Arsenal at risk of wasting Mikel Arteta progress as Tottenham expose fallibility

Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe, Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka look dejected

It was in the 19th minute, as Tottenham Hotspur’s backline made their first steps into the Arsenal half, that the home support finally exhaled.

Since Aaron Ramsdale used the second touch of the match to go deep to Spurs’ left-back area, like a fly-half kicking for territory, the hosts had been penned back on their own penalty area. Immediately Arsenal stepped up, their deepest outfield player dusting his boots with the whites of the halfway line. Those further forward zipped about with purpose.

Eddie Nketiah had already got his “touches in the box” column ticking over as early as the second minute. Martin Odegaard had a shot in the third. By the fifth, Spurs fans were already going at their team as passes back and forth across the defence meant little forward progress and ample opportunity for Arsenal to regain the ball in dangerous positions. Antonio Conte took it upon himself to try and direct where the passes should be going, but to no avail.

And so, when Spurs were finally able to make some progress of their own, through independent runs from Dejan Kulusevski and then Son Heung-min, Eric Dier and Davinson Sanchez stepped up, like animals re-emerging from hibernation. Eyes recalibrating to the brighter lights, wary of further danger to come to have them retreating back. This felt like a break in play rather than a shifting of momentum. Of Arsenal catching their breath before yet more harrying and hounding of white shirts who looked for all the world like the occasion was getting the better of them.

Those 19 minutes are now obsolete, undone by the 28 minutes that followed in which Arsenal did not just allow Spurs to batter their foundations, but even had a few swings of the sledgehammer themselves. A game that could have confirmed their Champions League status once more is now a reminder of their fallibility.

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Son Heung-min celebrates making it 3-0 to Tottenham

What can there be for Arsenal to learn from their defeat: Don’t barge into the back of an opposing man in the box? If you’re booked for persistent fouls, maybe avoid blocking a runner in the face with your elbow? Give a defender a call if there’s no one behind them so they can avoid giving away a corner? Cedric Soares, Rob Holding and Takehiro Tomiyasu can feel some personal guilty at Tuesday night’s result, particularly Holding, whose stupidity belied all the talk of him as a leader. There is still trust in the process, but now a little less in the players.

At 2-0 and a man down at half-time, the game was gone. And yet Arsenal emerged even more frazzled than before, as if the 15 minutes only exacerbated their edginess. Any one of five players should have cleared the danger or emphatically blocked Son strike which deflected past Ramsdale on 47 minutes. And so began a dispiriting endeavour for those red and white shirts as their supporters away in the corner gradually slinked back home.

If ever there is a time in football to speak in absolutes, it is here, in a north London derby to determine fourth spot with two games now to go. Arsenal still have the edge, leading their rivals by a point and knowing two wins gets them over the line. But suddenly Newcastle away next Monday and Everton on the final day of the season look like accidents waiting to happen.

Tottenham’s Emerson Royal holds up a flare as he celebrates with his teammates

Similarly, what credit Spurs deserve for an emphatic win needs to be capped by how it was achieved. In a sense, the most important thing beyond the points was the swagger of the second-half. A far cry from the palpable anxiety from those who lined the street, right the way from Silver Street down to Harringay station. That had turned to beer-soaked belief by 10pm. A belief that is as much fuelled by their remaining fixtures against relegation-worrying Burnley and then comprehensively relegated Norwich City as it is that they have likely inflicted some scars on this Arsenal side.

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The capitulation was compounded by an injury to Gabriel Magalhaes. Along with Holding’s red card, it leaves them short of options at the back for the trip to St James’ Park.

One result, even as bad as this, does not undo Arteta’s work with this precocious young squad. But it does heighten the importance of these last few days of the season. Failure to come good on Champions League football having wrestled back a top-four spot in April would be a sickener. Being in exactly the same place next season as they were at the start of this one given the progress could be catastrophic.

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