The international break is seldom a welcome sight in the world of the Premier League. A week of watching boring international fixtures take place as you inevitably see your team’s star player limp off injured can often feel like a week wasted, especially ahead of an all-important derby game.
For Arsenal fans, seeing Kieran Tierney subbed off for a head injury, Thomas Partey withdraw early from the Ghana squad, Martin Ødegaard start after missing the win over Brentford with a calf strain and doubt still cast over Oleksandr Zinchenko, many entered Saturday lunchtime’s coveted north London derby with apprehension.
In the end, they needn’t have worried as the team was announced at 11:30am and saw all four players in the squad, with three retaining their starting positions, almost immediately. What’s more, Tottenham confirmed the absences of both Lucas Moura and Dejan Kulusevski.
The recent buzz around the Emirates Stadium has been a direct response to the fast-paced attacking football and high-intensity press that Mikel Arteta’s side have been executing over the past few weeks, but the fans needed no help to hype the team up for the derby.
The stadium was buzzing from minute one as Tottenham got the game under way.
Arsenal started exceptionally well. Tottenham, a team so used to playing in transition and who are renowned for soaking up the pressure of their opponents, were penned in from the start and Arsenal began to pile chances high.
Gabriel Martinelli went very close early on, but prompted a good save from Hugo Lloris, as did Granit Xhaka.
Despite Arsenal’s fast-paced start, Tottenham were well-disciplined and did well to hold their low-block and keep Arsenal out.
It became evident very quickly that Arsenal would need something special if they were to take anything from the game.
One man stepped up to provide such a moment.
After good movement from the right-hand side, Benjamin White eventually fed the ball to Thomas Partey on the edge of the area, who unleashed a spectacular effort, which nestled in the top corner to give the home side a well-deserved lead.
Partey, who’s shots are often a danger to low-flying aircraft in whatever area Arsenal are playing in, stunned the visitors and his manager with a superb effort.
However, the usual north London derby script was still to be acted out.
After some dangerous play in their own area, Arsenal soon allowed the ball to fall to Richarlison, who was unceremoniously scythed down by the hot-headed Gabriel Magalhães for a Tottenham penalty.
As could have been expected, Harry Kane made no mistake in dispatching from the spot to draw the visitors level.
Its fair to say that Arsenal went in at half-time having been the better team, but there was no doubt that Antonio Conte was the happier of the two managers.
The second-half saw Tottenham grow in confidence.
Though they still relied heavily on the counter-attacking football they have played all season, they were causing Arsenal and Aaron Ramsdale some real problems.
However, in the end, Arsenal’s pressure proved too much for them to handle.
Good work on the right-hand side by Bukayo Saka allowed him to cut inside and rifle a shot at Hugo Lloris; the Frenchman spilled the shot and, after an ensuing tangle with Cristian Romero, could only watch on helplessly as Gabriel Jesus calmly tapped in the loose ball from the goal-line to restore Arsenal’s lead.
Tensions were now running high among the Tottenham ranks.
Arsenal’s fans were treating the players to a serenade of “Olé” whenever Arsenal passed the ball and Gabriel Martinelli was expertly weaving in and out of the opposition with each touch of the ball.
Eventually, this all proved too much for Emerson Royal, who stamped down, hard, on Martinelli’s achillies and brought him down. He was instantly dismissed by Anthony Taylor and Antonio Conte could only look on helplessly as his first-choice right wingback trudged off the field and down the tunnel.
But Tottenham’s misery was not complete yet.
Some quick movement around the Tottenham penalty area saw Martinelli slip in the resurgent Granit Xhaka, who calmly slotted home Arsenal’s well-deserved third.
The final whistle blowing some half an hour later, was a blessed relief to Tottenham, but Arsenal could have carried on all afternoon.
After the humiliation of not being able to take their chances away to Manchester United, Arsenal needed to prove themselves in a big way against a top six opposition and they did so expertly on Saturday.
Mikel Arteta’s side never looked out of control of the game and though they offered Tottenham a route back into the game at various points, they were by far the better side from start to finish.
There were, of course, some standout performances.
Benjamin White, William Saliba, Granit Xhaka and Gabriel Martinelli had all been instrumental in the team’s win and all exemplified the very best of Mikel Arteta’s philosophies.
For White, it is difficult to see Saliba take his position in the centre of defence, but the former-Brighton defender has acquitted himself magnificently at full-back this season. White provided excellent support for Saka and was a quiet hero on the day.
Saliba, meanwhile, seems to be going from strength to strength. Rumours abound that Saliba is the subject of interest from many around Europe and its easy to see why based on Saturday’s performance. Saliba kept Kane very quiet all game. That Kane scored is more down to Gabriel Magalhães’ rash tackling than Saliba’s poor defending. The Frenchman looked calm and composed on the ball and his nutmeg on Oliver Skipp at the end was appreciated by Arsenal fans everywhere.
Granit Xhaka was his usual stunning best. Thriving in his new box-to-box role, the Swiss international had another standout performance, winning almost all of his battles and was richly rewarded for his stunning performance with a well-taken goal to match.
For many defenders, there can be nothing as bad as seeing a young winger skip past you at any moment, but Tottenham must walk off the field with such an impression of young Gabriel Martinelli. Though the Brazilian did not cap off his performance with a goal, he was at the heart of Arsenal’s offensive threat and, simply put, Tottenham couldn’t handle it. A bizarre challenge by Emerson Royal (which caused him to be dismissed from the field of play) was the only way they could stop him.
This was a statement win from Arsenal.
Mikel Arteta’s side have cemented themselves at the top of the Premier League table (for now) and sit four points clear of Manchester City (though only for at least 24 hours).
While no one is beginning to consider a title tilt from Arteta’s men, there is certainly something about this new Arsenal team that is not to be written off.
The attention now turns to Thursday night’s UEFA Europa League tie at home to FK Bodø/Glimt and then Sunday’s visit of Liverpool.
1.) Aaron Ramsdale
4.) Benjamin White (Tomiyasu 89’)
12.) William Saliba
6.) Gabriel Magalhães
35.) Oleksandr Zinchenko (Tierney 73’)
5.) Thomas Partey (Lokonga 73’)
34.) Granit Xhaka
8.) Martin Ødegaard (c) (Vieira 80’)
7.) Bukayo Saka
11.) Gabriel Martinelli
9.) Gabriel Jesus (Nketiah 80’)
30.) Matt Turner
16.) Rob Holding
18.) Takehiro Tomiyasu
3.) Kieran Tierney
23.) Albert Sambi Lokonga
21.) Fábio Vieira
24.) Reiss Nelson
14.) Eddie Nketiah
Tottenham Hotspur team:
1.) Hugo Lloris (c)
12.) Emerson Royal 🔴
17.) Cristian Romero
15.) Eric Dier
34.) Clément Lenglet (Sánchez 71’)
14.) Ivan Perišić (Bissouma 71’)
5.) Pierre-Emile Højberg (Skipp 75’)
30.) Rodrigo Bentancur
9.) Richarlison (Sessegnon 71’)
7.) Heung-min Son (Doherty 71’)
10.) Harry Kane
Tottenham Hotspur subs:
20.) Fraser Forster
6.) Davinson Sánchez
19.) Ryan Sessegnon
24.) Djed Spence
2.) Matt Doherty
29.) Pape Matar Sarr
38.) Yves Bissouma
4.) Oliver Skipp
11.) Bryan Gil