Arsenal’s record against José Mourinho is pretty abysmal even at the best of times. The Gunners have only managed two wins against the former Chelsea and Manchester United manager, one of which was a Community Shield match and have failed to win against the Portuguese maestro since Arsène Wenger departed.
Given the historic loathing of Mourinho from Arsenal fans and Mourinho’s general antipathy towards Arsenal, his being the manager of Tottenham certainly adds a certain spice to a fixture already bursting with flavour.
Though while the Arsenal/Tottenham rivalry is a “no additional flavours or preservatives” kind of recipe, Arsenal already entered the match with an extra bit of spice, by deciding to leave captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the bench. The Gabonese forward was left out of the starting eleven owing to “disciplinary issues” which seemed to hand the advantage to the visitors already.
However, nothing could have been further from the truth. Right from the off, Arsenal attacked relentlessly and Tottenhams imply couldn’t contain them. Youngster Emile Smith Rowe had the game’s best chance up to that point with a shot which cannoned off the crossbar, Arsenal were getting close.
However, as is often par-for-the-course when playing a José Mourinho side, Arsenal dominated possession, however, it was Tottenham who took the lead. A cross from Gareth Bale over to former-Real Madrid teammate Sergio Reguilón allowed Tottenham to finally get the ball into the Arsenal penalty area. Squeezed into Lucas Moura, the Brazilian was able to thread the ball over to Érik Lamela, who’s cheeky rabona found its way into the back of the net.
It has to be said, however begrudgingly, that it was easily one of the best goals ever scored in a North London Derby, the sheer cheek and impudence of the finish was worthy of any lead.
However, Arsenal were not going to take that lying down and continued to create chances, Cédric Soares even rattling the post not long after.
Then, just before the stroke of half-time, Emile Smith Rowe found himself free as a bird down the Tottenham right-hand channel and was able to cross the ball to Martin Ødegaard, fresh off his spectacular finish against Olympiacos on Thursday, who’s deflected shot bounced into the net and drew Arsenal level. No more, no less than they merited.
Half-time was a chance for everyone to recharge their batteries and to tweak the strategy a little bit; this led to Bukayo Saka being replaced by Nicolas Pépé and the change made the difference Arsenal needed.
Though Pépé’s early involvements were fairly minimal, the Ivorian soon pounced on a loose ball from Hugo Lloris and threaded through an inch-perfect ball to Alexandre Lacazette, who controlled the ball perfectly, wildly missed his kick and was brought down by Davinson Sánchez for a penalty.
For many, the penalty seemed harsh, especially since the ball had already gone, however, Sánchez had clattered Lacazette in the most clumsy manner possible and VAR rightly did not overturn the decision.
Lacazette stepped up and calmly slotted the ball to give Arsenal a well-deserved lead, showing that he can so often be counted on as a player for the big occasions.
But the controversy was far from over. Goalscorer Érik Lamela, already on a yellow card, brought his arm up when running and hit Kieran Tierney in the face, which gave Michael Oliver no choice but to dismiss the Argentine.
The game shifted from this point on. Despite Tottenham having Lamela dismissed, it was Arsenal who looked that they had the man disadvantage and they struggled to contain Tottenham further. Harry Kane, so often the thorn in the side of Arsenal, had the ball in the back of the net following an unnecessary free-kick, however, the Tottenham captain was offside. Kane popped up later with a superb free-kick which rattled the post, which prompted Gabriel Magalhães to spectacularly head out Davinson Sánchez’ scuffed shot.
The final-whistle blew and Arsenal seemed to be the more grateful of the two sides, given how tough Tottenham had made the final fifteen minutes.
It was a fantastic performance from Arsenal nevertheless. Though Mourinho’s tactics did little to help Tottenham and seemed to give Arsenal a lot more time and space than was necessary, Arsenal still dominated very well.
Arsenal’s left-hand side was utterly unstoppable on the day. Gareth Bale’s reticence to track back, coupled with Matt Doherty’s seeming ill-fit for a back-four, granted Kieran Tierney and Emile Smith Rowe free reign to cause havoc.
Tierney in particular had a spectacular game, keeping Bale out of the match at all times and stopping Doherty from getting too close either. Smith Rowe seemed to benefit from Tierney’s defensive and attacking resilience and was given the chance to create easily.
It was yet another great performance from Martin Ødegaard as well. The Norwegian showed his quality with the number of chances he created and the space he opened up, however, it was his workrate that impressed most. There was not a single ball on the pitch that Ødegaard was not running for and if he missed it, he would simply chase the next one. His performance was truly the catalyst Arsenal needed.
It was another good performance from Gabriel Magalhães as well. The Brazilian struggled in Arsenal’s early season defeat to Tottenham in December, but seemed to recover well today, especially with his goal-line clearance.
The absence of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is sure to grab the headlines, but Arteta will feel vindicated in his decision to drop the striker. No player is above the club and Arteta knew that a win would only strengthen his stock that it was the correct call. No doubt Aubameyang will feel aggrieved at missing such a crucial match and will likely be back in the starting eleven for the next match, but Arteta seemed to be the one in the right on the day.
Arsenal now face a return leg fixture against Olympiacos before a trip to the London Stadium to face-off against West Ham, but a win over Tottenham in the North London Derby and a win over José Mourinho will have made it a much nicer prospect.
1.) Bernd Leno
17.) Cédric Soares
23.) David Luiz
6.) Gabriel Magalhães
3.) Kieran Tierney
34.) Granit Xhaka
18.) Thomas Partey
7.) Bukayo Saka (Pépé 45’)
11.) Martin Ødegaard
32.) Emile Smith Rowe (Willian 77’)
9.) Alexandre Lacazette (c) (Elneny 88’)
33.) Maty Ryan
16.) Rob Holding
21.) Calum Chambers
2.) Héctor Bellerín
25.) Mohamed Elneny
8.) Dani Ceballos
19.) Nicolas Pépé
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Tottenham Hotspur team:
1.) Hugo Lloris
2.) Matt Doherty
6.) Davinson Sánchez
4.) Toby Alderweireld
3.) Sergio Reguillón
5.) Pierre-Emile Højberg
28.) Tanguy Ndombele (Alli 62’)
27.) Lucas Moura
9.) Gareth Bale (Sissoko 57’)
7.) Heung-Min Son (Lamela 19’ 🔴)
10.) Harry Kane (c)
Tottenham Hotspur subs:
12.) Joe Hart
15.) Eric Dier
24.) Serge Aurier
33.) Ben Davies
17.) Moussa Sissoko
8.) Harry Winks
20.) Dele Alli
11.) Érik Lamela
45.) Carlos Vinícius