Arsenal 1 Tottenham Hotspur 0: So familiarity need not breed supporters’ contempt. Not the sort of contempt anyway that the Emirates crowd had shown at the opening game of the season against Aston Villa, which after four subsequent victories is slowly becoming no more than a bad memory.
To the delight of that same crowd, Arsène Wenger was proved correct in his assessment that throwing so many expensive new recruits into their first north London derby would not have the effect Tottenham Hotspur were hoping for after £105 million worth of purchases from the summer sales. “You have to find a way to integrate,” Wenger said, and Spurs will need a while yet to do that.
The contest was tight and the last 10 minutes exceedingly tense, Arsenal by that time having four full-backs and two central defenders on the pitch. Yet the result was still the correct one. Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky had been outstanding and Etienne Capoue, one of the newcomers, was exposed too often by the swift one-touch interpassing of that pair, feeding Theo Walcott and the goalscorer Olivier Giroud. Paulinho and Mousa Dembélé both wanted to push forward rather than assist him.
Nacer Chadli was initially troublesome on the left but is not Gareth Bale, and there was a lack of pace in midfield that Kyle Walker and Andros Townsend could not compensate for. The deciding goal, however, was one thing that could not be blamed on lack of familiarity; it stemmed from a shocking lack of unity in the one regular element, the back four.
This is the single match in any given season that matters more to Arsenal followers than any other and had become more important than ever to Wenger given the respective levels of recruitment. As a test of his whole philosophy, he was able to claim a victory. Now the challenge, whoever joins before 11pm on Monday tonight, is to repeat the success against the other serious contenders in the League and Europe.
In contrast to Spurs’ seven new boys – four of them started and Eric Lamela was introduced later – Wenger has obtained Yaya Sanogo and Mathieu Flamini on free transfers and is set to add a third in Palermo’s goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano. Flamini, back after five years, was required before the interval, replacing Jack Wilshere, who has an upset stomach and will link up with England this week.
Cazorla, like his team-mates well used to these games, was sharp from the start, as he demonstrated with cleverly contrasting free-kicks in the first six minutes. For the first, after Capoue fouled Rosicky, his curled effort was heading for the top corner until pushed behind, Giroud heading the corner over. The second time the Spaniard kept the shot low as the wall jumped, bringing gasps when the replay was flashed up on the big screens.
For the goal, Cazorla was inevitably involved, sending the ball forward for Aaron Ramsey, but the key was the way in which Jan Vertonghen moved out with no idea that Michael Dawson was dropping back behind him, playing every attacker onside. Danny Rose at left-back did neither one thing nor the other which meant Walcott was unmarked and had time to cross low towards the near post.
Giroud’s movement took him to just the right spot and his finish ahead of Dawson’s lunge was perfect. It may have been the first goal Spurs had conceded in five games, which only raised the question of how they had survived the other four. If Capoue and other new recruits are understandably still finding their feet and getting to know one another, there was no excuse for the manner in which the regular back four were caught out so badly.
Later they would be grateful to their goalkeper Hugo Lloris for a number of fine saves. Just before the half-hour, Ramsey held off Dembélé and Lloris parried Walcott’s angled shot. When Cazorla played the speedy Walcott through the middle, the goalkeeper had to come out of his area and make a challenge worthy of an international centre-half, for any error and he would have received a red card.
Wilshere reluctantly decided shortly before half-time that he could not continue and by that time Spurs had improved. Twice Townsend cut in on his left foot, as he invariably does, but Kieran Gibbs could not prevent him shooting, troubling Wojciech Szczesny each time. Flamini, readjusting to English refereeing interpretation, was booked for sliding in on Rose but Chadli put the free-kick far too high and for a long time Spurs built pressure without the necessary penetration.
Hence the introduction of Jermain Defoe for the disappointing Dembélé to form a 4-4-2 with Roberto Soldado. The £26m striker was also quiet, apart from screaming for a penalty; Giroud half-cleared, Defoe’s shot was saved and Paulinho turned the ball back for Soldado, who was convinced a hand that was not the goalkeeper’s had parried his shot, although Carl Jenkinson’s shoulder looked like the object in question.
Arsenal were by then in the happy position of being able to play to their strengths, on the break. Lloris did well again to thwart Giroud and Walcott, before Tottenham’s final fling as Lamela took Townsend’s place down the right. He put his one chance weakly at the goalkeeper, and Walker sent one shot too high before failing to make significant contact with another chance.
With Bacary Sagna and Nacho Monreal thrown on as extra defensive reserves and what Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas called three defensive midfielders, it was a nervous five extra minutes for the home supporters.
They were vainly waving their team forward and the Spurs manager physically grabbed Walker to insist on one last long throw into the overcrowded penalty area. That was cleared, Arsenal had three points to move fourth in the table after their horrible first day; and Wenger went home believing he had made a point of his own.