I guess it was almost inevitable that with so many, myself included (https://football-nerd.org/2017/11/17/football-nerd-weekly-ramblings-despite-what-the-managers-tell-us-the-balance-of-power-has-shifted-in-the-north-london-derby/), anticipating Tottenham to really make a statement, to lay down a marker to their progress and aspirations in last weekend’s North London Derby; that Arsenal would conjure up, as they have proven capable of from time to time, one of those largely unexpected resilient and structured performances to secure the derby bragging rights, at least until the two teams meet again at Wembley in February.
The seeming predictability of the outcome of the game does however raise significant questions about both teams and their aspirations over and above this one result. Tottenham are developing an unwanted track record, and increasing reputation, for being found wanting when things start to get really serious. While there has been undoubted progress since Mauricio Pochettino took up the managerial reins, the failure to see out the campaign and secure the title in 2015/16, combined with an abysmal record in away games against the bigger sides, having won just once in seventeen away games against the recognized top six, suggests a mental block when the spotlight is on them and the pressure ramped up.
There were certainly mitigating factors for Spurs with their two best players, Harry Kane and Dele Alli, off the pace, the former clearly not fully fit; as well as key defensive anchor Toby Alderweireld being ruled out until the new year. Yet in a game that they should have been truly up for, Tottenham were sluggish from the start and allowed their bitter rivals to grasp the initiative all too easily. Once again it felt as though being the clear favourites inhibited a team that, as demonstrated by the recent performance against Real Madrid, plainly prefers to operate under the radar. It certainly feels as if this is something that needs to be addressed and overcome if Pochettino’s young side are ever going to truly fulfil their undoubted potential.
Arsenal on the other hand, did what they have done more than a few times recently when they have been written off, putting in a disciplined, organised display with an intensity to their pressing that has been conspicuous by its absence all too frequently in recent times. Arsène Wenger’s team, just as they did in the 3-0 dismantling of Antonio Conte’s Chelsea last autumn and in their FA Cup semi-final and final victories, gave glimpses of what they are truly capable of, hell even Özil and Sanchez were disciplined and carried out their defensive duties effectively! All of which begs the question of why this level of performance is produced all too rarely?
It is unlikely that Arsenal’s victory, or Spurs defeat for that matter, will impact majorly on the Premier League title race; particularly given Manchester City’s ongoing record-breaking start to the campaign, in which they have won eleven out of their opening twelve games, emulating Roberto Mancini’s 2011/12 title winners. It seems now that for the majority of pundits the main question isn’t whether City will go on to claim their third title since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover and transformation of the club, but whether they can emulate Arsenal’s Invincibles of 2003/04 by going the whole season unbeaten?
Speaking on Match of the Day on Saturday night, former Manchester United and Everton defender Phil Neville affirmed what is becoming an increasing theme across the media stating: ‘I think they can go all season undefeated …they’re that good of a team and I can’t see how this moment in time anyone can take points off them.’
As impressive as Manchester City have been so far, there were fleeting indications of a recurring defensive vulnerability in their game at the King Power Stadium on Saturday. Vincent Kompany could, and probably should, have been shown a red card two minutes into the match, for scything down Jamie Vardy and denying a clear goalscoring opportunity. City then lost much-improved and now key defender, John Stones, to a hamstring injury that could rule him out for the majority of the notoriously hectic festive period.
As impressive as City are going forward, with the quite frankly frightening firepower they have at their disposal, there remains a question mark over their defensive stability. Ever since taking over at Barcelona in his first managerial role, Guardiola’s approach to defence has been to dominate possession and recover it as soon as it is lost, as in his own words he felt his team was: ‘a horrible team without the ball’; if another Premier League team can secure sufficient possession to start to ask questions of the City defence then they may lose some of their current air of invincibility.
Most would look at the looming trip to Old Trafford in mid-December and a clash with their closest pursuers in the title race, as a match that provides the potential to halt City’s run. Certainly Jose Mourinho, Guardiola’s self-appointed nemesis, would love nothing better than to deny his avowed rival the glory of a landmark season. However, the oft-cited strength of the Premier League is its competitiveness and unpredictability, and in reality if Manchester City are to be denied the glory of an unbeaten campaign defeat is just as likely to come when least expected. Perhaps City should beware the proverbial ‘wet evening in Stoke’ as the cliché goes.