Granit Xhaka inspires Arsenal to impressive derby win over 10-man Tottenham


If this was supposed to be a rare north London derby where both sides were on the rise, it is only Arsenal who have stayed up there. They did much more than win a genuine juncture game here, though. They sustained their own momentum, banished more doubts, and finally made Tottenham Hotspur look like the unconvincing side that had been hinted at in their previously unbeaten run.

Antonio Conte faced up to his first league defeat of the season in the worst possible game, but also faced starker questions about his team - and even his approach. The Italian might point to a red card for Emerson Royal that he evidently felt was overly harsh, but the distinctive dynamic of the game had been set long before then.

It was probably more important for Arsenal given it had seemed so like the 3-1 defeat to Manchester United, but the manner in which they reversed that result in an even more emotionally meaningful game will have a bigger impact. So much of this was personified by Granit Xhaka’s satisfying resurgence and his match-winning goal. It is not just vindication for the midfielder, but even more so for Mikel Arteta. It is another problem to solve for Conte.

The most relevant fact, and the reason that Arsenal were fully deserved winners, was because the entire game was dictated - appropriately enough - by Arteta’s dogmatic approach. Arsenal sought to take the game to Spurs and to play all the football.

Conte, by contrast, only countered around that.

It was almost a vintage proactive-reactive, Pep Guardiola-Jose Mourinho tactical game in that regard, deepened by the emotion of the derby. It is even fair to ask whether Arteta is now the most idealistic manager in the Premier League now, even more so than his mentor in Guardiola.

This will certainly have been his vision of victory in such a match.

Arsenal ultimately just shut Spurs down with gloriously open football. They pushed the margins of the match right back by pushing so high up the pitch.

That very approach is fraught with risk for teams that are not yet complete. It was as if the entire first half was played on the high wire that was Arsenal’s high line, with Arteta’s side constantly on the brink of overwhelming Tottenham with another overlapping attack, or getting undercut by a simple and singular counter.

The goals summed this up.

Jesus shone as he scored one of Arsenal’s three goals (REUTERS)
Jesus shone as he scored one of Arsenal’s three goals (REUTERS)

The one thing that can be said is that Arteta’s approach has so many more potential angles and avenues of attack than Conte’s. That is why it is ultimately better, as well as better to watch, even if it requires more coaching work to implement.

After a relentless opening where Arsenal just pushed Spurs right back, space eventually opened just in front of Hugo Lloris’ box. This is one consequence of sitting deep. It is difficult to cover everything, especially when this doesn’t seem like the most vintage Conte defence.

So, as Spurs tried to deal with the chaos created by the thrilling unpredictable runs of Gabriel Martinelli and Gabriel Jesus, Thomas Partey was left to exquisitely curl the ball into the top corner.

Arsenal were buoyant, but whether they are yet title challengers was maybe left in doubt by what followed.

Spurs caused some vintage Arsenal panic with one break. Son Heung-Min almost seemed the ideal attacker to play against Arteta’s side. Martin Odegaard was at one point forced to grab his shirt to try and stop him. By then, one son break had released Richarlison, who won a penalty from a rash Gabriel challenge.

Harry Kane wasn’t going to miss.

This remaining flaw in the Arsenal set-up may well be why they miss out on a proper title challenge over the course of this season.

Over the course of this game, Spurs just didn’t have enough to keep it up. Arsenal showed admirable persistence in their approach. They kept going, to the point they just went through Spurs.

Xhaka’s goal was the culmination of an impressive start to the season for the Swiss international (AP)
Xhaka’s goal was the culmination of an impressive start to the season for the Swiss international (AP)

This was almost literally the case with the goal that definitively put them ahead, as Hugo Lloris couldn’t hold it and Jesus forced it over the line. Xhaka then kept going himself, scoring a goal that will be so personally satisfying.

There was one telling moment in between when Kane had seemed to be through on goal, only for William Saliba to completely outpace and force the attacker into a sliding challenge when he had a head start.

It was a little play that almost summed up the game, and added up to win big win for Arsenal.

All of the questions are now for Conte. Arsenal did much more than find solutions. They found some of their best football.

It may not be enough for a title challenge this season. But there is that joyous sense of a team on the up, and going somewhere. Spurs will have to do a bit more than just sit at the edge of their own box. It leaves Arsenal top of the Premier League.