I’m really getting into this business of constantly getting tough draws. We’ve had six so far this season: in Europe, we’ve drawn Fenerbahce, the Champions’ League Group of Death and Bayern Munich; in the League Cup, West Brom and Chelsea; and in the FA Cup, Spurs for the Third Round. And most of those ties have proved to be very enjoyable.
Spurs arrived at the Home of Football on a mini-high, having, in their last four games, won three and drawn one. They’d summarily ditched the manager who’d given them one of their best starts to a Premier League season, and given the job to Tim Sherwood, highly thought of within THFC circles but completely lacking managerial experience. And apparently he’s also a Gooner….
Sherwood appears to come from the Harry Redknapp school of thought: all swashbuckling flourishes, and bugger the planning. The answer to the failure of Soldado under AVB was to sacrifice a midfielder by pairing Soldado up with the ever-lovely Emmanuel Adebayor, in a 442 formation. That’s all very well when playing a team with a substandard midfield, like Man United, but, whatever our other faults, that isn’t going to fly when facing this Arsenal side. It’s always going to be tough to avoid ceding complete control of the midfield to us when it’s five quality midfielders against four, especially when one of the four is Aaron Lennon and another, Nabil Bentaleb, was making his full debut.
And so it was. Arsenal bossed the midfield, and that assured us the victory. Arteta was utterly assured throughout. Rosicky was effervescent, his constant movement making it a very uncomfortable evening for anyone in a white shirt (well, a white shirt with a splash of red on it). Wilshere didn’t have quite the performance he had against Cardiff, making some of his old overambitious errors of judgment, but he still had a good match. Cazorla was back to his very best. And Serge Gnabry was tremendous, linking up again and again with his partner in speed, Theo Walcott. Gnabry plays without fear, enabling him to get the best out of his obviously significant talents. He certainly looks to be the real deal.
In defence, Mertesacker was rested, at least initially, with Thomas Vermaelen getting a much-needed run-out. Monreal continued at left-back, with first picks Koscielny and Sagna also chosen. Fabianski got a chance to get his shirt dirty.
The big question for Wenger was what to do up front, with Giroud unwell, Bendtner injured and Podolski having been unconvincing against Cardiff. Walcott got the nod. How would we cope with a short guy up top, when a key component of our success this year has been the solidity afforded to us by tall Giroud’s tireless efforts? It turns out we coped well, very well indeed. Our play was faster than usual, with Walcott (5’9”), Cazorla (5’6”), Rosicky (5’10”), Gnabry (5’8”) and Wilshere (5’7”) buzzing around, quickly exchanging passes and looking for any chance to run at the Spurs defence. It worked a treat.
Spurs had a couple of moments in the first half, including when Eriksen capitalised on an error from Koscielny to go one on one with Fabianski. But Fab stood strong and pushed the near-post shot round the post. Setting such moments aside, Arsenal were the dominant force in the first half. Our diminutive attacking force worked its magic.
Having tested Lloris on a few occasions already, the breakthrough came when Sagna attacked down the right wing, passed inside to Gnabry, who (while Walcott made a decoy run to stretch the defence) fed it to Cazorla, who was in buckets of space. The little Spaniard arrowed a first time shot into the far corner. It was an excellent finish, but it was made easier by Lloris misreading matters, and diving to his near-post.
So we went into halftime with a deserved 1-0 lead over the old enemy. The fly in the ointment was the premature departure at halftime of Vermaelen. I thought it was a preventative step, to avoid the Belgian getting a second yellow card, since he seemed to have been targeted by Spurs after picking up a booking. But after the game I learned that he had in fact suffered a cut knee or shin. In any event, it was a pity for his day to be terminated early, with the BFG being brought on.
If we were the better side in the first half, we were doubly so in the second. Frankly, I was expecting more from our friends from the other end of Seven Sisters Road, but they were pretty lame and tame. Adebayor reverted to type and was anonymous throughout, save when he fluffed his one decent opening (cue lots of laughter). Soldado was poor, and Lennon not much better. Eriksen wasn’t too bad, and was the source of most of their interesting moves, but even he didn’t look a patch on any of his opponents.
