07 February 2015

Post-NLD: of forests and trees, battles and wars...

By many standards, this might have been our worst outing of the current campaign. It was a North London Derby, after all, and we had a chance to climb to third with a win. Instead, we lost, sinking to sixth while Spurs climb (briefly) to third. Bragging rights, banter, and boasting are all theirs for the foreseeable future. It will come as cold-comfort to point out that we can't meet each other in the FA Cup because they've been knocked out; even if we do defend our title, they can now chant that North London is White. The best we could do was a 1-1 draw back in late September, and the 2-1 scoreline at White Hart Lane seems to flatter us a great deal. We were anemic, disinterested, and overmatched for long stretches if not the entire match, so much so that it's tempting to feel that this match, rather than any of the five that preceded it, rings a death-knell on our hopes. Then again...

Simmer down, now. Still some football to be played...
We were, to turn to an old phrase, shambolic. We couldn't do anything right. Even our goal seemed to come through dumb luck rather than skill or strategy. Giroud could only squib a weak shot in the general direction of goal, which Mesut "I was only offside at the molecular level" Özil side-footed home. 0-1 to the Arsenal. However, from there, it all went to pieces. Our passes went awry. Our clearances too often went straight to a Spurs player, and dribbling out turned out even worse. In particular, Mason and Bentaleb were pressing up the pitch aggressively and successfully, and we seemed at a loss for how to cope. The lacklustre play of Cazorla and Ramsey compounded this, as neither had the impact we needed. In particular, Ramsey seemed well off his game. To call him "invisible" might be wishful thinking; "invisible" might imply that we never noticed him. All too often, we noticed him making mistakes.

It's not that he was alone in this. Hector Bellerín reminded us that he's only 19 while making Danny Rose look like the second coming of Gareth Bale. Mertesacker showed us that milk does indeed turn faster than him as the pace of Spurs' attack frequently forced him into poor decisions (chesting the ball as a pass?) or poor execution. Across the starting eleven, though, there was an alarming lack of urgency or intensity for a fixture that held so much, strategically or symbolically. It seemed for long stretches like we were playing a man down. Credit Spurs for their drive and determination: they clearly wanted this more than we did and seemed far-better prepared than we were. It seemed that they had learned a bit from our recent results and knew that we could concede possession, hit on counters, and then sit back and defend. To address this, they added an element that previous opponents hadn't: high pressing. Those previous opponents had seemed to focus on our older habits of keeping the ball and developing our attacks more methodically (read: slowly), and they should drop back after losing possession. Not Tottenham. When they lost possession, they harassed and harried us until we obliged by coughing up the ball within two or three touches after winning it.

In short, we delivered a steaming pile of Tottenham ,er, I mean shite for 85 minutes or more while they capitalised on our capitulations. Only a number of stunning saves from Ospina, offside calls against Kane, and wasteful shooting kept this one close. By rights, we should have lost 3-1 or 4-1, if not more.

Those are the trees. Onto the forest.

We played our worst match of the campaign, and Tottenham played one of their best. To a man, including the manager, we were outmatched through and through. There's no denying that, and I'll even go so far as to admit that it reveals that the Spurs squad has a fair amount of talent. Doogie Howser minds the sticks about as well as anyone else in the Prem. James Williams Bottomtooth III is starting to transcend "purple patch" and ascend to "established striker." We needed our keeper to turn in a fair few crucial saves, and, what's more, we needed the assistant referee to wave his flag for a few more offside calls.

Despite being so thoroughly overrun and outplayed, though, we still emerged from a hostile, feverish pitch only five minutes away from securing a draw. I know that, against almost any other opponent, we might shrug our shoulders and accept it but feel it's a bitter pill to swallow against this particular opponent, but come now. Tottenham were desperate for a result and barely eked one out, while we turned in that abysmal performance. Still, with them at their best and us at something close to our worst, the scoreline was only 2-1. Yes, we now look up to them on the table, but only a point separates us. Pending Man U's visit to Upton Park, only three points stand between us and third place. In the meantime, it's unlikely that Spurs will continue to play to the level they showed on Saturday, just as it's unlikely that we'll slump to the level we showed.

There are now fourteen matchdays left. We've been to St. Mary's, Stamford Bridge, the Etihad, Goodison Park, the Britannia, Anfield, and White Hart Lane. Tottenham have yet to visit Anfield, Stamford Bridge, St. Mary's, the Britannia, or Goodison Park. We have players like Alexis, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Debuchy, and Wilshere coming back into the fold, and Gabriel is waiting in the wings. Tottenham are at full-strength. Ramsey and Cazorla will find their way in due-time.

In short, it was a perfect storm: our overconfidence and injuries against their doggedness and determination. So we came away holding the short end of the stick. Something tells me we'll be beating them with that same stick come the end of the season. The last time we lost 2-1 at White Hart Lane, there was talk of a "negative-spiral". That season turned out tolerably well, I seem to recall. That time through, they won the battle but lost the war. Let's see to it that history repeats itself this time through.