It was a game that Arsenal and Manchester City both needed to win and one that, in the end, both seemed content to draw.
The two played to a 2-2 draw at the Emirates on Sunday.
Arsenal ended its run of four straight losses.
“When you come out of a few disappointing results play a big game the first priority of course is not to lose,” Arsène Wenger told Sky Sports after the game.
City may console itself that it gained a point away to one of the Premier League’s traditional powerhouses.
“1-1 in a difficult stadium,” said Pep Guardiola, whose repeated reference to the wrong score suggested he’d missed two goals.
Yet both are probably aware that whatever they might feel, others, especially elsewhere in London will have been happier.
Despite its loss on Saturday, Chelsea, the leader, is still 10 points ahead of City its most talented pursuer and will have seen plenty it can exploit when the two teams meet at Stamford Bridge. Tottenham, in second, now has a three-point edge on the next team, Liverpool, is four clear of City and, in the seemingly endless quest for a finish above its hated neighbor, 11 points ahead of Arsenal, which is battling to hold off Everton in sixth.
“You could say that mathematically it’s not good for them nor for us,” Wenger said.
The first half brought a predictable mixture of dizzying attack and dozy defending. City scored twice. Arsenal once.
“After the first goal in the first three minutes we forgot to play,” Guardiola said.
Both could have had more. Yet after Shkodran Mustafi scored Arsenal’s second equalizer in the 53rd minute, the match subsided into a bizarre demonstration of the suddenly fashionable walking football.
That sport, invented in England barely six years ago, is designed to allow the over-50s to play soccer without giving themselves a heart attack. Perhaps, on Sunday, the intention, from Arsenal at least, was to preserve the health of 67-year-old Wenger. The Arsenal manager, under pressure to quit from Arsenal fans who believe they are entitled to a title every year, this week said that “retirement equals death.” That is precisely what walking football was designed to prevent in people his age.
It’s unlikely that Sunday’s draw will convince any of his critics that he should stay, but it did demonstrate some of the holes in his team. Those holes gaped large as Leroy Sané and Sergio Agüero exploited generous areas of space to score City’s goals.
“It was a strange combination between playing with the nerves …and strong mental resources and refusal to lose the game,” Wenger said. “On the mental front, it was very strong. On the technical front, we can do better.”
While Wenger won’t say if he will be back next season, perhaps Pep Guardiola is already treating this campaign as preparation for next year. He had Jesús Navas, no one’s idea of a defender, playing at right back for much of the match.
“Second half was much better we were able to make four or five passes in a row,” Guardiola said. He said he yanked Raheem Sterling at half time because he wanted “more passes.” City did complete over 100 more passes in the second half, but almost all were safe, slow and harmless.
There might have been a tactical logic, but his tinkering may also have been a way of sending a message to his board and his director of football, Txiki Begiristain, that they really need to pour barrel loads of cash into buying him a new defense.
STUFF HAPPENS Sometimes a team plays well and loses. Sometimes you have three quarters of possession and manage 24 total shots with 11 of them on target as Chelsea did on Saturday, yet the opposition, with just three strikes on target, wins, 2-1, as Crystal Palace did.
Wilfried Zaha and Christian Benteke enjoyed a purple two minutes for Palace early in the first half. Before and after that, Chelsea battered Palace. Somehow Palace stole three points. It was going to happen to Chelsea at some point.
Chelsea had been remarkably adept at avoiding banana skins in the 22-match run that had taken it 10 points clear at the top of the Premier League at the start of the weekend. In that run, Chelsea lost only once, but in that match, at Tottenham, it was outplayed. The other 21 matches included seven one-goal victories and two draws. On Saturday, the ball finally bounced the other way.
The question now is how Chelsea reacts. Will one slip and a small dent in its huge lead, sow doubt? The Blues still lead Tottenham by seven points with nine games to play but to preserve that lead it will have to survive a brutal run of games. On Wednesday, Chelsea hosts fourth-place Manchester City. Then, after it a trip to Bournemouth, Chelsea visits Old Trafford in the league. Its nerve will be tested.
Gary Cahill, the Chelsea center back, seemed to be trying to convince himself that the result would not erode his team’s confidence when he spoke to the BBC after the game.
“We have to regroup,” Cahill said. “It's a little set back but we need to focus on Wednesday. We need to keep calm and go again.”
"The gap is still there. It puts emphasis on Wednesday. It adds a bit more pressure but the boys respond to that."
Translation: “Don’t Panic!”
The proof will come in the next two weeks.
UP IN THE AIR Did Paul Clement tell his Swansea players that Fernando Llorente was injured and not playing on Sunday? Did the manager point out that the opponent was Middlesbrough?
