After a victory of superior conviction, and a better vision of football, Arsenal must surely now believe.
The doubts will only grow around Antonio Conte, all the more so because of how submissively Tottenham Hotspur allowed their greatest rivals to grab their strongest position of the season yet. Arsenal again went eight points clear at the top, but this time after taking advantage of a crucial Manchester City slip, and after yet another big-game win – and another derby win.
This 2-0 win ensured Mikel Arteta’s team completed the first double in the north London derby since 2013-14, and it must foster belief they can complete a first title win since 2003-04. It’s all got more real, just as the pressure has gone up. The pressure should only go up on Conte, whose side were booed off after an ugly end to the game. Arsenal’s players went from getting goaded by Spurs fans to celebrating with their own.
There is of course an awful long way to go but, whatever happens, Arsenal are enjoying the rewards of a longer-term project that has fittingly given them football from the future. Spurs by contrast looked so reactive and out of time – not least in so many first-half challenges – as they continue to suffer from so much short-term thinking and, being blunt, football that recalled the worst of Jose Mourinho and Nuno Espirito Santo.
Conte’s approach was so cautious and weak, leaving Spurs constantly chasing and never looking like catching up. And time may well be catching up with Hugo Lloris, who was responsible for more big errors and arguably both Arsenal goals. The reality, however, is that the result was no mere product of goalkeeping errors. This wasn’t a meeting of equals decided by fine margins.
Arsenal were so much better than Spurs because Arteta’s idea of the game is now so much better than Conte’s. This time, the Italian should primarily be seeking to blame himself. This isn’t the way a super-club should be setting up in 2023, especially at home. Arsenal – brutally – showed them that.
Lloris might have committed errors for both goals but he was put in that position because Arsenal were so good at forcing Spurs out of position. There was a long period from the start when the league leaders were eviscerating Conte’s defensive structure, in what must have been close to Arteta’s football ideal. Arsenal were dominating the ball and play, with so many runners at so many angles, that Spurs struggled to keep up with them, let alone keep them out.
Saka was of course the main threat and one of his surges was the source of that opening goal. The forward cut inside and sought to cross, only for Ryan Sessegnon to get the slightest of touches to leave Lloris making the clumsiest of mistakes. The goalkeeper somehow allowed a high ball to bounce in off his chest rather than just catch it.
He was remarkably slow to respond for a goalkeeper of his experience. Arsenal’s second goal didn’t look as bad from Lloris’s perspective but the same problem played a part. Although Odegaard was visibly sizing up a shot from a long way out, and even though his effort wasn’t exactly in the corner, the Spurs goalkeeper was so slow to move his feet that it left his dive well short.
His team had a long way back now. Spurs were nevertheless fortunate to only be 2-0 down. Arsenal were that dominant, and could have been further ahead. Eddie Nketiah had seen two chances go. One was admittedly a fine save from Lloris after poor feet from the goalkeeper, and the second – an errant header – saw the ball worked back to Thomas Partey for the midfielder to thunder a volley off the post.
It would have been one of the goals of the season. It was that area that was the real source of trouble for Conte. The Italian had inexplicably gone for a two-man central midfield, the numerical inferiority only compounded by the fact one of them was the inexperienced Pape Matar Sarr.
Arsenal predictably overran Spurs. That isn’t to blame Sarr. It was that he didn’t have much of a chance. It was remarkable tactical naivety from a manager of Conte’s canniness. So he again had to resort to base motivation. Spurs were again left dependent on one of those second halves. Sarr was then influential.
Spurs did step it up but so did Aaron Ramsdale. Harry Kane had already forced strong saves from the Arsenal goalkeeper either side of half-time, and there seemed to be momentum with Spurs and Sessegnon as the wing-back then burst into the box. Ramsdale diverted it wide and pretty much ensured this wasn’t going to be one-way traffic in the second half.
Spurs couldn’t get going to the level required. Arsenal had to defend with conviction, which they did, but they always had enough of a threat to ensure Spurs couldn’t really go for it. They couldn’t get close to one of those comebacks. This wasn’t Leeds United, Bournemouth or Brentford.
It just might be the 2023 champions. Arsenal haven’t looked so close for a long time – with 20 games to go. Whatever happens, Arteta’s football was a vision of the future.