Goals: Adebayor (10), Mertesacker (24), Podolski (42), Giroud (45+1), Cazorla (60), Bale (71), Walcott (90+1)
Arsenal beat the living crap out of a 10-man Tottenham Hotspurs with the same scoreline as last season after Adebayor was sent off in the 17th minute. After the game, Tottenham manager Andres Villas Boas managed to draw a laughter by claiming that his team controlled the game from the first minute to the last.
Arsenal had a 4-2-3-1 formation. Szczesny returned at the goal for the first time since the Southampton game in September. Vermaalen was again at left back. Koscielny was paired with Mertesacker at the center of the defence. Bacary Sagna started at right back. In central midfield, Wilshere was paired with Mikel Arteta. Podolski was on the left, and Walcott started on the right. Cazorla was behind Giroud who started as the central striker.
Villas Boas started a game with two strikers for the first time this season, probably because the attacking link-up players in his preferred 4-2-3-1 were either injured (Dembele) or out of form (Dempsey and Sigurdson). His surprising 4-4-2 formation meant that, unlike the recent games, Arteta did not have a player marking him full time (though Defoe was sometimes dropping close to him when Arsenal had the ball). Instead of targeting Arteta specifically, Spurs midfield and backline pushed forward and played a high line to squeeze the entirety of Arsenal’s midfield.
This tactic seemed to work in the first 15 minutes, as Arsenal had difficulty in building play, and Spurs looked dangerous whenever they attacked. First, Gallas had a goal which was correctly ruled offside. Spurs then took the lead when, at the 10th minute mark, Vertonghen approached to the midfield line with the ball, and under no pressure played an over the top ball behind Arsenal’s backline. Mertesacker, who was marking Defoe, was slow to react and Defoe received the ball inside the box at a slightly narrow angle. The striker tried to pass the ball to the far corner. When Szczesny could only parry the ball inside the 6-yard box, Adebayor finished the rebound in front of Vermaalen. Arsenal looked shaken with the early goal, and Spurs almost extended their lead shortly after when they quickly broke from midfield again: Bale found Lennon on the right with the winger missing the far post by a small margin.
The game was turned upside down in the 17th minute when Adebayor inexplicably sent Cazorla flying into the orbit with a high studs-on challenge. Howard Webb had no choice but to send the Togolese off. The dynamics of the game then changed completely as Arsenal started attacking with hunger and purpose down their right with Walcott giving Naughton a very hard time. The home side equalized shortly after when Wilshere (who had a very aggressive game in the center) switched play to the right to Walcott. The winger attacked Naughton and sent in a good cross into box. The ball did not have much pace, but Mertesacker placed a majestic header past Lloris into the right corner. It was the German defender’s first goal in Arsenal colors.
With their equalizer, Arsenal scented further blood and put the Spurs goal under siege for the remaining 20 minutes of the first half. In the half hour mark, Walcott was fouled by the hapless Naughton and Wilshere’s set piece was met by a powerful header by Giroud, but Lloris made an excellent save. A minute later, Cazorla’s rocket from outside the box narrowly missed the crossbar. Arsenal then again attacked from their right, as this time Giroud met Sagna’s cross inside the 6 yard box, but he directed his header right at Lloris.
In this 20 minute period, Arsenal attacked with pace and some of their moves were simply electric. Tottenham looked like a boxer who was getting a horrendous beating and waiting to be saved the bell. Arsenal managed to land two crushing punches in quick succession before the half time whistle. First, Arteta controlled a loose ball and drove into the box attempting a one-two with Wilshere. The ball was deflected to Podolski who fired a shot on the turn under the close attention of Gallas, and the ball slowly crept inside the far post. Three minutes later, this time Cazorla controlled a loose ball outside the box. As he attempted to burst forward inside the left channel, he was first tackled by Wilshere by mistake and then by Kyle Walker. Despite losing his balance, the Spaniard rode another challenge and cut the ball inside the 6-yard box. Giroud got in front of Vertonghen and Gallas to finish with force.
For the second half, Andre Villas Boas removed his two full backs (Naugton and Walker), send in Dawson and Dempsey, and reverted to a 3-4-1-1 formation. Gallas, Vertonghen and Dawson were the three at the back, and Dempsey was playing the link-up role behind Defoe. It was indeed a courageous attacking move and Spurs started having more of the ball. After 10 minutes into the second half, the possesion statistics showed Spurs having 64% of the ball. Yet, despite winning a series of corners and set pieces, they did not create a clear-cut chance. What they managed to do was to stop Arsenal’s orgy-like desire to attack against a broken 10-man opponent.
Despite their improved play, though, Spurs conceded a fourth goal which had a brilliant simplicity. Giroud headed down Szczesny’s goal kick to Walcott, who controlled the ball, and released Podolski on the left. With Spurs playing with no fullbacks, the German burst forward past Gallas and found Cazorla’s inside run from the opposite flank. Normally a left back would track Cazorla’s run and intercept the cross, but with deeper wide areas in Spurs’ half left completely exposed, the Spaniard easily buried his shot past Lloris.
With half an hour more to go, and with the scoreline at 4-1, the game could now finish with any scoreline. However, Arsenal’s finishing let them down shortly after the 4th goal with Wilshere and Giroud wasting good chances . Tottenham kept chasing the game, and they found some hope when Bale’s brilliant shot from outside the box hit the bottom right corner. As part of their recent lack of confidence and partially due to the negative vibe of the crowd, Arsenal got nervous and allowed Spurs two more chances to cut the deficit to one. First, Bale was played in by Dempsey, but instead of squaring the ball to Defoe at the far post, the Welshman opted for a shot at goal and missed the target. Then, Szczesny failed to make a catch in a corner, but Defoe could not capitalize.
Arsene Wenger reacted to Tottenham’s chasing of the game by taking off Wilshere (who had an excellent game) and sending in Ramsey to add some freshness into Arsenal’s midfield. Podolski was also replaced by Andre Santos on the left for better ball retention and control. The history of North London derbies are packed with impossible comebacks, and Arsenal’s fragility at the back meant that the crowd and the team were not entirely comfortable with their lead. However, in the last 10 minutes Arsenal closed the game with no further trouble, and added the gloss back to the scoreline in the extra time: The substitute Oxlade-Chamberlain broke from the right and found the unmarked Walcott inside the area who drilled his shot past Lloris.
Neutrals (and sworn Arsenal enemies) might point out to Spurs’ better start until the Adebayor red card and Arsenal’s nervousness against a 10-man Spurs in the last 20 minutes. This selective evaluation would ignore Arsenal’s electric-pace attacking in the last 25 minutes of the first half, when they truly cut Spurs into pieces. We will never know what could have happened if Adebayor stayed on the pitch, but given that he did not, this was by no means a close game. Indeed, Arsene Wenger reacted to Villas-Boas’s delusional claim that his team controlled the game from the first minute to the last with some amusement when he said “If our opponents are in control from the first to the last minute and we win 5-2, I don’t mind too much.” Me neither!