Amid the largely drossy hour that followed one of the most underwhelming displays the Emirates Stadium has seen in many a month, it can be all too quickly forgotten how devastating Arsenal looked in the first third of the north London derby on Sunday. The hosts applied the strangulation-level pressure on Tottenham that would eventually lead to Cristian Romero’s own goal, and the only way Spurs could just about keep the ball moving around their own third of the pitch was to flood it with their own players. There was no way out. Eventually, they would give the ball back to their rivals.
Indeed, the 12 ball recoveries in the attacking third that Arsenal registered on Sunday were the most in any full Premier League season under Mikel Arteta and the second most by a team in 2023-24, trailing only Manchester United in their baffling win over Wolverhampton Wanderers. Even more notable than that, however, was how many of them came early on in the contest. In the 26 minutes that led to the game’s opener, Arsenal took possession off Spurs six times in the final third. That is the most by any team this season and indeed is a tally bettered by only six sides since the beginning of the 2020-21 campaign.
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Arsenal had Tottenham rattled and were earning big chances from their pack hunting. The two most notable of these opportunities were the misses by Eddie Nketiah and Gabriel Jesus (worth over 0.5 expected goals between them) but almost every opening that came the Gunners’ way was largely down to Spurs’ overplaying. Yves Bissouma tried to shimmy away from Martin Odegaard and seconds later Jesus was volleying a Bukayo Saka cross dangerously towards Guglielmo Vicario.
The hosts were shuttering down almost every escape route as soon as it emerged. When Bissouma plays the ball back to Destiny Udogie in the passage of play, as seen below, there are vanishingly few options available to him. Ben White has closed ground on Brennan Johnson, a pass that would be risky anyway with Saka moving to block it. Going in towards Bisoumma or Micky van de Ven is asking for trouble in a congested area. The only real option is to go back to Vicario.
Nketiah knows that and, as is his won’t, he is already gambling on that pass being miss-kicked. He was not wrong but Vicario saved well at his near post. Meanwhile, his strike partner Jesus rarely needed a second invitation to apply pressure on the Spurs backline. He would end the match with five recoveries in the final third but, understandably, no one dwelled on the moments he got the ball back but instead what he did with them.
Perhaps the clumsiest error that Spurs made was the one resulting in Jesus blazing over the bar just after Arsenal had opened the scoring. In mitigation for the visitors, however, the Gunners had been throttling them for well over 30 seconds by the time James Maddison was caught in possession. This was high-grade pressure with Martin Odegaard in particular varying up the intensity of his runs, picking his moments to strike and then hurtling at Vicario.
As was the case for Udogie earlier, when the ball comes in to Maddison, there are vanishingly few options for him to exploit. When you look around and see that the only pass on is a sideways one across your penalty area to Van de Ven, it is perhaps no wonder you hesitate and take a heavy touch.
This was perhaps the pivot point for the match as a whole. Had Jesus taken a touch and buried this opening, Arsenal might well have been out of sight. Before the half was over, they were pegged back. They would never regain the territorial dominance they had had in the game.
Arteta might contend otherwise but after the miss, something seemed to change.
“I think the second half we regained a lot of balls in high press as well, they came out twice — one with Maddison when they hooked the ball to him,” he told CBS Sports in his post-match press conference before adding, “When we regained the ball, and we didn’t do enough with that ball that we regained in certain areas.”
Certainly, there were moments where Arsenal won the ball back again, but the pressure was never quite as intense.
In part, the explanation for that lies with Tottenham. Those moments where they diced with danger brought with them subtle changes. Bissouma dropped deeper and Van de Ven pushed wider while Udogie advanced a little more up the left flank when receiving the ball, ensuring he was not in prime Saka hunting territory. What changed the most for Spurs, however, is that they began to execute better. Those passes that had sold teammates short in the first half hour zipped across the field as the game wore on, to the delight of the manager.
“Think we went toe to toe with a top team and at times I thought we really asserted our dominance on the game,” said Ange Postecoglou. “At times, they did, but that’s what happens when you face top sides. Even if we had lost today, and I don’t like losing, but for me, to keep pushing these guys, they need to feel that out there that what we talk about and work on, they can see it come to fruition and when it does against a top team, being brave with our approach, that’s the key thing.”
When those passes click and Maddison gets a quick ball facing toward the opposition goal, this becomes a very different team, indeed. Son Heung-min looks far more like the player who terrified Premier League defenses than the injury-ravaged forward of last season, while Sarr and Bissouma are extremely effective at getting the ball to dangerous areas. In months to come, a draw at home to Spurs might not look like the two dropped points it feels like for Arsenal.
Equally, there is a reason why the Gunners will feel they lost ground to Manchester City, even if after the match Arteta was preaching that it is much too soon to think of the title (or indeed of the impact Postecoglou has made on Spurs). The game was there for them but individual errors on both goals let their opposition back in. That is a familiar theme at the Emirates Stadium in 2023, and on occasion, you could convince yourself that players and stadium had simply concluded that this match must follow a familiar theme and that someone would deliver a narrative-rich bailout at the last minute.
Then there is the matter of why the press failed. At least part of that can be put down to the diminished effectiveness and then half-time withdrawal of Declan Rice. The England international excelled as something of a one-man second line, blitzing 50-50s and robbing loose balls. Knowing he was behind them allowed the Arsenal frontline to chase at full throttle. When Jorginho tried the same thing in the 69th minute, he didn’t have the pace to steal in ahead of Maddison nor to close the ground as Rice can so effectively.
His back issue, which the club are hopeful that he’ll be recovered in time for the Manchester City match on Oct. 8, adds to a heavy injury list at the Emirates Stadium. Leandro Trossard was ruled out 24 hours before the game with a hamstring issue that is expected to sideline him for several weeks; the Belgian’s absence was all the more keenly felt with Gabriel Martinelli sidelined. Thomas Partey is pushing to recover from a groin issue in time for the visit from City. He could have served as an alternative to Ben White at right back as could Jurrien Timber, who will not be back until very late in the season.
Given the building injury list, it is perhaps no surprise that those on the field started to flag as the second half wore on. Arteta somewhat acknowledged that, insisting that his team had finished the game well but that “there were moments where we played super hyped.”
“These derbies and atmospheres take you there and you cannot play at the same pace when you don’t have the ball and when you get the ball back,” Arteta added. “We lacked that composure to be much more dangerous because we could have been.”
When they were rotating en masse in the Europa League last season, Arsenal might have been able to retain their early intensity for longer than half an hour. Easy as their win over PSV Eindhoven on Wednesday had been, there were insufficient energy reserves to continue at the speed they began the game.
Arteta could perhaps have eased the burden with better substitutions. After taking off Rice and a sparky Fabio Vieira at the break, he made no further changes until the 77th minute, withdrawing Jesus for Reiss Nelson, all the more baffling when on the opposite flank Saka was clearly struggling. Following his introduction in the last minute of normal time, Emile Smith Rowe completed more take-ons than anyone on the pitch bar Jesus.
Given that utilizing his depth was such a weakness for Arteta in years gone by, this might be where the real cause for concern lies in this draw for Arsenal. The right changes at the right moments might have allowed the hosts to continue with the same momentum that had made them such an irresistible force in the first half hour. Instead, a bright start was frittered away, two invaluable points lost.