Gnabry wasn’t quite as much a force in the second half as he had been in the first, but Rosicky, Cazorla and Walcott remained as energetic as ever, and they were a source of problems for Spurs’ suspect defence and undermanned midfield. The quality of our play and superiority deserved a second goal, and that arrived just past the hour, when Rosicky, breaking after we’d defended a corner, caught Danny Rose in possession on the halfway line. Having stolen the ball from Rose, Rosicky broke forward – Walker tried to make up the gap, but Rosicky held him off and, as Lloris came out, dinked the ball over the Frenchman and into the net.
With Özil and Flamini having been brought on for Arteta (who got a knock) and Wilshere, our remaining substitutes had been used up by the time Walcott picked up a knee injury. We have to hope it will prove not to be serious, Walcott certainly looked fairly chipper as he was carried around the pitch, like a mini Caesar in front of the entire bank of Spurs fans, who took the chance to bait the England man. Some might say it was silly for Walcott to respond, and there is something in that, but I can’t help but smile at the pics of Theo with his “2-0” figure salute. In response, coins rained down on Theo and the stretcher-bearers. And we had to play the remaining ten minutes of the match with ten men, which brought Spurs onto us. But they couldn’t do anything with the advantage, the closest thing to a goal in those minutes being Özil’s effort, which was well saved by Lloris.
And through we went to the 4th Round.
It’s always great to win a North London Derby, even if our superiority deserved at least one more goal, and the FA Cup does retain something of its old appeal, even in these less sentimental times, but perhaps the significance of the match is the success of playing without a hold-up striker. It probably wouldn’t work against sides stacking their defences (Cardiff, Sunderland, West Ham, Chelsea etc), but against the more ambitious teams, who will give us space, it is something we could make more use of. Walcott certainly showed how well he can function in that set-up, so long as he has plenty of support and options from the attacking midfielders behind him. But I am sure Podolski could do very well there too, even if he was off his game in his last match. It will be interesting to see if Wenger deploys it in other matches.
Fabianski: Spurs didn’t give TPIG2 much to do, but he did his job well. Good save from Eriksen. 7/10
Sagna: Excellent game from Bacary. I think he won every aerial battle he had, and didn’t put a foot wrong throughout. Linked up with Gnabry well. 8/10
Koscielny: Dominated Adebayor, generally excellent, but fluffed his lines once when under pressure from Eriksen. 7/10
Vermaelen: Did well, snuffed out Soldado’s one break. Shame that his game was ended early. 7/10
Monreal: Completely blocked off Lennon, and the Malaga link-up with Cazorla was a fertile source of opportunities. 8/10
Arteta: Ran the midfield, made Dembele look ordinary and generally allowed the side to keep its shape. 8/10
Wilshere: Not as good a game as against Cardiff – not that he played badly, but his attempts at creating attacking moves resulted in lost possession on more than one occasion. 6/10
Gnabry: Superb performance from the youngster, especially in the first half. Had a fantastic effort that was only fractionally too high, and linked up brilliantly with others, Walcott in particular. Showed maturity, creativity and bravery throughout. 8/10
Rosicky: What a fantastic performance from our Czech genius. He was everywhere, he seems to become more energetic with time. Great goal, both in its creation and execution. Sign him up, quickly. 9/10 MOTM
Cazorla: Back to his best, he really tormented the Spurs defence. Took his goal clinically. 8/10
Walcott: Fantastic performance from TW14. He and Gnabry were able to threaten Spurs with their combined pace, and lots of good link-up play. As for his injury, all Gooner fingers should be crossed. 8/10
Mertesacker: As ever, the BFG was solid, did everything right. 7/10
Flamini: Did his job well without anything standing out. 6/10
Özil: Nearly scored and played a number of good through balls. He did mess up once when on defensive duties though, and gave away a freekick in a dangerous position. 6/10
Written by 26May1989