It was undeniably thrilling, but was it any good? The north London derby ebbed and flowed, swept from one end to the other, was replete with thrills and spills, shots and saves, big tackles and defensive errors, but in the anarchy and the fun, perhaps, lay the reason neither of these sides will seriously challenge for the title this season. Ultimately, neither could enforce anything resembling control.
Tottenham are in a strange place at the moment – as has become an unfortunate habit around the end of the transfer window – almost as though the first four games of the season were some kind of phoney campaign and, with Mauricio Pochettino apparently reconciled to his squad, they will return for the real business after the international break. But what must be a concern is that the game was as chaotic as it was when they had apparently set up to stifle.
To an extent, the deep-lying 4-4-2 was forced on them by injury. Davinson Sánchez had never, in the 101 league games he had previously played for Nacional, Ajax and Spurs, operated at right‑back. Deploying him there meant Tottenham had to set up with a low block, the back four protected by two holding players in Moussa Sissoko and Harry Winks.
The doubt about Tottenham so far this season has been their slight stodginess, the sense in the first hour against Aston Villa and the whole game against Newcastle that they were not quite at their sharpest, that they were very reliant on Christian Eriksen for creativity. But here they did not have to be creative.
This was a formation designed to sit back and wait for a mistake – and with Arsenal mistakes are rarely far away. Bernd Leno will take the bulk of the blame for Tottenham’s opener, but there was barely a player in the back half of Arsenal’s side who was not at fault as Granit Xhaka and Sokratis Papastathopoulos jumped for the same ball and were beaten to it by Harry Kane, then David Luiz, as he had in the defeat at Liverpool, was drawn to the ball, making it easy for Son Heung-min to skip by him.
Xhaka’s error in needlessly conceding the penalty for Spurs’ second was even worse, but his recklessness is no surprise.
In that sense it is David Luiz who is the broader concern. As Mark Schwarzer, a former teammate at Chelsea, observed a couple of weeks ago, the Brazilian is a player who still has the mentality of the midfielder. He was before being pushed into a back three at the Salvador club Vitoria when he was 17. He sees football not as a territorial game but one of individual duels, and that leads him to step out of the backline. In a back three that can be accommodated, that may even be beneficial; in a two it can leave fatal holes if he misses the challenge, as he did at Anfield and again here.
Yet even at 2-0 there was no sense of Tottenham cruising, no sense they could simply shut the game down. That is perhaps what would be most disappointing for them. Again and again they found space behind the Arsenal full-backs – perhaps there is no player in the world at the moment so effective at playing on the break as Son – and yet that was not enough to win the game.
On a bad day, Tottenham can be unconvincing playing out from the back and they repeatedly squandered possession. Just before half-time, as Danny Rose gave the ball away, that was compounded by an odd diffidence that ultimately allowed Alexandre Lacazette to pull a goal back. Perhaps it was simply a momentary aberration just before half-time by a defence distracted by a handball shout against Rose, but given how the second half went, and how weary Tottenham came to appear, it may be the issue was fatigue.
And that was striking about the second half. In the declining years of Arsène Wenger’s reign, Tottenham always outlasted Arsenal. Not any more. Here, it was Arsenal who looked the fresher in the closing stages. Arsenal, without question, have become a fitter side under Unai Emery, but it is also perhaps the case that the regular double sessions Pochettino has insisted on this season, almost as though working out his transfer-window frustration on the squad, has left his players drained.
It is a truism that modern football is about transitions, whether from defence to attack or attack to defence, but this was a game that seemed to consist of nothing but transitions. At no point was either side willing to, or perhaps capable of, putting together a sustained spell of possession, of calming the game down, of taking control. Relish the tumult, revel in the pandemonium, but let nobody pretend this sort of harum-scarum, this frenzy of attacking, is the football of title challengers.