Arsenal rule North London as Emery gets team to fight in pulsating comeback vs. Spurs
LONDON -- Three points from the Emirates on Arsenal's 4-2 North London derby win over rivals Tottenham in the Premier League.
1. Arsenal win, recapture North London
Unai Emery's start to life at the Emirates has, by common consent, been broadly positive. Decent football, good results, fans and players on board with his vision. But it had lacked something -- some spark, some drama, some out-and-out thrills, a truly memorable game.
So how about an end-to-end, come-from-behind, utterly bonkers 4-2 North London victory to take Arsenal level with Tottenham in the Premier League table?
This was a tremendous match in a fixture that never fails to produce entertainment. It had everything -- great goals, controversial decisions, attacking brilliance, defensive mistakes and a late red card for Jan Vertonghen. It also had a succession of tactical switches, with both managers using at least three different systems. And, amongst the chaos, perhaps that's what Emery will take the most comfort from. His tactical tweaks helped win this game, and that's not something we said often about Arsenal recently under Arsene Wenger.
With Arsenal 2-1 down at half-time, Emery made two key changes. Aaron Ramsey and Alexandre Lacazette replaced the two inside-forwards, Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Arsenal went to a 3-4-1-2, the first time they've used that approach this season. They quickly had spells of pressure, most notably getting a couple of chances. First, after Rob Holding headed down a corner, Shkodran Mustafi's blast was cleared off the line by Dele Alli, and then Lucas Torreira's drive fizzed just wide. The crowd, having spent the last few minutes of the first half grumbling, were suddenly roaring. Arsenal were on top, the momentum had swung towards the home side.
The three second-half goals, in fairness, almost came out of nowhere. Emery's changes put Arsenal in charge but individuals won them this game. The equaliser came from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's brilliance. Bellerin curled a good ball into the channel and Ramsey stretched to take the ball inside to Aubameyang, the ball rolling perfectly for the Gabon striker's powerful, swept finish into the corner. Hugo Lloris, frozen to the spot, could only watch helplessly.
The crucial third goal came, significantly, thanks to the two half-time replacements combining. Ramsey won the ball high up the pitch from Juan Foyth, and played in Lacazette. With little support, he shot somewhat ambitiously from range -- and, thanks to a deflection off Eric Dier, the ball trickled home.
And now this was about momentum, and the scoring was completed by new boy Lucas Torreira, charging from midfield to get onto a Aubameyang through ball to blast home, before celebrating wildly with teammates and fans. This was the loudest this stadium has been for years, and the true start of Emery's reign at the Emirates.
2. Arsenal finally start fast, turn up the pressure on Spurs
So what about the first half?
Emery has spent the last couple of months complaining about Arsenal's sluggish start to matches, but there was no sign of that problem here. Arsenal started this derby at a tremendously high tempo, flying into challenges and repeatedly regaining possession high up the pitch.
Their integrated pressing was the type of thing Spurs have become renowned for, and their use of a front three worked effectively in closing down the away side's centre-backs and Eric Dier, who dropped back from midfield to act as a third defender. Tottenham struggled to play through the press, and conceded too many turnovers.
The formation battle was also interesting. Emery stuck with an unchanged lineup from last weekend's 2-1 victory at Bournemouth, which meant continuing with a 3-4-2-1 system. It also meant no place for Mesut Ozil, who was omitted from the 18-man squad entirely. Arsenal reported that he'd suffered from back spasms and was unfit for selection.
In response, Spurs also continued with their unusual shape from last weekend's 3-1 win over Chelsea, a midfield diamond. Dele Alli attempted to do to Torreira what he'd done to Jorginho last weekend, pushing up quickly and preventing him from playing forward. In truth, however, Arsenal weren't looking to play through the centre.
That's because Spurs' narrow diamond meant Arsenal had oceans of space down the flanks. Wing-backs Sead Kolasinac and Hector Bellerin had no direct opponents and were able to motor forward down the flanks, with Spurs' diamond having to shuttle across the pitch laterally as Torreira and Granit Xhaka changed the play well.
Bellerin has arguably been Arsenal's key attacking weapon this season but it was Kolasinac who created Arsenal's best moments from open play. With Iwobi dragging inside Serge Aurier, Kolasinac overlapped twice to create opportunities for Iwobi, which forced Hugo Lloris into a good save, and then Bellerin, which prompted a last-ditch Ben Davies block.
The opener, meanwhile, came from a surprise source. Jan Vertonghen handled a free kick for no obvious reason, allowing Aubameyang to score from the spot. Conceding silly fouls, however, was also an issue at the other end.
3. Son a bright spot for Spurs in losing effort
Spurs found themselves outplayed in the opening 25 minutes, and appeared to have only one serious attacking threat -- Son Heung-min. Just as he had done against Chelsea last weekend, the South Korean continually motored into the channels to provide speed in behind, which was more impressive against a three-man defence than it was against Chelsea's back four, where the full-backs allowed too much space in behind.
Son had Spurs' first two serious attempts of the game. First he broke into the inside-right channel from a Christian Eriksen flick, then he burst into the inside-left channel. Both shots were saved by Bernd Leno.
Son, though, enabled Spurs to turn this game around without having any further shots. First, he again broke into the left channel and tempted Sokratis into a futile challenge, wiping out his opponent and allowing Eriksen to arrow one of his typical flat, driven free kicks into the box. Dier got across the near post, and his glancing header bounced up awkwardly, Leno only able to deflect the ball into the roof of his net. Dier celebrated in front of the Arsenal supporters -- as Aubameyang had in front of the Spurs fans earlier -- which prompted an almighty squabble involving both sets of players, substitutes and stewards. This was a proper derby.
Amongst the madness, Mauricio Pochettino had switched to a 4-2-3-1 system, ensuring that Spurs were no longer so prone to switches of play towards Arsenal's wing-backs.
Arsenal didn't learn their lesson about not diving in. When Son again broke down the left, he checked back as if to shoot with his right foot. Rob Holding had charged across from the opposite side to challenge him, and Son collapsed to the ground. Contact seemed minimal, but Mike Dean pointed to the spot for the second time, in typically dramatic fashion. Harry Kane rarely misses penalties, and blasted this one home confidently to take his record against Arsenal to eight goals in eight games. In five minutes, Spurs had turned around the game.
Spurs' first opportunities of the second also came from set plays. After a Kolasinac foul, Eriksen bent a brilliant free kick into the box from the right that could have been nodded in by a couple of players, and then after a Xhaka foul, an inside-left position Kane curled a free kick towards the top corner, forcing Leno into a full-length save.
It was not to be for Spurs, though, as Arsenal's second-half performance ensured it was them and not Tottenham who would rule London this Sunday.