The north London derby had almost all of the ingredients of an instant classic.
The only thing missing was a competitive match, which, thanks to Spurs’ masterful game management compared to their naive opponents, was completely one-sided. Amid all the pre-match fretting and nerves, could anyone have imagined this game being so stress-free? And when picturing Spurs’ biggest margin of victory in a Premier League game against Arsenal, as this was, could you have pictured it feeling quite so, well, routine?
Arsenal came into the game with a four-point lead and a supposed air of superiority, but the game played out as if Tottenham were the older brother — knowing exactly what buttons to press, suckering the younger sibling into traps and then laughing as they walked straight into them.
Mikel Arteta’s side had been praised going into the game for their supposed street smarts, the fact that they were no longer a soft touch. And yet in their haste to try and wind Spurs up, they only succeeded in harming themselves. It was Tottenham who showed all the nous, all the mastery of the dark arts.
Take the duel between Rob Holding and Son Heung-min for instance. Holding had clearly decided, or been instructed before the game, to try and get under Son’s skin. There were a couple of flashpoints early on when, in fairness, a frustrated Son lashed out with a bit of an elbow. Son is no saint, but he did so in such a way that was just about ambiguous enough not to be deemed worthy of any punishment.
He was also then savvy enough to try and run at Holding at every opportunity, sensing that he was up against a player who wanted to make his mark and was playing the occasion rather than the game. Holding duly received two quick-fire bookings — for fouls on Son — and was sent off with barely half an hour played. In total the Arsenal defender committed four fouls, all on Son, the most he has made in a Premier League game, despite playing 33 minutes.
As Tottenham cleverly kept their heads, Arsenal’s misguided attempts to show how much they were up for the fight resembled former leader of the opposition Ed Miliband’s famously limp claim: “Am I tough enuss (sic)? Hell yes I’m tough enough.”
Spurs were massively ready to compete too, but in a way that hurt the opposition rather than themselves. When Bukayo Saka nicked the ball off Ben Davies and headed towards the penalty area with the score at 0-0, the Tottenham defender pulled him back before he could enter the box.
It was a tactical yellow that he knew he had to take — and at half-time Antonio Conte and the Spurs coaches stressed to Davies that he had to be extra careful in the second half (if Holding received such a warning after his yellow then it fell on deaf ears). Nothing came of the resulting free-kick following Davies’ booking, and a couple of minutes later Cedric conceded a penalty from which Harry Kane scored to give Tottenham the lead.
As the flares went off, and the decibel level went up a few notches, Arsenal looked frazzled — misplacing passes and making panicked fouls. Spurs just kept doing what they were doing, with Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg bossing the midfield and providing just the kind of calm that was needed in such a potentially fraught occasion. “We managed the pressure,” Conte said twice after the game.
Holding was soon sent off following the opening goal (itself a consequence of Cedric trying and failing to get away with a little nudge on Son), and Spurs did what Conte urged a month ago. “We had to show in this moment that you start to feel the blood of your opponent,” the Spurs head coach said after the 4-0 win at Aston Villa, and that was what his team did here.
Four minutes after Holding was sent off, Spurs scored again — rightly sensing that their opponents were rocking and their composure had deserted them.
Oh dear, Arsenal… 😬👀
Harry Kane heads home to make it 2-0 to Spurs! pic.twitter.com/Rxp1YWgIcJ
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) May 12, 2022
The ability to “feel the blood” of their opponents wasn’t the only way Spurs’ played in their manager’s image on Thursday night. He is a master at motivating his teams, but also giving them such clear, detailed instructions that they trust that if they concentrate on performing their individual tasks and working hard then they will get their rewards.
So it proved, and while Conte was revved up enough to pick up a first-half yellow card and spoke after the game of how he and his players were stirred by the passion of a local derby and the injustice of January’s postponement, by the end of the game his aggression on the touchline was as controlled as his players’.
His opposite number Arteta meanwhile spoke after the match in a manner that felt reminiscent of one of Conte’s predecessors at Spurs Jose Mourinho. “If I say what I think, then I am suspended for six months,” Arteta said.
Conte, using all his experience and very much continuing the theme of the big brother knowing how to wind up the little one, stuck the knife in. He used the word “complain” eight times in relation to Arteta, half of those times saying that the Arsenal manager “complains a lot”. Conte added that: “This is the advice if you want to accept the advice. If you don’t, I don’t care.”
It all contributed to the image of Arteta as rattled as his team, with Conte and Spurs the ones completely in control of the situation. Even if in a broader sense it’s Arsenal who remain the ones in control of the top-four race, clinging on to a one-point lead over their north London rivals.
Spurs produced a performance of poise and clear thinking against a team who completely imploded. And the extent to which the two teams exhibit those characteristics in their final two games will decide who ends up with the top-four prize.
(Main image: Son celebrates scoring Spurs’ third goal. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)