More than anything, Arsenal needed toughness and bravery in the North London derby. Arsene Wenger changed his tactics to fit a team out to bite on counter attacks and then sit back and defend. The plan worked well with Tomas Rosicky providing the goal and eventual winner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Santi Cazorla did a great job in the middle of the pitch and Mesut Ozil played his part by not being available, which actually helped his team.
It’s cruel blaming Ozil for every single problem Arsenal have. There have been more issues that have dropped Arsenal from the top spot, or caused them to crash out early in the Champions League once more. But there’s no denying the poor form from the German in 2014, and being forced not to pick him to start was the start of Wenger winning yet another North London derby.
Mikel Arteta was the anchor, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Santi Cazrola sat in front while Tomas Rosicky and Lukas Podolski played on the wings, ready to turn the 4-1-4-1 into a 4-3-3 when necessary. Olivier Giroud? His job was to defend and work hard. He wasn’t on the pitch to be an actual striker waiting for balls. Arsenal had only 41% possession, a season low for them in the Premier League, but the plan and adjustments, something many said Wenger doesn’t know how to do, worked perfectly.
This might have been the anti-Arsenal display, but it got them a win they couldn’t afford to let slip by. Rosicky provided a perfect finish to a counter attack, and from there it was about the defensive job done by all 11 players. Tottenham did get a few chances, but they were only allowed after two mistakes by Wojciech Szczesny, blocked wonderfully by his defense. Laurent Koscileny, above everyone else, put in the kind of performances people love to call heroic. I sometimes feel uncomfortable with attaching that kind of label to a footballer, but you can’t ask more from a centre back than what Koscielny provided in a match that put a lot of pressure on him and Per Mertesacker, pressed back to their goal for almost the entire 90 minutes.
Arsenal seem like the weakest link in this four-horse title race, with Chelsea and Manchester City as the favorites, Liverpool as something of outsiders and Arsenal like a team that looked good early on but their lack of depth and toughness when it comes to the big matches (although there are a couple of them left) got the best of them. But Wenger showed something different against Tottenham. Spurs might not be elite, but a derby, at White Hart Lane, seems like a classic trap for Arsenal to fall into. Wenger, maybe for the first time this season, ignored his philosophy and instincts, and went with a practical, slightly cynical lineup. It might not have been “classic” Arsenal football or approach, but it got the job done, and if Arsenal do win a championship this season, it’ll be because Wenger was finally willing to give up on playing the naive team each and every time.