Ken Early: Arteta looks more likely to deliver success than Mourinho
Spurs suffused with gloom while Arsenal feel like they might finally be getting somewhere
Arsenal’s Cedric Soares hugs manager Mikel Arteta as Spurs’s coach José Mourinho walks off the pitch after his team’s 2-1 defeat in Sunday’s north London derby at the Emirates Stadium. Photograph: Nick Potts/AFP
In normal circumstances, players and fans would spend the week counting down the seconds to a North London derby. In the pandemic season of 20-21, even Arsenal’s captain couldn’t be bothered to turn up on time for it.
Last week Mikel Arteta promised the world that Arsenal were on the cusp of a great leap forward, thanks to the quality of the relationships and respect that bound the group together: “I think this project is going to go ‘bang’. . . We have created a really strong group, a really strong bond with our players, with our fans, with our staff and that is going to pay big in the future.”
You can imagine how furious he was to be made a fool of by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the very next game. Thankfully for Arteta, the players who showed up on time did well enough that he got his first derby win as Arsenal manager without having to call on Aubameyang at all.
It’s obvious that the absence of supporters takes some of the pressure off players, particularly in a derby match, where the consequences of losing are amplified. In the 13th minute, Tottenham’s deepest defender Davinson Sanchez let a pass run under his foot. It was a moment that would have had the Emirates baying for blood and perhaps rattled the Tottenham defence, but here Sanchez recovered and it was as though nothing had happened.
And yet as they inched towards the final whistle, Arsenal showed an impressive ability to recreate the familiar derby pressure using the power of their own imaginations. They handed Tottenham a series of late chances with sloppy mistakes around their own area, backpasses that ran out for corners and pointless fouls. You could hear the screams of Arsenal players abusing each other, much as their fans would have done, and it was clear in these moments how desperately Arsenal felt they needed this win.
The winning goal came thanks to a collision that looked a penalty in real time but was revealed to be rather innocuous on video replay. The video referee could easily have asked the match referee to review the decision, but in that random way we’ve come to expect from VAR, he decided this time he’d allow it.
Afterwards, José Mourinho suggested he was looking forward to the day when referees had to account for themselves in post-match press conferences. You might recall that the introduction of VAR was going to defuse all this kind of post-match controversy. It turns out that managers trying to offload the blame on to referees is just another problem VAR doesn’t solve.
Mourinho also referred to “some important players hiding” during Tottenham’s shaky first half. He can’t have been talking about Matt Doherty, because no Tottenham player had been more exposed during that opening 45. Emile Smith-Rowe had already got in behind Doherty twice by the time Kieran Tierney left him in the dust from a standing start on his way to set up the equaliser for Martin Ødegaard.
You felt the Ireland full-back might have appreciated some backup from Gareth Bale, playing ahead of him on the right – but as Bale reminded everyone a little while ago, he’s not 21 any more.
Despite the ragged condition of their right flank, Spurs went in at half-time level thanks to Erik Lamela’s brilliant, bizarre goal. It’s fitting that the rabona should be Lamela’s signature trick. Of all the stunt moves in football, it’s the most double-edged, proclaiming its exponent as exceptionally skilful but also one-footed with a fondness for pointless overcomplication.
It’s obviously ridiculous to complain about Lamela scoring a rabona, and thereby producing the only moment anyone will remember from this game in a year’s time. This was that rare occasion when it really was the most efficient way to address the ball – certainly more so than his previous rabona goal for Spurs, in the Europa League 2014, when he curled one in under no pressure from long range for no better reason than he felt like it.
Yet you have to wonder how a player with that much ability can have averaged only one goal every 10 league matches – this was just his 17th league goal since joining Spurs nearly eight years ago. Maybe that total would be higher if he was prepared to use his right foot from time to time.
Mourinho has been at Tottenham only one month longer than Arteta has been at Arsenal, yet it somehow feels like he’s in a much later phase; as though the Arsenal manager’s project is still getting going while Mourinho’s is already approaching the end.
Why should this be, when Spurs are still four points above Arsenal in the table? Partly it is to do with the discouraging long-term pattern of Spurs being bad against stronger opposition. This defeat was the seventh in a row against sides in the top half of the Premier League, the eighth if you count the FA Cup defeat at Everton, where they at least forced extra time.
Beyond results, the fact is that Arteta has been better than Mourinho at selling the future, or at least at acting like he believes the team has a future and that he’ll be around to oversee it. He has reshaped the Arsenal attack around young players like Smith-Rowe, Bukayo Saka and lately Ødegaard. Their promise means that for an £18 million a year superstar, Aubameyang has become surprisingly easy to leave out.
Tottenham, by contrast, have been dragged to seventh in the table by Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min, who between them have scored more than 60 per cent of their goals.
Unlike the developing talents at Arsenal, Kane and Son are senior players who are too big to hang around much longer at a mid-table club. At Arsenal people are wondering how much better these young players can get, at Spurs it’s about whether the star players will stay. This is why Spurs in seventh are suffused with gloom and foreboding, while Arsenal in 10th feel like they might finally be getting somewhere – even if the actual results are a lagging indicator.