Frustrating derby draw as Arsenal miss the chance to go top

A draw in the North London derby always feels like a defeat in any other game. Despite all the hype about Tottenham as title challengers from some pundits, and even though Spurs are unbeaten in the league, they were there for the taking at the Emirates on Sunday. When Arsenal got their act together, they opened up the visitors, but for the majority of the game, the Gunners looked disappointingly off-the-pace. 
The 1-1 draw was a fair result as both teams hit the woodwork and it didn’t feel like Arsenal did enough to win the game.
As against Middlesbrough in the last home league game, Arsenal missed Santi Cazorla in midfield. The little Spaniard has a huge impact on Arsenal’s ability to control the tempo of a match, and against Spurs, while Francis Coquelin and Granit Xhaka didn’t play badly, they can’t control a game in the way Cazorla does. Especially in the opening stages, Arsenal struggled to string passes together as often players didn’t have many options to pass to when in possession, something Cazorla does superbly to keep play ticking over.
The other issue was that the ball always seemed to be bouncing Tottenham’s way. It felt like after almost every header or tackle, there was a white shirt to pick up the pieces and keep some pressure on the hosts. Along with the early midday kick off and Arsenal’s inability to get much possession in Spurs’ final third, it felt like quite a subdued start by the standards of North London derbies. With Tottenham playing three central defenders and with a half-fit Harry Kane up front, they didn’t threaten the Arsenal goal too often in the opening exchanges, but they were in control of the tempo. 
When Arsenal finally woke up, they finished the first half strongly with some quicker and more incisive football. Alex Iwobi should have scored after a flowing move involving Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, before Ozil fired an awkward half-volley wide after a thunderous strike from Theo Walcott crashed back off the post.
The increased pressure told just before the break as a brilliant Ozil free-kick from the right was headed into his own net by Kevin Wimmer. It was a poor piece of defending to score the own-goal, but it was forced by the quality of the cross into the box from Ozil.
Having taken the lead, it was then immensely frustrating to see Arsenal start the second half in a similar vain to the first. It seemed risky to sit deeper and just hold on to the one goal lead, and Arsenal didn’t press the opposition with the intensity that had brought success in the first period. It allowed Spurs to settle back into the game, and it cost Arsenal when Dembele went over from a challenge by Koscielny and Harry Kane converted the subsequent penalty. 
Spurs came closest to winning the game as a whipped free-kick from Christian Eriksen on the left went past everyone in the box and clipped the outside of the post. For Arsenal, there were a few half-openings but no-one could properly test Hugo Lloris. 
It wasn’t without the opportunities to create chances though as Arsenal’s final ball went slightly awry in the second half, especially from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain when he entered the fray with 20 minutes to go. He’s been in good form, but as someone who needs to be confident to play well, I hope he hasn’t played himself out-of-form with a pretty woeful appearance off the bench. His crossing was wayward, he gave away some cheap free-kicks and couldn’t link up well with those around him, in stark contrast to a good few weeks beforehand. 
Of the other players that came off the bench, Aaron Ramsey did alright and Olivier Giroud won a few knockdowns, but the intensity couldn’t be maintained by the subs to have a grandstand finish to the game. 
Giroud had replaced Alex Iwobi, who for one of the first times in his short Arsenal first-team career, looked like the kid in the team. He was unusually hesitant at times on the ball and didn’t offer Nacho Monreal much protection down the left wing. There was also a great chance that he spurned in the first half with a weak shot at Lloris. He’s had a great impact on the team since he broke into the side last season, but there are signs that he might need to be rotated a bit more to keep him fresh. After his performance on Sunday, I’d be surprised if Iwobi lines-up at Old Trafford in a couple of weeks time. 
Overall, everyone seemed a bit panicked for Arsenal on Sunday. There wasn’t the calmness in key moments that we’ve seen from the team this season. Without playing brilliantly, Arsenal still didn’t lose, but it’s a shame that it is now two weeks before the next game as I suspect there are a few regrets for the players that they want to put right sooner rather than later. 
The draw also means Arsenal miss out on top spot for the moment, sitting two points behind Liverpool. It is already a ridiculously competitive season, so the derby draw isn’t a fatal result for the Gunners, just frustrating that they couldn’t put away an average Tottenham team. 

