To call yesterday’s North London Derby defeat to Spurs hard to take would be an understatement of epic proportions.
Two goals up after great goals by Samir Nasri and Marouane Chamakh, we looked the only side likely to win the game as the teams went into the rooms at half-time. But Spurs turned the game around completely, scoring three second-half goals including a late winner by Younes Kaboul to win their second league derby in a row.
It was our third home defeat in five games, our first home North London Derby defeat in seventeen years and a incredibly difficult pill to swallow.
What made the turnaround so difficult to comprehend was that in the opening 45 minutes we were almost perfect. We created numerous opportunities, taking two of them and completely controlled the pace and tempo of the game. Lukasz Fabianski was called up just once early on, saving comfortably from a Gareth Bale flick as we totally outclassed Spurs.
Arsene Wenger appeared to have his tactics right — the selection of Denilson over Jack Wilshere to win the second ball from headers was inspired — and Cesc Fabregas lead the team with a fine captain’s performance. Andrey Arshavin was as energetic as he has been this season, Bacary Sagna completely nullified the threat of Bale down the left while our control of possession meant Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart’s impact was non-existent.
When I saw our boys playing keep-ball in the final ten minutes of the half, seemingly conserving energy and ensuring we went into the second-half with our two-goal advantage in tact, I was utterly convinced that we would win the game.
But somehow it all went wrong.
There is no doubting that the first two Spurs goals had an element of good fortune about them. Our defending for the first was absolutely terrible — Laurent Koscielny should never have jumped in on Jermain Defoe with such minimal cover behind him — while the second came via a daft handball by the previously perfect Fabregas. Bale and van der Vaart capitalised and by the 67th minute the game was level.
While it is easy to be disappointed with the poor concession of the goals what had me jumping out of my skin with frustration was the abject performance by the team between Bale and van der Vaart’s strikes. Instead of returning for the second half invigorated our team were just the opposite: slow, indecisive and seemingly out-of-sorts. I don’t for a second believe the team were arrogant or lacked team spirit in the second half — and I argued this point with a couple of friends after the game — but for whatever reason we were simply unable to lift the tempo of the game to re-stabilise after Spurs pulled their first goal back.
It seemed logical to me that with our team struggling for tempo Arsene Wenger would have been smart to bring on one of the two players who has the ability to raise the speed of our game from the middle of the park. I speak of course of Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky, two players who bring bundles of energy every time they play and who would surely have provided us with the injection to inspire the rest of the team.
As it was the manager waited until Spurs were level again and made a bizarre change, removing the excellent Chamakh with Robin van Persie, a player with undoubted quality but who nevertheless lacks the ability to quicken the tempo of the game.
To be fair to Wenger and our boys there was a lift in our intensity and effort and it should have brought with it at least one goal. Sebastien Squillaci had his strike ruled offside, Fabregas had one effort brilliantly saved by Gomes and whacked another over the bar while Koscielny wasted the best chance of them all, heading over from six yards out with the goal at his mercy. It was his second basic headed miss in a big game this season — the first coming early on against Chelsea — and as much as I believe he is a strong player he should have done better.
It might be easy to say this in hindsight but I think the manager made an error in not maintaining Johan Djourou in the starting team against Spurs. The Swiss man has been playing well of late, culminating in a Man of the Match performance against Everton last weekend, and when you look at the concession of the first and third goals it’s easy to suggest that his height could have made a difference.
The silver lining on a terrible result was the news that Chelsea lost their second game in a row, this time away to Birmingham. The result leaves us just two points off the top of the table despite losing three of our last five home games and no matter what anyone says about us wasting the opportunity to go top of the table, it is a position I would have taken at the start of the season.
In terms of drawing conclusions from the loss to Spurs I will say only this: I felt our team spirit and attitude was right, as evidenced by a storming first-half performance, and I don’t believe that attitude dropped off in the second half. My take on the second-half was that the silly concession of the first goal sparked Tottenham into life and Wenger was culpable for failing to make the appropriate changes to swing the game back into our favour.
North London Derbies are consistently crazy games of football, where changes in energy and momentum happen quicker than the players can adjust, and yet again this proved the case. Spurs are arguably the most hot-cold team in the Premiership and when they get a sniff, like they did after the first goal, it was always going to be a difficult second-half.
A bitter blow for sure. But we will fight on.
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