The latest renewal of the North London Derby was held at Emirates Stadium between bitter rivals Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. A 17 year drought for Spurs at Arsenal set the stage for an intriguing comeback that saw the race for the League trophy open up even more.
For Arsenal, manager Arsene Wenger brought the home side out in their familiar 4-2-3-1 formation. Marouane Chamakh occupied his familiar striker role, with Samir Nasri and Andrei Arshavin also serving as targets for playmaker Cesc Fabregas. Bacary Sagna was useful on overlaps with Nasri, especially in the first half.
Harry Redknapp’s squad began the game in a 4-4-1-1, which struggled to gain much offensive momentum in the first half. Attacking midfielder Rafael van de Vaart served as the link to forward Roman Pavlyuchenko. Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon contributed from the wide midfield, while Alan Hutton and Benoit Assou-Ekotto had limited success on runs from the back.
The best first half chances resided with the Gunners, though possession was relatively even. Arsenal’s defensive line held Tottenham to mostly outside shots. A Bale redirection off a van der Vaart corner and a Luka Modric blast from 20 yards were the only two tests that goalkeeper Lukacz Fabianski faced in the first half.
In the 9th minute, Arsenal took advantage of some soft defensive play by Spurs. From his side of the center line, Fabregas lofted a long through pass to a breaking Nasri, being marked by Assou-Ekotto. Goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes showed indecision, and Nasri used a firm touch to get around Gomes. As the ball was teasing the goal line, Nasri got a foot to it, and the ball eased its way past Assou-Ekotto and a sprawling Gomes for the early 1-0 lead.
The play then settled down a bit, but in the 27th minute Arshavin struck a pass towards a streaking Chamakh, and the French forward fought off Younas Kaboul and directed a left foot past Gomes for a comfortable 2-0. As play concluded in the first half, it was obvious that Tottenham was not as crisp as Arsenal. The defensive center midfielders Modric and Jermaine Jenas had failed to contain Fabregas. While the Gunners’ organized attack was less effective, the counterattack had generated a number of opportunities which resulted in the two goal cushion.
Redknapp inserted Jermain Defoe for Lennon after halftime. To place more pressure on Arsenal’s defense, he placed Defoe as the lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Bale and van der Vaart acted as wings for the attacking midfield line, with Pavlyuchenko falling behind Defoe.
Spurs expectedly came out looking to reenter the conversation. In the 50th minute, Defoe received a lob pass outside the area. He headed it forward, and van der Vaart controlled and set the ball out in front of Bale, who flicked it forward and then knocked it in with the outside of his left foot past Fabianski. That made it a game again at 2-1 Arsenal.
Tottenham’s comeback was facilitated by a costly mistake by the Gunners’ captain. Fabregas raised his arm to protect his face inside the area on a 66th minute van der Vaart freekick. Against Fabregas’ appeals, referee Phil Dowd pointed to the spot. Van der Vaart converted the ensuing penalty, and Arsenal’s lead had evaporated, 2-2.
After relieving Pavlyuchenko with forward Peter Crouch, Redknapp went back to the more conservative 4-4-2 formation. He paired Defoe and Crouch at the front. But for Spurs, it would take another ill-advised Gunner decision to put them on top.
On an 84th minute counter rush, Bale received a right flank pass from van der Vaart. Back Laurent Koscielny tackled late and received a yellow card. Van der Vaart’s free kick was placed perfectly to Kaboul, and the back headed the ball into the net. Tottenham had finally climbed to victory again at Emirates Stadium
This game was influenced most by momentum and uncharacteristically poor play by Arsenal. The Spurs were ready to make an impact after halftime, but that alone would not have been enough to garner even a draw without unforced errors. Arsenal had this game in hand. The door was opened, and Tottenham stepped in and wrestled three points away from a complacent and undisciplined side. Don’t take too much credit away from Spurs though; it takes a good club to turn that gift into victory.