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Gibbs rescues recovering Gunners

After losing 5-1 to Bayern Munich, a huge game like the North London derby wouldn’t have been high on the list of options if Arsene Wenger was able to choose the following match. With numerous players still out with injuries, Arsenal stuttered and struggled for fluency at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday, and at 1-0 down with no real attacking options on the bench, things were looking a bit grim. That was until Kieran Gibbs emerged as the unlikely hero, rescuing a point with an equaliser.
I’m sure Arsenal will be honest with themselves and admit that the performance wasn’t good. I don’t think it was for a lack of effort, and some of the challenges from Coquelin and Flamini were pretty meaty, but Tottenham played well and Gunners looked slightly anxious at times, with the the midweek thrashing still in the back of the players’ minds. That Arsenal were wounded (mentally and physically as a team with the lack of options) and still found the resources to fightback and almost win the game is to the players’ credit and demonstrated the determination of this team to really go for the Premier League this season. 
I’ve got the impression that a lot of pundits and writers about the game have been a bit over-the-top in proclaiming that the 1-1 draw was evidence of Tottenham closing the gap on the Gunners in North London. There’s no doubting that Spurs played well on Sunday and have had a solid start to the season with just the one defeat in the league, but it seems like people have forgotten the good start Arsenal have made to the season. This was a team on Sunday without several key components and others who looked fatigued because of not getting a break due to limited options. I think it says a lot that Spurs played so well and Arsenal played poorly, yet the Gunners scrapped out a draw and created a few big chances with Giroud hitting the bar and heading inches wide to have possibly won the game.
Arsenal’s main problems came from Tottenham pressuring the Gunners high up the pitch, as Bayern Munich had done in the previous midweek. With Santi Cazorla suffering from a mysterious illness, and he really did look unwell in that first half, Arsenal’s options were limited when passing the ball out from the back four. Spurs were also able to play a high defensive line because of Olivier Giroud not offering the pace threat up front for Arsenal. Had one of Walcott, Welbeck or Oxlade-Chamberlain been available, it could have been a different story. That’s not a criticism of Olivier Giroud, the style of opposition just didn’t suit his style of game.
Tottenham deservedly took the lead on the basis of Arsenal not creating chances themselves in the first half. Laurent Koscielny made a mistake trying to play offside and got punished. The Gunners also relied on Petr Cech to keep the score down.
There was a frantic period in the second half where the play was intense, and felt like a full-blooded derby but neither team was able to exert much control on proceedings. Without much happening from open play, Arsenal looked most dangerous from set-pieces as Mesut Ozil produced some excellent deliveries into the box. An in-form Olivier Giroud was unlucky to hit the bar following a free-kick but he should have scored from six yards out following a corner.
Mesut Ozil, despite getting harried and put under a lot of pressure when he was on the ball, stood out again as the man most likely to make something happen for the Gunners. Whereas these sorts of matches, especially when there wasn’t much going on around him in the team, have bypassed the German in the past. It was a sign of growing confidence in the league that he looked determined to be the one to make the difference. Sure enough, it was his superb deep cross that gave substitute Kieran Gibbs the opportunity to force the ball over the line and past Hugo Lloris for the equaliser.
There was a bit of bemusement when Gibbs came on for Joel Campbell with Arsenal chasing the game, but Arsene Wenger didn’t really have any other options to change things around. It is to Gibbs’ immense credit that he got into the position at the back post to meet Ozil’s cross and get the ball into the net almost through a sheer force of will.
That summed up how Arsenal got the draw. Things weren’t going right for them, they were recovering from a midweek pasting and there were loads of players injured, but they were just not going to lose the game, however well Spurs might have played. That bloody mindedness will serve Arsenal well in the rest of the season and gives me hope that this team is meant of stern stuff.
Arsenal are still in recovery mode, so the international break comes at a decent time for the Gunners, providing those going away to play for their countries return unscathed. It was frustrating to see Arsenal not find top form in the derby and go to the top of the table outright, but at the moment it feels more like a point won than two points lost. Besides, Arsenal have still won more North London derbies than Tottenham this year (cheers Flam!). 

