If calls for ‘Wenger Out’ had intensified before the first North London Derby of the season, the match itself proved to be a reincarnation of what used to happen before Arsene Wenger came in.
In the George Graham days, 1-0 to the Arsenal was a familiar score line. It proved to be once more as Tottenham Hotspurs became Arsenal’s latest victims. Arsenal’s resurgence since that opening day defeat to Aston Villa has been remarkable. Their reaction has meant that with the pressure turned on, they also switched on.
It was however a case of masterful defending. The shape was never stretched and the concentration never let up. This has been a criticism of Wenger’s Arsenal – that defensively they buckle. At the Emirates, they proved that wrong – managing to maintain an impregnable structure. As such, the first clean sheet of the Premier League season followed.
Plausibly, this is a consequence of Wenger’s firm belief in the players at hand. Cajoled to spend all through the off-season, the Frenchman has been unwavering. In contrast, his North London rivals have been busy in the transfer window and at the Emirates lined up with four new signings (another came on) and two who were out on loan last season. It meant that all their possession lacked penetration. The newbies are not yet used to each other and that relieved them of some spark.
That was not the case with the Gunners. Familiarity helped them and it ensured their positioning controlled Spurs’s possession. Restricted to passing it in deep areas or out wide, Tottenham just could not pass it around where it really mattered – in the final third.
But apart from defending so exemplarily, Arsenal also broke with purpose. Their counter-attacks seemed choreographed to get maximum effect of the spaces left within Tottenham’s backline. Every time Arsenal swarmed forward, it seemed they would score. It also brought about memories of another former Arsenal manager in Herbert Chapman who in the 1920’s laid the foundations for counter-attacking football. His statue stands outside the Emirates and the man himself would have been proud of this display which — were it not for the quick reactions of Hugo Lloris to get off his line and deny a fleet of Arsenal’s chances — may have seen the Gunners score more.
Yet, on 23 minutes, Lloris was on his line but could do nothing to deny Olivier Giroud . A sweeping counter, including all of Aaron Ramsey, Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott moving the ball around quickly saw the French striker get ahead of Michael Dawson at Lloris’s near post to score. It was a deft touch – a toe poke of balletic majesty.
While Arsenal’s transfer period has been dominated by talks of a striker coming in, Giroud has stepped up. He may still not be competent enough to settle all debates, but at least on this day, his strike settled the North London Derby.
Similarly, Ramsey’s embattled period seems to have come to an end. In a heated cauldron, Ramsey was fired up more than most. His hard work, determination and self-drive meant that he dominated the midfield and brought Arsenal forward. He managed to answer the question of where Arsenal would find the heart in the absence of Jack Wilshere. Once Wilshere departed due to illness on 43 minutes, it was the Welshman who ably took over.
The man who replaced Wilshere also displayed a trait long lost in an Arsenal midfield. Mathieu Flamini brought back grit and industry. Whereas Wilshere’s passion is covered in physical fragility, Flamini did not mind pulling his weight around, breaking play and leaving his mark. He may have left in controversial circumstances but his triumphant return may just have swept that aside.
All this seemed to point to a Wenger that for years of being ideological had turned to pragmatism. Playing on the break was not negative at all – it instead highlighted Arsenal’s strength in pace and rapid execution. It did however point to a slight concession. Whether instinctively or out of choice, that Arsenal allowed Spurs the possession seemed to imply an acknowledgement of a better team.
Controlling their backline and springing on the break did however bring about the desired result. Whereas Andre Villas-Boas’s team exposed his identity, Arsenal exposed their gaps. It means that on a day when two ideological managers met, it was Wenger — who was willing to play the pragmatist – that prevailed.
In the process, any lingering smoke of fire from a burning crisis turned into the whiff of smoke from a gun that fired the single fatal bullet. Conclusions drawn from this mean nothing, as the most important conclusion will be the tallied from quantified results come end of May. But at the end of the game, a relieved Wenger clenched his fists and smiled broadly.
Relief — for now — will give Wenger and Arsenal the much desired belief.