It has been a rough few days following Wednesday night's defeat to Spurs at White Hart Lane. Not only did we have to witness the last embers of our season go up in smoke but, on returning to our places of work and local pubs, Arsenal supporters had to endure jubilant gloating from any Tottenham fans that they might happen to know. Still, it took Spurs over a decade to beat the Gunners in the Premier League, so I suppose it is understandable that they were happy with the victory.
For Gooners though, it was a painful evening. Losing to our fiercest rivals, even in friendly matches, is always a bitterly jarring experience. They might not have been able to match us for honours over the past twenty years but North London Derbies still have an edge that clashes with Manchester United and Chelsea just don’t. There is a very personal hatred between the supporters of the two clubs that stretches back nearly a century and, sadly, this time Arsenal got on the wrong end of the result.
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The game itself really saw Arsenal’s injury list finally catch up with them. For several weeks now they have been scraping by in the Premier League but, with so many big players missing, this match became a bridge too far for the Gunners. Though they held plenty of possession, they missed the personnel who might have had the guile to break down a resolute and well-organised Spurs defence.
At the other end, sloppy defensive mistakes led to needless goals conceded. Danny Rose’s opener was indeed a spectacular strike as he smashed the ball home from Manuel Almunia’s punch. However, why, when there was no one within a couple of yards of him, the Spaniard elected to punch the ball rather than catch it remains a mystery. It was just another example of the sort of poor decision-making that has blighted his season.
Tottenham’s second goal saw the entire Arsenal defence fall asleep but with Mikael Silvestre seemingly most culpable. Gareth Bale was presented with the easiest of chances to put Spurs two up. The Gunners rallied towards the end and the long-awaited return of Robin Van Persie sharpened up the attack. The Dutchman showed flashes of what we have been missing over the past few months but there is very little point in entertaining thoughts of “what might have been” had he not been out for so long. Since joining the club he has been missing for several months with injuries every single season and he cannot be relied upon to stay fit for a full nine months.
Nicklas Bendtner pulled back a goal with five minutes to go - his ninth goal in eleven matches - but a couple of decent saves from Heurelho Gomes was enough to see the Gunners off and condemn them to their first Premier League defeat to Spurs since 1999.
In a way, the match highlighted some of the problems that have been recurring themes in Arsenal’s season. They played some good possession football but lacked the cutting edge to make it pay and then silly defensive errors at the other end cost them dearly. Looking at the bigger picture, it was also the case that this was another big match where the Gunners came up short. They have largely exceeded expectation this season by achieving good results against the teams they ought to be taking points from but they haven’t managed to come out on top in critical individual games.
And, as the season winds down, it is important to recognise that they have indeed outstripped what most people thought they would achieve this term. Back in August, Arsenal were everyone’s favourite to be the team that fell out of the top four as Manchester City bought players for fun and further improvement was anticipated by Spurs under Harry Redknapp. No one, least of all me, really thought they would still be in with a shout of the title going into April.
It might not have been the strongest league this year with both Manchester United and Chelsea looking nowhere near as imperious as they have done over recent years, but the Gunners have still done well with a young team and with key players missing for extended periods. So, whilst it is disappointing to end the season without a trophy, there is cause for optimism for the future if Arsene Wenger is prepared to make the required adjustments to the squad in the summer.
And all signs point to the fact that he will do just that. After the Spurs defeat, Wenger was quoted as saying that the players representing the club on Wednesday night were not mature enough to pull off a result. This is quite an admission from the manager when, for the past few years, he has been telling us that the team is young but experienced and, using that well-worn football adage, that they are good enough and therefore old enough.
It can only be hoped that the subtext of his post-match comments was that he is ready to concede that his talented young squad needs underpinning with some experience. And there was no better example of this concept than the in the performance of Sol Campbell on Wednesday night. He was simply magnificent and, even though he ended up on the losing team, he was arguably the man of the match.
Campbell showed the sort of desire, leadership and competitiveness that put some of his counterparts to shame. Despite his age, he still has a good turn of foot too as he displayed when getting into a ball-chase with Gareth Bale during the second half. The Spurs youngster is not slow but Sol matched him with ease and got his tackle in. It is shame his body will not allow him to perform at the top of his game more than once a week any more.
The team have proved that they are not too far away this season and the injection of a few battle-hardened pros in the summer might make the difference next time round when those vital big games come along.
Tomorrow, the Gunners travel north for a lunchtime clash with Wigan. It is important that the players don’t implode over their remaining games of the season. They need to pick themselves up after Wednesday’s disappointment and aim to finish with a flourish.
With injuries to Fabregas, Gallas, Vermaelen, Song, Ramsey and Arshavin, the squad will be without some vital players but those who are available need to show some pride and professionalism in order to end the season as strongly as possible.