In the dying seconds of the north London derby, Lucas Torreira and Sead Kolasinac were rooted to the spot, leaning over with their hands on their knees, taking deep, exhausted breaths as the game went on around them. They were worn out.
Over the past few years, a lot of Arsenal players have looked like they could not wait for the final whistle, especially when things were going wrong. This time, the backdrop to weariness was not defeat, disappointment and disillusion. The Gunners had possession and were in control. The Emirates crowd were cheering ‘Ole’ to every pass. Torreira and Kolasinac had given everything. No one in a red shirt left anything on the pitch during the 4-2 victory over Tottenham. It felt like a significant moment in Unai Emery’s short tenure.
Is anyone missing Arsene Wenger? Probably only Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, two players who were overindulged by the Frenchman. As the post-Wenger world bites ever harder, those two underperforming superstars might wish they had put in a bigger shift for their former manager.
Arsenal had a sense of belief, a conviction that could not be denied even when adversity seemed to have reached the point of calamity. They played with energy and assurance in the first half-hour, but four mad minutes seemed to signal a return to the bad old ways. Spurs were a goal down and the deficit could have been larger, but Mauricio Pochettino’s side snatched a 2-1 advantage through a combination of avoidable Arsenal defensive mistakes and a refereeing error.
After Eric Dier’s equaliser, a scuffle erupted. When Tottenham took the lead, it appeared that all the fight had been knocked out of the home side. Yet, Emery’s team did not collapse.
Spurs came to bully their rivals. Harry Kane’s combination of physicality and gamecraft — his ability to win free-kicks out of nothing — made life awkward for the Arsenal back line. Dele Alli was cynically disruptive, chirping away at opponents, following through with challenges just rugged enough to unsettle the recipient of a barge but not obvious enough to draw the referee’s attention. Heung-min Son recognised that Rob Holding was in the same postcode and earned himself a contactless penalty. Tottenham were not at their best, but they are good at getting into the opposition’s mind. Arsenal were mentally robust and did not let themselves be swayed by the tactics.
For too long there has been dissention and division at the Emirates — on and off the pitch. Internecine squabbles have soured the mood in the stands. On Sunday, the stadium buzzed with togetherness and joy as Emery’s proactive, positive approach to the game put Spurs on the back foot. The excitement was contagious.
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The Arsenal revival is still a work in progress. The foul by Sokratis that led to Dier’s goal was boneheaded. The defending and goalkeeping from the subsequent free-kick were shambolic. There was no need for Holding to throw in a flying challenge in the area. It will take Emery time to cure the team’s propensity for self-destruction, yet Arsenal are heading in the right direction.
That route takes them to Old Trafford on Wednesday to face another of their nemeses, Jose Mourinho. The Manchester United manager has taken great pleasure in bullying the Gunners over the years and this is their chance for revenge. After nearly 15 years of sneering and mocking by the Portuguese, it would be sweet karma if Arsenal could land a decisive blow on Mourinho’s waning Premier League career. They still have some way to go before they can challenge Manchester City, but they could rip apart United if they play like they did yesterday.
There will be little sympathy, either, for the injured Sanchez, whose move from north London to Old Trafford has turned into a nightmare. He is not missed at the Emirates.
Ozil would do well to learn the lesson. The 30-year-old can have a future under Emery, but only if he is willing to put in the sort of effort his club-mates showed against Tottenham. Talent is no longer enough.
The German’s signature stance is a hands-on-hips expression of distain. The Arsenal manager prefers the exhausted but triumphant pose struck by Torreira and Kolasinac.More about: | Mesut Ozil | Lucas Torreira | Sead Kolasinac | north london derby