Spurs torched by the Flame

It does feel as if Arsenal have experienced a bit of the worst and a bit of best that sport has to offer over the last few games. I, like many other fans, got extremely angry and frustrated watching the defeats to Dinamo Zagreb and Chelsea, with my displeasure being directed at the team, the officials and opposition. There was a sense that Arsenal had been cheated out of the game at Stamford Bridge, a view backed up by subsequent FA actions for Diego Costa and Gabriel, and the club was in need of a bit of a lift.
No-one could ever have seriously predicted that said lift would be provided by Mathieu Flamini. Despite being a man of some excellent nicknames (the Flame, Flam, the Corsican), none of which that I can take credit for, and being a man who has always given his all when wearing the red and white, Mathieu Flamini hasn’t been particularly popular with supporters in the last year or so. While it is very true that he has his limitations, it’s never for a lack of effort or passion when playing for the Arsenal that has led to some indifferent performances from the Frenchman.
But this is one of the great things about sport that keeps us coming back. There can be a saturation of media coverage and analysis, but no-one can ever guarantee what will happen, and so Mathieu Flamini proved by becoming Ian Wright and Dennis Bergkamp in the same evening and winning Arsenal a North London derby.
Too often in football, partly fuelled by the hyped-up transfer market, there is a focus on what a player can’t do, rather than what they can do. On derby day at the Lane, Mathieu Flamini managed to make people forget what he can’t do with a spirited performance in his first game of the season, and realigned views on what he is capable of as a player.
In a Capital One Cup game that lacked a bit of cohesion because of the changes made by both sides, Flamini led the way with the drive and the determination you need when playing against Tottenham. When Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s first half shot was parried by Michel Vorm, Flamini was the surprise player who’d committed to chasing the shot in case of the ball coming back out, and he was rewarded with a left footed finish into the roof of the net.
Having made the point that sport remains unpredictable, there’s still plenty of occurrences that aren’t surprising. Moments after scoring, Flamini charged into Danny Rose and picked up a yellow card.
The Gunners did find themselves pinned back a bit after half-time as Tottenham looked to repeat the comeback victory they achieved in the most recent league meeting between the teams last season. Spurs got too much joy down Arsenal’s righ-hand side as Mathieu Debuchy struggled, and for a period in the second half, it felt as if Arsenal couldn’t keep hold of possession. The somewhat inevitable equaliser came when Calum Chambers could only divert a low cross past David Ospina.
At that stage, there only looked like one team who’d go on to win the match, and that team wasn’t Arsenal. Kieran Gibbs made a heroic goal-line clearance to deny Kane, and that moment seemed to spark Arsnal into life again. The introduction of Alexis into the fray gave the Gunners more of an outlet on the counter-attack, Aaron Ramsey was able to get on the ball a bit more and Arsenal looked to expose the pretty useless Fazio in the Spurs defence.
To avoid extra time, the match still needed someone to take responsibility and make the difference in the game. Step forward the Flame to set quite an average derby alight. As the ball dropped out of the North London sky 25 yards out from Tottenham’s goal with 12 minutes to go, it was the sort of inviting opportunity that usually ends with a ball volleyed miles back into the stands. Not if your name is Mathieu Flamini though. The Frenchman timed his approach perfectly and lashed a sweet volley into the bottom corner. The celebrations were wild after the initial shock of not believing that Mathieu Flamini had indeed just scored a beaut of a volley from outside the box.
For the remainder of the match, Arsenal were disciplined and sensible, and could have snatched a third goal on the break. Overall, there were plenty of positive performances for Arsene Wenger to take away from the game. After the suspect defensive showing in Zagreb, with the exception of the rusty Mathieu Debuchy, Arsenal’s back four looked pretty good with Kieran Gibbs particularly impressing. Per Mertesacker was a calming influence when Spurs built up a head of steam in the second half and, own goal aside, Calum Chambers looked much more assured than he did earlier in the season. 
But it was Mathieu Flamini’s night. He probably won’t get a game at the weekend and may still leave the club in the not too distant future, but he should now be a genuine cult hero. There haven’t been many better winning goals in a North London derby at a White Hart Lane. Mathieu Flamini, I salute you.