change.
And yet that stubborn streak, that belief that what he is doing is right, was a compelling force for Arsenal’s good in a north London derby that took all logic and shook it until the bits dropped off.
Arsenal's players celebrate at the final whistle
If Wenger had a desire to pander as a populist, he would have bowed to the baying of the mob and substituted Theo Walcott to spare him the volume of criticism he was receiving from his own Arsenal fans as Spurs went 2-0 up in this magnificent exhibit for the Premier League.
Louis Saha’s deflected shot and Emmanuel Adebayor’s penalty, generously given by referee Mike Dean after Gareth Bale’s theatrical tumble in contact with Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, had elevated the frustration levels around Emirates Stadium.
Arsenal were not playing badly but it was the view of many of the paying public that Walcott was – and boy did they let him know it. The exclusion of the exciting Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain threw Walcott’s struggles into greater relief but Wenger stood by his original selection.
He admitted later that occasionally you do a player a favour and remove him in the face of such treatment but Wenger stayed true to his belief that Walcott offered a serious threat.
And so it proved during an Arsenal comeback that carried such force that Spurs buckled quite spectacularly, shipping five goals in 28 minutes and threatening to lose even more emphatically than they eventually did.
Walcott, on the receiving end of some fairly X-rated abuse from some Arsenal fans in the first 45 minutes, added the final two flourishes in swift succession to finish off a comeback fashioned around goals from Bacary Sagna, Robin van Persie and Tomas Rosicky.
It was such a transformation in fortunes that, when Walcott was replaced by Oxlade-Chamberlain with nine minutes left, his name thundered around the stadium, accompanied by a standing ovation.
Fickle old football. And that fickle nature was scattered around like confetti with Walcott, Wenger and Spurs manager Harry Redknapp playing the central characters.
Seven days earlier, Spurs fans were united in ironic song at Stevenage as they pleaded “Arsene Wenger – We Want You To Stay” with Arsenal in desperate straits following a Champions League mauling at the hands of AC Milan and an FA Cup exit at Sunderland.
If Arsenal and Wenger were not quite on their knees going into this game they were certainly badly wounded. Rarely had Spurs looked so in command of north London’s football territory. And in Redknapp they had a manager who was almost assuming the role of “The People’s Choice” as the man most likely to succeed Fabio Capello as England coach.
Redknapp’s CV is no more dented by this loss than Arsenal’s problems have all disappeared as a result of 90 minutes – particularly a first half – that scrambled the senses of many observers.
At its conclusion Wenger announced: “Arsenal is more alive than anybody thought before this game.” There was certainly plenty of life on show in a performance that did not simply contain the attacking decoration that has been their trademark in the past – but also a character and resilience that saw them creating chances and applying pressure even when they were behind.
Arsenal’s season has contained some wild results such as an 8-2 defeat at Manchester United and a 5-3 win at Chelsea – add this to another madcap moment in this campaign. Wenger suddenly has his sights trained on fourth place once more but if this season has told us anything, it is that the evidence suggests Arsenal are the team that cannot be trusted completely.
There was so much to admire from the Gunners here. The fluid play, the support for Van Persie – although his most magical moment was all his own work, a precise finish that curled tantalisingly beyond Spurs keeper Brad Friedel to put Arsenal level just before half-time.
Fit-again Sagna gives balance and attacking threat as he scored once and was involved in creating one of Walcott’s goals, while Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen persisted long enough to ensure any lingering Spurs threat was snuffed out.
And yet all praise for Arsenal comes with a giant note of caution attached. It does not suit their purposes to play like this against Spurs if they are to retreat back to the timid at Liverpool next week.
For Spurs, it is a not time to throw the baby out with the bathwater on the strength of one desperate afternoon. A fairly horrendous defeat cannot undo so much good work done this season. Once wounds have been tended, they still lie seven points ahead of Arsenal in third place.
If Redknapp was angry at Spurs’s capitulation, he saved it for the dressing room. In his post-match inquest he was measured and tried to put the performance into context while giving Arsenal their full credit.
There were points of concern for Redknapp, however, especially in the manner they threatened to collapse even before actually doing so. The pace of their play has been a high point all season but here Arsenal carried all the tempo and momentum, which Spurs were unable to contain.
In the face of Arsenal’s vibrant attacks, captain Ledley King looked to be struggling in his fight to keep playing despite being unable to train. He laboured throughout and Redknapp admitted to his struggles later.
Spurs faded badly as Arsenal thrived and Scott Parker’s sending off, while an irrelevance here, may have serious implications when he misses Manchester United’s visit to White Hart Lane next week.
The midfield battle was lost so decisively that Redknapp made alterations at half-time with the scores level. Sandro and Rafael van der Vaart replaced Saha and Niko Kranjcar but the horse had bolted.
The game was up long before the end, allowing Arsenal’s players and supporters to revel in the luxury of such a commanding lead in the closing stages, using the humiliation of their neighbours as a healing force on those recent wounds.
The trick for Wenger and Arsenal is to somehow make sure results and performances such as this are not isolated incidents. The task for Redknapp and Spurs is to make sure they are.