Kyle Walker was the hero for Tottenham Hotspur as his long range strike handed Harry Redknapp’s side a 2-1 win over Arsenal in the first North London derby of the season.
Spurs had taken a first half lead thanks to a controversial strike by Rafael van der Vaart before Aaron Ramsey equalised just after the re-start. Unfortunately, despite pulling off a string of terrific saves throughout the game, Wojciech Szczesny will no doubt have a sleepless night after the winning goal slid through his grasp with 18 minutes remaining.
Boosted by the news that both Gervinho and Theo Walcott had passed late fitness tests, Arsene Wenger fielded the pair either side of Robin van Persie in an attacking line-up which saw Andrey Arshavin again drop to the bench.
Francis Coquelin was handed a second start of the season in the centre of the park, Kieran Gibbs started ahead of Andre Santos while Alex Song continued his partnership with Per Mertesacker in the centre. Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey were charged with being the team’s engine going up the energetic Spurs foursome of Luka Modric, Scot Parker, Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart.
You could sense the electric atmosphere even just watching on television. A combination of 30 degree temperatures, the later kick-off and booze turning the crowd into a baying monster of noise.
From the outset Spurs began knocking balls over the Arsenal defence, three inside the first five minutes, although Arsene Wenger’s side settled and found composure on the ball. Young Coquelin was a noticeably lively presence, on several occasions breaking up play and laying off neat and tidy passes and setting up counter-attacks.
It was a tactically interesting half, far from spectacular, but reminiscent of the early rounds of a boxing bout. Plenty of jabbing, but nobody ready to commit to a knockout blow. Both sides had chances, Szczesny making two solid stops from Parker and Van der Vaart while Theo Walcott’s deft curling effort resulted in a flurry of Arsenal corners.
At the back Alex Song was doing a great job of numbing the threat of his close friend Emmanuel Adebayor, the Cameroon international following the lanky attacker all over the field. The man from Togo was dangerous, but never inside the box. In midfield Arteta and Ramsey looked heavy-footed, particularly the latter. Playing high up the pitch his passing in and around the Spurs box was hesitant while the heat seemed to take its toll on his ability to track back. He did play one great raking cross-field ball to Van Persie who subsequently rolled Kaboul and earned a free-kick. Arteta, fancying his chances, shot over.
As the half hour mark approached Arsenal were growing in confidence. On 28 minutes Van Persie nipped past Kaboul again, laid the ball back to Gervinho and a goal beckoned. The Ivorian though scuffed his effort wide. It was to prove costly. Despite dictating the pace of play, the Gunners were caught five minutes before half-time.
Finding space on the edge of the area, Emmanuel Adebayor clipped the ball over Mertesacker for Van der Vaart. The Dutchman appeared to take the ball down with the aid of his arm before calmly tucking the ball across Szczesny into the back of the net. 1-0 to Spurs against the run of play as the half-time whistle blew.
As the second half started it was clear what Arsenal had to do. Score. A. Goal. It wasn’t long coming.
Good possession and movement saw Arsenal move the ball around the pitch for what felt like two or three minutes. Eventually Alex Song darted down the left side whipping the ball across the box for Aaron Ramsey to smash the ball home from a yard out. It was a Freddie Ljungberg run and finish and did much to make up for the Welshman’s poor first half. 1-1 and something to build on.
Six further minutes of intense pressure followed, Arsenal were really on top. Spurs looked nervous, ragged even, but of course then created a guilt edge chance. Szczesny saving from Adebayor in a one-on-one. Top save. Top, top save.
The chance though changed the momentum of the match, having been on the back foot, Spurs took heart. Van der Vaart, who looked to be limping was removed after 62 minutes for Sandro, before Sagna turned his ankle and smashed into the advertising hoardings forcing Wenger to send on Carl Jenkinson as a replacement. It looked a nasty injury to the Frenchman, he was in obvious agony as he lay on the side of the pitch and was stretchered down the tunnel.
On 71 minutes Yossi Benayoun replaced Walcott, with Wenger perhaps realising that Jenkinson would need cover. Immediately Spurs scored.
After sloppiness from Arteta failing to cover a Spurs throw, the ball was cleared by Song only to fall to Kyle Walker who struck a ball goalwards, first time from 30 yards out. It dipped, it swerved, but it was still close to Szczesny and it went straight through him. He’d had a great game up to that point, but he knows he should have saved it. 2-1 to Spurs and another mountain to climb.
Bale should have put the game out of sight on 75 minutes. Panicked (a word too often used to describe the Arsenal defence) by a long ball over the midfield, both Song and Mertesacker hesitated and before Bale shot just wide.
In the final ten minutes Arshavin was thrown on for the lackadaisical Gervinho as Wenger sought an equaliser. The game opened up with Arsenal pushing forward and Spurs hitting on the break. Szczesny was forced into another decent save from Defoe on 83, then Sandro headed over from the resulting corner.
You wanted to see a period of concerted effort and possession from Arsenal, but with Ramsey and Arteta’s passing lacking anything of the creativity of Nasri and Fabregas we looked laboured. Song, Benayoun and Arshavin decided to join in the malaise each giving the ball away when it was easier to find a man in a red shirt and with Mertesacker deployed as an auxiliary, but not being fed the ball the Arsenal fans watched on helplessly as their side squandered he remaining minutes.
Indeed, rather than use the five minutes of injury-time to go forward, Arsenal were time and time again pushed back into their own half. In the dying embers of the match two corners were finally forced, but as you’d expect with our set pieces there was no threat.
Game over. Game lost. No lack of effort, but certainly a lack of quality and again individual defensive errors made the difference.
That’s a fourth loss in the league out of seven games and with Arsenal lying in the bottom six with two weeks to stew over the bitterness of a derby defeat it’s going to be a long and painful wait.
A very, very, very long and very, very, very painful wait.