Spurs superstars stir Mourinho masterclass as Arsenal pay for Arteta´s ambition
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So it was Arsenal who attempted to seize the initiative. After all, someone had to have the ball.
Under Mauricio Pochettino and Arsene Wenger, the men who brought these rivals again to the forefront of the English game, Tottenham and Arsenal had each played an attractive, exciting brand of football. Jose Mourinho and Mikel Arteta had so far done things a little differently.
Only twice, five years apart, in his opening and closing weeks in charge, did Pochettino’s Spurs have less than 35 per cent of the possession in a Premier League match. By contrast, preferring a low block in these biggest of fixtures, Mourinho had already overseen four such occasions in little more than 12 months prior to this weekend.
Arteta could match that, too, ceding 65 per cent of the play four times since June, completely at odds with Arsenal’s passing style of years past.
Taking over teams muddling in mid-table and securing swift success – Tottenham qualified for Europe and now top the table, Arsenal won the FA Cup – this pragmatic approach has largely been accepted up until now.
Perhaps the absence of fans had also helped, though.
Only West Ham (three) had more wins behind closed doors with less than 35 per cent of the possession than Spurs, who effectively countered Leicester City late last season and Manchester City in their late-November home game.
Indeed, Arteta’s use of this passive tactic in the league had come exclusively in empty stadiums since the coronavirus pandemic hit.
And it was he, the relative rookie, who abandoned such plans on Sunday as 2,000 Tottenham fans came back, back to see a derby, back to see a blood-and-thunder back-and-forth.
Arteta welcomed the return to “a stadium with an atmosphere, with some fans” and, having failed to grind out results anywhere near as effectively as their high-flying neighbours, told Sky Sports that Arsenal were “here to win”, a result that “would change the mood completely”.
Arsenal were bold. They attacked from the outset. Spurs did not. But the Gunners’ shift away from a resolute defensive system, credited by Mourinho in the build-up, merely played into the Portuguese’s hands.
Rather than urge a disciplined Mourinho side to abandon caution, the restored home supporters preferred to greet every clearance and challenge with a roar, watching Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg in a Lilywhite shirt for the first time, snarling at opponents and snapping into tackles – he won eight of 16 duels, earning and conceding three fouls apiece.
And with 13 minutes played and Tottenham’s possession figure again floating somewhere below 35 per cent, Harry Kane collected the ball on halfway and Son Heung-min ran beyond him.
The most predictable, prolific partnership in the Premier League, a rueful Arteta clearly knew what was about to happen, pleading with his defenders to regroup from the touchline.
Kane’s pass was perfect, Son’s finish was better, arcing into the far corner, and Spurs led.
Still Arsenal continued to dictate without really laying a glove on their opponents and the race was all but run on the stroke of half-time.
The second of two Tottenham fast breaks – Arsenal and a frustrated Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had none – saw a four-on-two counter, as Arteta attempted to push an injured Thomas Partey back into the fray as a third man.
Kane overlapped this time, receiving Son’s pass, and the finish was equally devastating, the Spurs striker becoming this fixture’s outright all-time leading marksman.
It said as much for Arsenal’s sloppiness as their dominance that they misplaced more passes into the final third in the first half (22) than Tottenham had even attempted into that area (19) and went into the break two down.
The second period was only more one-sided, with a wayward Kane header the sole home effort while Arsenal sent in 44 crosses across the 90 minutes, but Aubameyang nodded over and Hugo Lloris got down to an Alexandre Lacazette attempt.
Arteta this week said it was “pure maths” that Arsenal would win games if they continued to breach the box as often as they had in a 2-1 defeat to Wolves, where 35 deliveries prompted a single goal.
Just like his tactics, the manager’s calculations were wrong.
To the sound of delirious home supporters, Spurs finished with 30.8 per cent of the possession. They finished 2-0 winners, top of the league.