There’s nothing more captivating than idealism winning the day. Mikel Arteta is a young manager. He is schooled in the Pep Guardiola school that possession trumps all and that the team that plays the nicest football will ultimately win most games. To be fair, when you have the players Guardiola has, that is often a self-fulfilling philosophy.
But when you have the players Arteta has? There’s an Arsenal trope, which has been doing the rounds for about 15 years or so now and which roughly equates to the time Patrick Vieira left the club: Arsenal are pretty but rarely feared.
For idealistic, read naïve. For aesthetically-pleasing read weak. Arsenal have been a joy to watch since the Arsene Wenger days. In latter years, they’ve been a joy to play against at times.
Mikel Arteta came up trumps in the North London derby as his side ran out 3-1 winners
The Spaniard won the tactical battle between himself and veteran manager Antonio Conte
Arteta falls neatly into this cliché. The recent Amazon documentary demonstrated his team-talks can be more David Brent than Sir Alex Ferguson. He talks a good game but his team threw away fourth place last season.
In fact, like one of those childish comparisons, along the lines of ’if a shark fought a lion, who would win?’, you sensed that if Arteta had to take on Antonio Conte, there would be only one victor. And it wouldn’t be the starry idea Basque coach, nurtured at Barcelona.
Conte is cut from different cloth. He is a superb coach. He has nothing really to prove other than the endless desire to prove himself again that afflicts all successful obsessives. Serie A titles, Premier League titles, FA Cups: he has them all.
He transformed Spurs last season. He had them unbeaten this season, looking as much like a title contender as you can when Manchester City have Erling Haaland.
This was the first time these teams had met for some time when both were riding high, both among the best in the country. And you knew how Conte would play it. For all the hustle and bustle of Arsenal’s truly impressive start – Gabriel Martinelli hitting a post, Hugo Lloris flapping at Thomas Partey’s long throw and Granit Xhaka’s audacious mid-air back heel – there was a moment when Cristian Romero picked out Harry Kane with a 50 yard pass and Arsenal looked terribly frail.
Arteta was vocal with his side throughout the game, barking instructions from the dugout
The offside flag came to their rescue but for a team with 64 per cent possession, they looked mighty fragile. Whenever Tottenham deployed that ferocious counter attack trio of Son Heung-Min, Kane and Richarlison, they risked being found out.
And so the match seemed to settle into that pattern. Thomas Partey’s opening strike from twenty yards on twenty minutes was truly something special, though you wouldn’t want to be Pierre-Emile Hojberg in the team meeting next week when Conte checks who was meant to be closing him down. Arsenal had dominated. Arsenal looked amazing. The Emirates shook with fervour and it’s not often you can write that.
And yet, here we were, thirty minutes in, Tottenham with just 36 per cent of the possession and the score at 1-1. Kane, inevitably, from the spot after Richarlison had slipped past Xhaka and been tripped by Gabriel. Same old Arsenal.
And so this was a genuine test. Wreaking revenge of Brentford two weeks ago was one thing, but a little like the over privileged class bully picking on a poorer, weaker boy. The fact that they were so pleased with themselves indicated their weakness and lack of self confidence. This was something else. Conte looked about to do what Conte does to idealists.
Harry Kane became the leading goalscorer in London derbies with a well-taken penalty
And maybe he would have done so. He couldn’t have been reckoning on Hugo Llorris presenting Arsenal with an early goal in the second half as first he parried and fumbled for Gabriel Jesus to score. Nor with Emerson Royal losing his head and kicking Martinelli’s shin, reducing his team to ten men. Even for Conte this was now a sizeable task made impossible when Martinelli and Xhaka combined to send Eric Dier the wrong way and allow the Swiss to strike the third.
Arteta leapt in the air while his team rushed to the corner, chasing down Xhaka, to celebrate, The Emirates resounded with a chant once heard here regularly of ‘We are top of the league!’ and Conte looked increasingly exasperated as old friends Kane and Dier had a heated debate over who precisely was to blame.
The empty Spurs end at the final whistle told its own story. Kane went over to applaud them. It was virtually a meet and greet with the 10-20 fans who chosen to see it out to the bitter end.
For most, it was too painful to stay and watch. As for Arsenal, the DJ chose to put on the 1958 Latin tune Tequila by The Champs. It is a new favourite for Arsenal fans, due to the scanning potential of William Saliba’s surname. It also captured nicely the sense of joy and celebration there is to be had in consigning your neighbours to ignominious defeat. And in idealism winning the day.
Arteta will be pleased with his side’s performance after a gruelling international break