LONDON — In trying to be the team Mikel Arteta wants them to be, Arsenal revealed yet again what they actually are. On Sunday, Tottenham beat Arsenal 2-0 in the North London derby, and nobody could be surprised about how it happened. Nobody, that is, except Arteta, who by setting up his team with greater attacking purpose than in many of Arsenal’s biggest games, fell neatly into the trap Jose Mourinho was always going to set.
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the methodology with which Spurs have climbed to the top of the Premier League table would understand the importance and form of Son Heung-Min and Harry Kane adding a razor-sharp edge to an otherwise conservative approach. Spurs beat Manchester City in precisely this manner two weekends ago, but there was at least a sense of jeopardy on that occasion as Pep Guardiola’s side probed with more purpose than Arsenal managed at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Arteta’s side could have played on for another half an hour and not scored, so content Spurs were to dig in and defend what they had once the damage had been done.
It was, in truth, another entry in the catalogue of alarmingly naive and painfully blunted performances that have cost Arteta’s predecessors their jobs.
Put simply, Arsenal have been done on the break for years, usually at Emirates Stadium. The scenery changed, but the story remains the same. The Gunners won the FA Cup last season with a highly effective counter-attacking style of Arteta’s making, ceding possession and territory to City and Chelsea before picking them off on the break. A back three was central to achieving this greater balance and stability yet here he went to a 4-2-3-1 shape to little effect.
Sunday’s deployment was more in line with the “Guardiola style” that Arteta was expected to deliver, yet this was further evidence they are simply not capable of playing that way against the top sides with their current squad.
“In terms of the performance, they did everything I asked them to do,” Arteta said after the match. “We played the way I believe we have to play this game. If you look at all the stats, they are in our favour but at the end of the day it is about putting the ball in the box.
“We had the chances, we generated probably more than ever this season, we put the ball in the box more than ever, we had the numbers, but at the end of the day, you have to score the goals. To build something, you need results.”
Arsenal lack the requisite quality in midfield to dictate terms without leaving themselves vulnerable on the counter-attack. That is why Arteta tried to sign two central midfielders in the summer; it also explains the gamble in starting Thomas Partey despite private reservations he had not yet fully recovered from a thigh problem. The acute nature of this problem was best exemplified by the sight of Arteta pushing a palpably injured Partey back onto the pitch in a forlorn hope of stopping Spurs scoring on the counter-attack.
Perhaps the most damning indictment of Arsenal overall was that Mourinho appeared only too happy to give them the ball. Spurs sat on the edge of their box and waiting for Arsenal’s attacks to break down. Granit Xhaka was terrified of allowing Kane to turn and launch Tottenham on the counter-attack, rugby tackling him as early as the second minute, but the England captain was able to wriggle free all too easily to play to Son into space on the left with just 13 minutes played.
Hector Bellerin made the first of a series of mistakes — later in the game, he made his fifth foul throw in 11 Premier League games — by ball-watching to allow Son time to cut in on his right foot, before the Spurs attacker unleashed a superb curling shot that gave Bernd Leno no chance. Son has now scored 10 league goals this season: the same number as Arsenal.
Long periods of sterile Arsenal possession followed, punctuated by Spurs threatening on the break. And, yet again, perhaps tellingly in contrast to Chelsea, who deliberately opted not to over-commit numbers forward in their goal-less draw with Tottenham last Sunday, the visitors were caught out. This time it ended with Son releasing Kane, who thrashed a left-foot shot in off the crossbar.
Son and Kane have now combined for 31 league goals, with only Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard (36) boasting a better record. You’ve probably heard that before, because everyone has. Yet Arsenal were caught out. Arteta knows it too, of course. He’s a studious and diligent manager trying to restore Arsenal to the fearsome presence of the peak Arsene Wenger years.
Stopping the Kane-Son axis is clearly easier said than done, but Arteta abandoned the short-term pragmatism, which got him promising results, for a more expansive strategy against Tottenham that ultimately backfired. In one sense, he was trying to run before he could walk.
Arsenal ended with 69.2% possession and just two shots on target, both second-half headers from Alexandre Lacazette. They attempted 44 crosses, an odd approach for a team whose forwards are so poor in the air. All this was, of course, also due to another superbly organised and disciplined Tottenham performance, with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg at the heart of it. He was not the most high-profile summer signing, but Hojbjerg’s £15 million arrival from Southampton is a huge factor in enabling Mourinho to play the way he wants to.
Sergio Reguilon’s dynamic style at left-back also helps Spurs transition with lightning speed. Gareth Bale, just as he was against Chelsea, watched the entire game as an unused substitute.
Arsenal need to be equally shrewd in the market going forward. Arteta previously adapted the style of football he wants to play so that his side could have greater stability, but somewhere along the way they’ve lost the attacking threat that gave them a fighting chance in almost any game. The difficulty now for Arteta is that he needs to find a route to more consistent short-term results before the squad overhaul Arsenal desperately need.
“It’s very simple. We need to score goals. If not, it doesn’t matter what we do in the other departments of the pitch,” Arteta said. “If we don’t score goals, we can do nothing, so we need to put the ball in the net urgently.”
There is a widespread recognition of the sheer scale of the task the Spaniard has inherited, but Arsenal are 15th in the table now, 11 points adrift of their bitterest rivals. Otherwise there is further pain ahead, exacerbated by Tottenham’s continuing emergence as genuine title contenders.