LONDON — In retrospect, maybe Arsenal should have played this game back in January. At least then they would not have had to face Heung-min Son at the peak of his devastating powers.
Four months on from the postponement that prompted such outrage across the Premier League — Arsenal having invoked the competition’s COVID-19 protocols for delaying games when they had only one case of the virus in their squad and a string of absentees for other reasons — Tottenham picked up a win worth the wait for fans witnessing the first competitive North London derby played in front of fans at their new home.
It was a stage lit up in dazzling fashion by Son, now a goal away from the Golden Boot and closing fast on Mohamed Salah with eight in his last seven. Those may be enough to carry Tottenham to the top four. They were certainly enough to carry Antonio Conte’s side past an opponent who let the chance to secure Champions League football at the home of their great rival slip through the fingers. In trying to frustrate and inhibit Son, they allowed him to drive them to distraction.
Arsenal were no less the architects of their own demise than the South Korean, all the more so as they had set the tempo out of the gates. Had Martin Odegaard not slipped as he limbered to take a shot, Hugo Lloris might have been more seriously tested as Gabriel Martinelli was able to beat Emerson Royal at will. Even the home crowd, perhaps as loud as it has ever been since this ground was opened just over three years ago, was briefly murmuring with discontent when the visiting front four had pinned Tottenham back in their own half.
The warning signs, however, were plain to see. Gabriel was throwing himself into challenges as though he might never be able to win the ball back again, but the real cause for concern was at the other end. Arsenal had clearly planned for Son. They had just got it all wrong.
In their win against Chelsea, another back three exponent, Arsenal had adopted a fluid system that could swiftly see Bukayo Saka drop in to match the opposition. This time around, Mikel Arteta gambled that a four could quell Tottenham’s devastating attack.
Whenever he stepped five yards infield responsibility for quelling the No. 7 would shift from Cedric to Rob Holding, who had clearly concluded it was his responsibility to assert himself on Son. Frankly, it had more of the feel of a player who knew the dark arts were the only way to stop his opponent, nerves masquerading as street smarts.
The issue was not that he tried to niggle and wind up his opponent. It was that he was so bad at it. One early challenge saw Holding flip Son over him WWE style, an utterly brazen act that was begging Paul Tierney to take action. By contrast, the South Korean’s slight elbow into his opponent was the sort you could watch a half-dozen times without being able to say with certainty what an appropriate punishment might be.
The red was inevitable though Arteta was far from impressed with the specific decision that forced Holding off the pitch. “I cannot [talk about the refereeing],” he said. “I want to be on the touchline on Monday night. I will be suspended. You can ask the referee if he wants to come and give an assessment of the match. I can’t do it. I have two options, I can lie to you, which I don’t do, or I can be suspended and I really want to be on the touchline against Newcastle.”
Certainly, of the 13 red cards in Arteta’s tenure, five more than any other team this was a debatable one, a somewhat cynical but hardly malicious shoulder check as Son burst away. However, on the game’s trajectory at that time, it was clear that, if Holding had avoided a second yellow there, it would merely have delayed the inevitable. Arsenal heads had gone, unable to check their indignation at the penalty from which Spurs had taken the lead. It was certainly a marginal call, but Cedric looked like he was more interested in competing with his man than claiming the ball when Dejan Kulusevski’s cross came into the box.
The moment Kane stepped up to the penalty spot, Conte knew the outcome was never in doubt. “Harry Kane is very accurate in every training sessions,” he said. “I have never seen him make a mistake. Honestly, I’m very calm because I know that he is very good. We are talking about a fantastic striker.”
In the space of 15 minutes, this game was decisively won. Four minutes after Holding’s red had left Arsenal a goal and a man down their scoreline disadvantage was doubled, Rodrigo Bentancur flicking on a corner to an unmarked Kane at the back post.
Even amid all the chaos there were reminders of what might have been for Arsenal. A man light, their front four continued to probe. Had Hugo Lloris not palmed Eddie Nketiah’s curling strike, then the second half might have at least offered something but further pain for the visitors.
Son would inflict that crushing blow, the first pivotal instance in the game where Arsenal might not have been able to do any more defensively. Gabriel did well to block Kane’s shot and one would have thought there were enough bodies back to get in the way when the ball broke to Arsenal’s tormentor. A stabbed right-footed finish somehow sent the ball squeaking through the thicket, giving Son the goal he had so merited.
In truth, Arsenal already knew by then that there was no back, that being the most logical explanation for why Ben White’s fitness was not tested after what will end up being at least a fortnight out with a hamstring issue. Even if he is back for Monday’s trip to Newcastle, the defense may well look even more of a mish mash with Gabriel having limped out late on clutching his hamstring.
In such circumstances, it is perhaps worth remembering that fourth place remains in Arsenal’s control. Beat Newcastle and Everton and Thursday’s derby means nothing for Tottenham beyond bragging rights. And yet, as those 10 crestfallen players who had made it to the end trudged over to a rapidly emptying away section, an immediate revival at St James’ Park seemed an unlikely scenario, such was the damage Son had wrought on them.