If you wanted red-tinted visions of the future of Arsenal, then here they were. In the swarm of red shirts overwhelming Tottenham Hotspur in the first half, and the ruthless incisions through them in the second half, they produced not one good performance but two, each self-contained either side of their own brief slump just before the break.
If you needed any justification for the decision to pick Unai Emery over any of the other candidates to replace Arsene Wenger, then here it was. The methodical detail-obsessed organiser may not have Arsene Wenger’s romantic charisma but he has proven himself over the years as a master of systems, tactics, and the nuts and bolts of the game that had been allowed to rust over here long ago.
Too often in these north London derbies Arsenal would be overwhelmed by Spurs’ pressing, their desire, their attention to every little detail on the pitch. Arsenal would go out with vague ideas about how they wanted to play, Tottenham with instruction manuals on everything they might need to do under various circumstances.
But this time Arsenal were the side who looked to have done all their homework and Spurs were left desperately having to bluff. For the first half hour Arsenal delivered probably their best start to any game in years, since they took Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United side to pieces here more than three years ago. This was high pressing aggressive football, just like Emery played at Sevilla and just what he promised he would deliver here.
Every player followed Emery’s instructions to the letter and it was impossible to choose a best performer.
Pierre Emerick Aubameyang scored two goals, including a brilliant second to get Arsenal back into the game. Lucas Torreira set the tone in midfield, scored one himself and underlined his burgeoning cult hero status. Sead Kolasinac was the most dangerous player on the pitch in the first half, Sokratis looked more assured than ever at centre back and Hector Bellerin never stopped running. It was a totalising team performance.
And what about Mesut Ozil? He was nowhere to be seen on today’s team sheet, absent with an apparent “back spasm”. This after he spent the win at Bournemouth sat miserably on the bench and then did not travel to Ukraine for the Europa League game in midweek. But however bad his back problem is – he did suffer a similar problem earlier in the season – everything that subsequently happened on the pitch turned the issue on its head.
If you think that Arsenal would have missed their most famous and best paid player, the man they gave a £350,000 per week contract to earlier this year to keep him at the club, then everything that happened on the pitch suggested otherwise . They tore into Spurs from the start with their new aggressive 3-4-3, Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan pressing the Spurs defence and darting in behind. Could Ozil have provided Arsenal with that same level of physical intensity had he been fit enough to start? Make your own mind up.
In the second half Emery decided that he needed a different approach, less reliant on his two advanced wing-backs to get in behind Spurs. So he switched to a 3-4-1-2 with two men up front and Aaron Ramsey as the number 10. And it was that change, and Ramsey specifically, who changed the game for Arsenal. Because it was Ramsey’s clever run in behind, flicking Hector Bellerin’s pass onto Aubameyang, that made Arsenal’s second goal. And Ramsey nicking the ball from Juan Foyth after a quick throw, raking a pass through to Alexandre Lacazette, that made the third.
This was Ramsey encapsulating Emery’s ethos and executing his instructions, able to give Arsenal exactly what they needed to turn the game. Even though he is in the last year of his contract, and set to leave the club in six months’ time, he is still capable to performing at the high level when called upon. Ozil is contracted for another two more years after this one and yet his own job within Emery’s way of playing football is not as clear.
For much of 2017 and before that Arsenal agonised about the futures of Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, wondering how they could possibly keep their two top players and stay competitive. But now at the end of 2018 they are looking well shot of Sanchez and as if the decision to keep Ozil was perhaps overly generous. Because football is a team game and the evidence of the last few years, of Antonio Conte’s Chelsea and Pep Guardiola’s City and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham is that 11 well-drilled players rigorously following their manager’s instructions will beat most thrown-together groups of disparate individuals. Especially when some of those individuals are not pulling in the same direction.
Any power accrued by Ozil in signing that new contract already appears to be melting away from him. Because with every strong team performance Emery is earning more credit and this afternoon he earned more than he has done all season so far. If these players can work this hard for him, and play for him like this, then he hardly needs anyone else, and certainly not someone whose work rate has been questioned ever since he arrived here five years ago. This is Emery’s team now, not Wenger’s or Ozil’s, and that grip was clearer than it ever has been out here today.