LONDON — The north London derby is not the place to gamble. Arsene Wenger threw the dice a number of times at Wembley, but failed each time.
Tottenham Hotspur beat Arsenal 1-0 with Harry Kane heading the winning goal but the scoreline did not reflect the home side’s dominance. Wenger has some difficult questions to answer over the coming days.
“It was a game we could not afford to lose,” the Arsenal manager said afterwards. “It makes things very difficult now.”
His team’s hopes of claiming a top-four place were seriously damaged; they are now seven points adrift of Spurs and six off fourth place.
The 68-year-old manager came with a plan. The Gunners were unusually disciplined and sat deep to absorb Tottenham’s pressure and that approach worked for the first half. The problem was that the other part of the strategy failed miserably.
Wenger’s team were overpowered in midfield and toothless up front. All the positivity generated by the arrival of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the January transfer window and Mesut Ozil’s contract extension evaporated at Wembley.
Those three players were at the centre of Arsenal’s dysfunction. The logic behind Wenger’s tactics was obvious: Spurs play with a very high back line and, as Mauricio Pochettino’s side pushed forward, Aubameyang was prowling along the halfway line waiting for a pass that could allow him to test the defence’s pace. But the sort of ball he craved did not arrive.
Ozil and Mkhitaryan, the men who could have provided the defence-splitting pass, went missing. They never got into the game playing out wide. Some critics feared that, for all their talent, the duo are too lightweight against strong opposition. So it proved.
The first half settled into a pattern: Arsenal retreated ever deeper while Spurs probed around the edges. Mousa Dembele dominated the middle of the park but Kane struggled to find space and Christian Eriksen could not get on the ball. That was the only thing Arsenal could feel good about with Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka providing some much needed stability for once.
Pochettino appeared to be targeting right-back Hector Bellerin. Tottenham shifted the ball wide to Son Heung-Min repeatedly in the opening exchanges and the Spain full-back found no help forthcoming from Ozil. The Germany international has never been keen on defensive duties and he lingered inconsequentially in the crowded midfield, contributing little.
Mkhitaryan was equally out of sorts. The Armenian showed at Manchester United that he can be anonymous. At Wembley he was almost invisible.
Most of Arsenal’s hopes lay with Aubameyang but the Gabon striker looked lost, and it’s little wonder. The 28-year-old has been suffering with a fever this week and trained alone. He looked out of sync with his new teammates and it would have made much more sense to play Alexandre Lacazette, whose confidence must be draining away with every game that Wenger leaves him on the bench.
The Arsenal manager recognised that the lack of creativity from his flair players cost the team. “For long periods in the first half, with a bit more quality in the final pass we win the game,” he said.
Wenger was overstating the case but Tottenham were bemused by the packed defence in the first half. Kane headed over the bar but otherwise Arsenal looked relatively comfortable. That changed three minutes into the second half.
Ben Davies carried the ball into opposition territory and Bellerin withdrew, happy to let the left-back have possession. Ozil watched, unconcerned. It was a mistake. Davies swung in a cross and Kane rose above Laurent Koscielny to give Tottenham the lead.
Suddenly Arsenal were in trouble and the floodgates opened. Kane went close with another header moments later and then unleashed a sharp shot from the edge of the box that powered straight at Petr Cech. The goalkeeper was in action again quickly as he palmed away a free kick from Eriksen, then Dele Alli whizzed an effort past the post.
The Gunners made some rare excursions into Tottenham territory. Jack Wilshere shot from the edge of the area, forcing Hugo Lloris to save, but there was no coherence to Arsenal’s attacking play.
They became shambolic at the back, too. Erik Lamela, fresh on for Son, caught the defence square and forced Cech to block at the near post. The goalkeeper was again called upon when Eriksen found Kane in space at the back post and Cech was the only reason the second half didn’t end in total humiliation.
Mkhitaryan was substituted with 25 minutes left and Ozil might have left with him for all the effect he had on the game. As Arsenal chased an equaliser, the German dropped deep and almost found the sort of subtle pass required to release Aubameyang but the striker was marginally offside. It was a tantalising glimpse of what could have been.
Wilshere showed the most energy and creativity in the Arsenal midfield, twice coming close to releasing Aubameyang, but the Englishman’s passing was slightly off beam. No one can doubt his commitment but his execution frequently fails to match his ambition.
Incredibly, against the run of play, Lacazette had two late chances to secure a point. First, he ballooned a difficult bouncing cross over the bar; moments later, Davinson Sanchez misjudged a through ball and the striker screwed the ball wide of the post when one-on-one with Lloris.
A draw would have been much more than this incoherent Arsenal side deserved and, for all the talk of their defence being the main problem, the side’s attacking deficiencies have given Wenger something new to think about.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.