The North London Derby

Written by  //  November 21, 2010  //  Sport  //  Comments Off on The North London Derby

Consecutive victories against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Everton that followed a home loss to Newcastle United prompted many to consider Arsenal as genuine title contenders this season. Their prophecies seemed that much more perceptive at the end of the first half of the North London Derby at the Emirates Stadium yesterday after Arsenal produced some of the most gorgeous football, that one can hope to see, to lead Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 at the break. At the end of ninety minutes though, with Tottenham completing a remarkable turnaround to take the honours 3-2, the familiar groans about a lack of steel in Arsene Wenger’s side resurfaced and some critics consider the loss as an effective death-knell to the club’s title challenge. The truth of the matter, though, is that individual games, and more so forty-five minutes of football, especially at this stage of the campaign, rarely determines the nature of the season as a whole even if, at times, indicative of a club’s strengths and weaknesses. If anything this game was more significant for showcasing Tottenham Hotspur’s growing eminence as opposed to any newfound vulnerability on Arsenal’s part.

Starting the game with Rafael Van der Vaart floating behind Roman Pavluchenko in a 4-2-3-1, Tottenham struggled to get a grip over the midfield in the opening period. With Cesc Fabregas pulling the strings in typically dazzling fashion, Alex Song at his harrying best and Samir Nasri continuing to sparkle, Arsenal began the game in stately fashion. The opening goal scored inside the first ten minutes may have partly been a product of goalkeeper Huerelho Gomes’s blunder and a lack of cohesion in Spurs’ defence, but Fabregas’s vision demonstrated by his through ball was as much a delight as was Nasri’s smart finish from the tightest of angles. The second goal that came on 27 minutes was a result of a move of captivating beauty, the kind of which that has come to symbolise Wenger’s team over the years. With three passes, Arsenal countered from the depths of their half to rip Spurs apart and created a chance that was daintily flicked home by Marouane Chamakh. Few more minutes of breathtakingly quick passing and movement followed before the half time whistle gave Harry Redknapp the chance to correct any tactical errors and help his team a mount a seemingly impossible comeback.

A fortnight back Newcastle United showed at the Emirates that a two-striker formation can be effective against top opposition, something which their neighbours Sunderland further attested at Stamford Bridge in a 2-0 victory against Chelsea. With Van der Vaart, Luka Modric, and Gareth Bale struggling to get on the ball, Redknapp brought Jermain Defoe on for Aaron Lennon, moving thereby to a 4-4-2 that saw Van der Vaart take up a narrow position on the right of midfield; Gareth Bale was also brought further infield, resulting in a tight quartet in the middle of the park that exhibited far greater control in the second period. Van der Vaart was not particularly impressive over the ninety minutes, but he played his part in each one of Spurs’ goals. On fifty minutes, he picked up Defoe’s header to release an onrushing Bale who stylishly finished with the outside of his left foot. Soon Spurs began to pressure the Gunners with Modric beginning to come into his own. It was a free-kick won by the quick feet of Modric that led to the equaliser. Van der Vaart’s attempt from the dead ball was imprudently handled inside the box by Fabregas, stationed in the defensive wall, and the referee had little hesitation in awarding a penalty. The Dutchman took the spot-kick himself, stroking the ball into the back of the net with alacrity. Having never won at Arsenal’s home for 17 years, and having failed to win at the home of any of the Big Four – Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal – in 69 attempts, the stage was set for the most glorious victory for Spurs. In the 86th minute, Younes Kaboul who had had a torrid first half glanced home a superbly struck right-wing free-kick from Van der Vaart to win it for Spurs.

The victory heartened Redknapp enough for him to suggest after the game that Spurs are now genuine title contenders. “Chelsea are not as good as they were, Manchester United are not as good as they were … Tottenham are getting closer. Why can’t we win it? Why should we be fearful?” he said. Spurs, it must be said, have been excellent against the best of opposition this season, not least against Inter Milan in the Champions League at White Hart Lane. Their first choice eleven may not be as well equipped as Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United or for that matter Manchester City, but they do seem to possess more strength in depth than any of these four. To judge their potential title credibility on the basis of this victory against Arsenal alone may be ill-advised, but Redknapp certainly seems to have the tactical answers and the players at his disposal to mix it with the best.

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