The decisive moments were the goals, and thus the talk will be about the controversies. About the dubious free kick, the first incorrect offside decision, and the debatable second one.
It’s ironic, too, because if the 2-0 scoreline had been reversed, that’s all Arsene Wenger would want to talk about. That’s all he wanted to talk about the last time Arsenal took to a Premier League pitch in a 3-1 loss at Manchester City.
But just as Arsenal was outplayed and beaten at the Etihad two weeks ago, regardless of an incorrect call, Arsenal outplayed and beat Tottenham at the Emirates on Saturday. It was a bit fortunate, yes. But it created its own luck. It was excellent. It absolutely deserved its three derby day points.
In a five-minute late-first-half span, Shkodran Mustafi and Alexis Sanchez put a stamp on Arsenal’s superiority. They were two of Arsenal’s men of the match. Mesut Ozil was a third. They furthered Arsenal’s reputation as the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde team. They secured a massive three points that will keep the Gunners very much in the top four conversation.
In reality, there could have been 10 men of the match wearing red. Nacho Monreal and Laurent Koscielny helped stifle a Spurs attack that had been flying. Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka won the midfield battle. Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac won a similar one on the flanks. The Gunners, as a collective unit, won a North London Derby for the first time since 2013-14.
Arsenal hadn’t been dominant for the first half-hour, but it had certainly been the better team. It pressed high and worked tirelessly on both sides of the ball. The only worry around the 30-minute mark was that it didn’t yet have a just reward.
And Tottenham wasn’t completely silent. It nearly capitalized on a few Arsenal mix-ups at the back. In the 33rd minute, Christian Eriksen nipped the outside of the post with a 12-yard shot.
Five minutes later, Arsenal got its deserved breakthrough, courtesy of a controversial break. Sanchez took a long ball on his head, and nodded it back inside Davinson Sanchez. The Spurs defender was tight to the Arsenal attacker, and laid a hand or two on him as he tried to jink toward the middle of the field. The Colombian then lunged for the ball, and got it.
But referee Mike Dean whistled for a foul. Spurs players felt aggrieved. On one hand, defenders get away with those types of hand checks too often. On the other, as far as impeding arm-bars go, Davinson Sanchez’s was relatively harmless. Dean seemed to indicate there had been a shirt-tug. That didn’t appear to be the case.
Nonetheless, Ozil swung in the free kick, and it was the assistant referee’s turn to come under fire. Mustafi appeard to be a half-length offside when Ozil’s left foot made contact with the ball. But the initial phases of the play should take nothing away from the final phase, a majestic header in off the far post:
Five minutes later, Arsenal doubled its lead, this time amid less controversy – but not no controversy. Alexandre Lacazette’s excellent bending run perhaps bent a split-second too early. That his arm was in an offside position when Hector Bellerin slid a through-ball between Ben Davies and Jan Vertonghen is irrelevant. But his shoulder, and perhaps part of his torso, seemed to be as well.
The assistant, though, gave the benefit of the doubt to Lacazette, just as assistants are instructed to do. Lacazette fizzed a ball into Alexis, who somehow controlled it. He then roofed his shot. Hugo Lloris was scrambling, and could do nothing. Tottenham could have no complaints.
During the opening 10 minutes of the second half, the pendulum of the match seemed to swing toward Tottenham. In the 56th minute, a sloppy Arsenal giveaway allowed Eriksen to present Harry Kane with a chance, but Mustafi recovered and slid to block the English striker’s shot. He was bottled up by Arsenal’s back three for much of the afternoon, and replaced with 15 minutes remaining.
Arsenal’s defensive line receded as the second half wore on, but its counterattacks doubled and tripled in number and potency. The Gunners couldn’t conjure a killer third goal, but Petr Cech ensured that wouldn’t matter. His 81st-minute save on Eric Dier effectively put to bed any hopes of a Tottenham comeback.
The narrative of Arsenal’s inconsistency can at times be a bit overblown. Saturday, though, was a striking improvement on previous performances against top-six foes. The Gunners had embarrassed themselves at Liverpool, and had been second-best at Man City. Their one positive result had been a 0-0 draw at Chelsea, obtained via defensive solidity and an uncharacteristically compact shape.
Their performance in the first North London Derby of the season was none of that. It was aggressive and unquestionably successful. It restored historical order to a rivalry that had been turned on its head since Mauricio Pochettino took over at White Hart Lane in 2014. Wenger finally got the best of his opposite number. Arsenal finally, definitively, got the better of Pochettino’s Spurs, and moved to within one point of the top four.
– – – – – – –
Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.