It’s said that sport doesn’t build character, it reveals it. Whoever coined that expression could have had the North London Derby in mind. For Spurs fans, it demonstrated the application and sheer bloody-mindedness that many of us believed our team crucially lacked. It was a point won, hard won indeed as Arsenal pressed for a winner for what felt like hours but was only the final fifteen minutes. With a level of composure to match our effort, Tottenham could have won all three.
Hat-tip to two Spurs defenders, Younes Kaboul and Danny Rose, both of whom I have wondered about recently. Kaboul in particular appeared to have gradually succumbed to a series of injuries that left him stiff and wooden where once he was supple, creaking where once he was the quickest in the side. When he was recently made Spurs captain, many doubted his place in the starting line-up never mind as skipper but yesterday he proved manager Pochettino is a shrewd judge of character. He scored the winner when we last won at the Spacedome but the man of that match was William Gallas, and Kaboul followed his compatriot’s example with a similarly ferocious, driven performance.
As the crosses came in, Kaboul was solid and brave. One time, facing his goal and deep inside the area, he hooked a shoulder high ball away with his foot. His commitment quickly spread to the rest of the back four. Vertonghen was excellent in the second half, intercepting, blocking and tackling. A late improbable break could have pinched us a winner. We’d been pushed back so far, you felt as if the Belgian was just grateful to get out of our area, but after a great run his choice of final ball was poor, something that described many of our attacks throughout the afternoon. Suddenly his absence at the back put us in danger but we scrambled it away.
Naughton also did well, his place in this side a reward for a good display in the week against Forest. On the other flank, his full back partner Danny Rose did us and himself proud with his finest game for the club so far. Character, you want character? This is the man with fear in his eyes, or at least he was last season after a series of blunders including an horrendous error in the Cup NLD last season. Written off by many, replaced by new signing Ben Davies – not so. His determination to keep his place has improved his game no end and he was excellent throughout, especially in the first half when many of the Arsenal attacks came down our left and despite the pace and power of Oxlade Chamberlain.
Arsenal had the better of the early exchanges in an opening that was brisk rather than derby-style helter skelter. We started with a 4-2-3-1 with Mason in alongside Capoue for his debut. If Pochettino was preaching high tempo and pressing, his pleas went unheard. We were sluggish so the manager switched to four across the middle with Adebayor working the line up front and Chadli wandering around aimlessly. It looked as if we were conceding ground around the halfway, drawing up a defensive line 40 yards out in a departure from our usual approach.
It worked for the most part. Arsenal were less able to initiate their passing and movement in centrefield. In the second half particularly they were forced out wide, still dangerous but those crosses are easier to handle than the bewildering passing patterns they are capable of. In the second half Sanchez and Welbeck did not have a chance. Also, the back four dropped deeper, making it hard for the Gunners to get round the back.
Arsenal had most of the ball but we had some of the best opportunities in the game. On several occasions we were on the break but the man on the ball chose the wrong option. Lamela and Eriksen were both guilty. However we made three good chances, Manu just failing with two and Chadli totally fluffing the third, the best of the lot.
Lamela was fully involved but his vain appeals for fouls that never were became tiresome, especially as he himself was in danger of totting up two bookings as the referee’s patience became thin. Mason’s character was tested but never in doubt. A fine, brave effort, I’m not interested in passing percentage or over-enthusiastic tackles, I’m looking long term and he showed he has the talent and attitude to match.
In the second half we relieved the early Arsenal pressure by scoring. Eriksen’s challenge fell at Lamela’s feet and for the second time in three days his instant left-foot pass opened up the opposition. To Chadli, one touch and perfectly slotted in across the keeper. The Belgian may be our answer to our lack of strikers. In midfield he allows the game to pass him by but further forward that’s four he’s scored now.
Arsenal cranked it up and despite our best efforts equilised when Oxlade Chamberlain banged in a loose ball after some loose defending. In the past we might have caved in but Kaboul drove us on.
During matches Hugo Lloris has the ashen, hollowed-eyed look of a man who has survived a serious accident but remains haunted by the trauma. I guess that’s what playing behind the Spurs defence does to you. Look deeper. It’s the mask of concentration of a player totally focussed on doing his level best for his team and that admirable attitude enveloped his back four in a reassuring certainty. Penned into his 6 yard box – Spurs for the most part defended deep so Arsenal could not get behind us – he was impeccable in the air and just fabulous on the ground. On several occasions he dropped low to smother and block. His second half save to a Mertesaker header was outstanding. The centre half hurled his considerable weight towards the ball and met it smack bang on the middle of his forehead. It was heading low into the corner but Lloris plummeted to his left and kept it out with the strength of a single giant hand. For an agonising moment it looked as if the force of the header was unstoppable and it had crept over but the Frenchman rose triumphant, vindicated by goal line technology. It won us a point.
Pochettino defended from the front as he did against W Ham keeping two up and bringing on Lennon on the left to match Oxlade Chamberlain’s pace. Adebayor kept working. Drifting wide meant he was seldom a threat in the box but it opened up space for others. I had hoped Eriksen would have made more of that than he did, indeed had hoped for more full stop.
After our recent league performances I felt like watching this one from behind the sofa. As it was, I made it onto the cushions and spent the majority of the time writhing in anxious contortions – normal for the NLD in other words so that’s Ok then. Thank goodness that after all these years it still matters. Age is irrelevent – you’re old when you don’t feel it any more.
There is something different about the derby these days, though. It’s something that is hard to admit but it’s this: we are the automatic underdogs. When I was younger, the most significant derby stat was that the win-lose-draw record for both teams was identical, even after all those years and despite periods of Arsenal dominance, most notably in the thirties and their Double. Now, regardless of the figures, they are the dominant force. Hard to stomach and hard to type but that is in the air for every NLD now.
Not saying we should accept it, certainly not drop our heads, as fans I mean, not the players. We are Spurs, we are N17, we are proud and we are so, so devoted and faithful. We the loyal supporters have more to be proud of because we have been tested and not found wanting. This performance and point was some reward.
However, we have much to do to get back to those heady days only two years ago where the 2-1 win at White Hart Lane seemed for a tantalising moment to be the tipping point. We were a young side on the up, Wenger’s methods were failing him at last. Yet we fell back and they retrenched. That story has been told in this blog – Levy failing to capitalise on success on by signing a couple of players at the right time (and there were several opportunities) good players not being replaced, the revolving door for managers. Arsenal had their financial problems. Now they earn £1m per home game more than Spurs in match revenue. Their wage bill is higher than Chelsea’s and they won’t fall foul of FFP because of that income. One manager in 18 years, we’ve had 11 or 12, i forget exactly, under Levy. We could fall further behind.
To play with fearsome effort and commitment yesterday was a fine achievement for Spurs. Let’s use it as a foundation to build another team and aim high. After all, we proved Arsenal aren’t as good as they think they are and we were better than I expected.
Still plenty of time to vote for Tottenham On My Mind in the Football Blogging Awards. Thanks to the many who have already done so, like them just click on the button at the top of the page. Much appreciated – as ever, couldn’t do it without you. Regards, Alan