As Swansea besieged the visiting defense with increasing desperation at the Liberty Stadium, it’s default strategy seemed to be high balls into the goalmouth. It is an approach that has paid rich dividends in recent weeks as Llorente has headed in a series of important goals. But Jordan Ayew, who replaced the Spaniard, is not an aerial threat. Worse, if there is one thing Boro does well, it is defending against high balls. The result was a scruffy 0-0 draw.
It was such a poor match that both teams could feel happy that they even got nil. On the other hand, with Hull beating West Ham and Palace winning at Chelsea on Saturday meant neither Swansea nor Boro could be happy with one point.
Both Sam Allardyce at Palace and Marco Silva at Hull are doing what they do.
Allardyce has never been relegated and, after a shaky start, it looks as if he will preserve that record. He has conducted a spine transplant, bringing in a defensive midfielder. Luka Milivojevic and a proper center back in Mamadou Sakho. The operation has been successful. On Saturday, Sakho showed that, even if he can’t pass well enough for Jürgen Klopp, he’s a great defender. Palace has won the four games he has started. It is now four points clear of Hull and the relegation places.
Silva has not lost a home league game, with Estoril, Sport Lisbon, Olympiacos and now Hull, since March 30, 2014. That’s three years and 39 matches. Hull has won four and drawn one at home since Silva arrived. It is still in the bottom three but now four points ahead of Boro, which visits the KCOM Stadium on Wednesday, and one behind Swansea, which hosts Tottenham the same night.
Both Boro and Swansea need to find something extra in the next three days. If the results Wednesday go according to form, Middlesbrough will be awaiting burial and Swansea will be back in the bottom three. At least Swansea will have Llorente back at some point.
LAST MAN STANDING Tottenham spend less on salaries than the other top five clubs. Over the last two seasons, Spurs have also spent less on transfers. It follows that they have a shallower first team squad. Yet, even though injuries have sidelined Harry Kane, Tottenham’s one proven central striker; Danny Rose, the best left back in the Premier League; and Erik Lamela, its second top scorer in all competitions last season, Mauricio Pochettino is still prepared to shuffle the few cards he has.
On Saturday at Burnley, the Spurs manager opted not to start Son Heung Min, who played a World Cup qualifier for South Korea on Tuesday; Mousa Dembélé, who played for Belgium against Russia in Sochi later the same day; and Kyle Walker, the England right back. A dreary first half suggested that Pochettino was both wrong and right. Tottenham lacked punch. On the other hand, another long-distance international, Victor Wanyama, who played for Kenya in Nairobi last Sunday, limped off just before half time, after sitting down several times clutching different parts of his body. After the game, Wanyama told reporters he was all right. It might just have been jet lag. More worrying was the bizarre injury to Harry Winks, who spun off the field after a side-line tackle and fell awkwardly as he tried to grasp his ankle while still off balance. It seems he has damaged a ligament. Add him to the list of long-term absentees.
Yet Wanyama’s injury turned the match. He was replaced by Dembélé. On Thursday, Pochettino told a press conference that the Belgian was “a genius”. Presumably, Dembélé heard the comments. In the half he played, he rose to the description. He was imperious as Tottenham took control.
Eric Dier, who pushed into midfield after Winks was carried off, broke the deadlock with a cool finish after a corner. Son who replaced Vincent Janssen in the second half and was immediately guilty of a typically comical miss, then doubled the lead. If you want a Premier League player to represent the killer clown meme, it is Son.
Tottenham became the first visiting team to win at Turf Moor by more than one goal this season. If Dele Alli had not wasted a couple of excellent chances, the margin could have been much bigger.
It seems that as long as Pochettino can find 11 fit players, Tottenham can find the results.
WAITING FOR LEFTIES When Spurs won at Southampton in December the most memorable moment of the game was a horrible penalty miss by Kane. As the Tottenham striker swung his right boot at the ball, the grass rode up under his left foot. He was falling backward as he hit the ball and it flew high, wide and extremely ugly over the bar.
On Saturday evening, in the final minutes of a lackluster goalless draw at Southampton, Bournemouth won a penalty. Another Harry, Arter, stepped up to take the kick from the same spot, with the same result. The sod under his left foot gave way and he booted the ball toward the roof of the stand.
This is an uncanny coincidence. Some suggested conspiracy. Maybe Southampton has a secret button an operative can press when the visiting team wins a penalty. Or, more plausibly, maybe the groundsman has attempted to repair that spot of turf and the graft hasn’t taken. The area round the penalty spot does have a lot of traffic, particularly when all the big men are jostling ahead of corners.
The last two penalties scored from that spot were taken by southpaws, who had no problems with purchase for their standing legs. So, before visiting St Mary’s, maybe teams should have their left-footers practice penalties.