Arsenal were staring into the abyss when, an hour before the north London derby was due to kick-off, it emerged that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had been dropped to the bench for another indiscretion involving lateness.
The build-up to the derby is always a nervy affair, even with the prospect of a full-strength XI taking the field, so news of the captain’s omission was unwelcome and untimely and, if I’m honest, had me fearing the worst. If dropping the captain affected me, what would it do to the squad or the opposition?
Imagine my satisfaction, then, when Jose Mourinho took that advantage and utterly squandered it.
Instead of firing up his in-form side to go out there and blitz an Arsenal side that has been inconsistent and prone to errors of late, he chose to sit off, to stand back and do nothing. He chose caution, inexplicable levels of caution, for a game that was there to be won.
The shackles on his side were obvious from the first whistle. Our defence, which has made several costly errors under pressure, was unmolested and allowed to pass the ball around without so much as a token press. David Luiz, a man renowned for his ability to play a long ball, was allowed to do just that. It was as baffling as it was amusing.
Mikel Arteta had probably set up his side to come out swinging in any event but their efforts were made doubly-effective by the timidity of the opposition. Frankly, we ran the show for 75 minutes, attacking at will, dominating the midfield, recovering the loose balls, winning our tackles. It was pure fortune on Tottenham’s part that they emerged from the first half on terms when they should have been two goals down at least.
I didn’t think we would be as good again in the second period but, for large chunks of it, we simply were. Far from being phased by the late omission of Auba, the team seemed galvanized in adversity, a perfect reflection of the aggression and control the manager demands. They were as excellent as Spurs were pathetic.
The last 15 minutes, I am happy to declare a nervy aberration for now. It’s obviously concerning that, with a goal and man advantage, we were so utterly panic-striken that it seemed as if we were playing with a man short. In those sorts of situations, we should have passed the hitherto lifeless visitors into oblivion but, in true Arsenal fashion, we gifted them chance after chance to grab the goal their play never warranted.
If the manager speaks to his players about anything today, I hope it is about decision-making and clarity because both have been badly lacking of late. The derby is the derby, though, and perhaps we can understand a little if there are extra nerves on the occasion and riskier passes are eschewed in favour of lumping it long into space.
With more and bigger games to come in the weeks and months ahead, however, the manager must find a way to get a grip on his players’ talent for self-immolation because it will continue to prove costly. There are only so many times you can play with fire.
From the mouth of the abyss, though, Arsenal eventually pulled back and, like Gerard Butler’s Leonidis, kicked Spurs howling into the depths instead. Here’s to them snatching disaster from the jaws of opportunity.