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Tottenham Recaptures Some Form, but Blows Lead vs. Arsenal

As Tottenham tries to recapture its form of the first two-thirds of last season, it will probably be happy with the point from the North London derby.

Honors even in a breathless North London derby, the scores level and the points shared. But when the fury clears, what will be left is the sense of two sides capable of passages of thrilling attacking play but, at the moment, lacking the capacity to control games that defines champions. This was anarchic and fun, a crazily end-to-end game, but its shapelessness ultimately summed up the flaws of both sides.

Leaving aside the Manchester City game, which is always going to present different challenges, Tottenham had struggled for creativity this season. That was never likely to be a problem against an Arsenal side that affectively did its opponents creating for it. An injury crisis meant Davinson Sanchez filling in at right back, a position the central defender had seemingly never occupied before, and that perhaps necessitated a team designed to sit deep and strike on the break. In as much as Spurs threatened every time they countered, it worked.

Arsenal was shockingly open, caught repeatedly by balls played in behind its fullbacks. It could perhaps be argued that it’s an inevitable risk with a pair of full-backs as forward-thinking as Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac, but the opening goal had nothing to do with such trade-offs. It was, rather, the result of rank bad defending in dealing with a simple lofted clearance. Granit Xhaka and Sokratis both jumped for it, but neither got there which meant that when Son Heung-min collected Harry Kane’s knockdown, there was a fatal gap. Erik Lamela’s eventual shot was weak but Leno shovelled it limply out for Christian Eriksen to score.

If that seemed rash, the second was even more so, Xhaka needlessly and recklessly lunging in on Son. Kane hammered in the penalty. At that stage, with six minutes to go until halftime, it seemed a story of a clinical Tottenham picking off a sloppy Arsenal. But in truth that wouldn’t have been a fair reflection. Tottenham had itself been jittery, giving the ball away needlessly as it can under pressure, but the goal it conceded just before the break was a matter of tentativeness more than anything else.

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Danny Rose appeared to handle as he cleared and perhaps, with the threat of VAR looming, that scrambled heads. Whatever the reason, there was very little pressure on the ball as Matteo Guendouzi worked it in to Nicolas Pepe, who laid in Alexandre Lacazette to thrash the ball past Lloris. Arsenal, which would already have been out if the game but for a pair of fine saves from Leno, suddenly had a lifeline.

It was all engagingly chaotic, hugely entertaining but lacking in precision or discipline, and it didn’t calm down after halftime. Kane thumped a shot off the post before Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang touched in Guendouzi’s pass to equalize—two minutes after he’d been moved into the middle as Lacazette was withdrawn to isolated booing. Either side could have won it, neither side did—and that is probably telling about their qualities.

For Tottenham it may be that the international break comes at the right time. Mauricio Pochettino had dinner with the Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy and the director Donna Cullen last week to clear the air after the early weeks of the season had characterized by the Argentinian sniping at the club’s transfer business. There had even been rumors that Pochettino was set to resign. By Friday, there was renewed calm and purpose and an acceptance from Pochettino that he will work with what he has—which looks now as though it will include Eriksen, who has made little secret if his desire to leave, at least until the transfer window reopens in January.

It may not feel like it in the short term, having let slip a two-goal lead, but given its record at the Emirates, Tottenham will probably ultimately be the happier with the point. It may only have won one of its opening four games this season but it has now avoided defeat in away games at the Etihad and the Emirates. The issue now is to reset and try to recapture the form of the first two-thirds of last season. Given Liverpool and City looked out of reach anyway, dropping points at home to Newcastle, poor result as it was, is surmountable in what is effectively a battle for third. This game, though, showed perhaps just why the top two are so far away.