Arsenal are in need of an immediate tonic after the disappointment of crashing out of the Champions League and in their local rivals Tottenham, they could well have the perfect opposition to provide it.
After a 1-1 result at Bayern Munich in midweek, Arsenal’s performance was given the predictable label ascribed to English losers of “brave” and “defiant.” Meanwhile, manager Arsene Wenger was eager to draw the attention to what he saw as the play-acting of Arjen Robben to win a penalty in both legs. The fact is that after a stirring 15 minutes at the start of the first leg, Arsenal were outclassed by their opponents. In the return leg a comeback never looked likely.
There is no disgrace in that of course. Bayern Munich look a class apart in Europe this season and simply have more top level players than Arsenal. Still, there is still an opportunity for the Gunners’ season to have a positive climax. That Arsenal weren’t embarrassed in Munich should enable Arsene Wenger’s side to maintain the momentum they appeared to rediscover in the 4-1 win over Everton last weekend.
Injuries now pose the biggest problem to Arsenal keeping in touch with Chelsea at the top of the Premier League. Mesut Ozil has joined the lengthy casualty list and, with Jack Wilshere out and Aaron Ramsey’s return again delayed, Wenger’s options in midfield are limited.
Still Wenger can call upon Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini to perform reliable jobs in front of the back four, while further forward Tomas Rosicky has been one of Arsenal’s most reliable performers this season and Santi Cazorla looked back to his best in the win over Everton. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s value to the side was shown in midweek, with the 20-year-old being the one player capable of providing drive from midfield. And he could well have a field day against a Tottenham side that has been shambolic in their last two outings.
A 4-0 defeat to Chelsea last week may have started encouragingly but Tottenham’s second-half collapse felt all-too predictable. Tim Sherwood’s public lambasting of his players’ attitude afterward ignored the subtler point that Chelsea had looked capable of exploiting his team in transition throughout. While lacking a threat going forward, Tottenham left gaping holes for their opponents to exploit.
Sherwood again called out his players prior to the first leg of their Europa League tie with Benfica. It’s fair to say that it didn’t have the desired results. Tottenham were wholly directionless on Thursday, a very public indictment of the man in the dugout. Without the ball the wide spaces particularly in front of the back four and in behind the full backs were again all too apparent, while even from set-pieces there was a worrying lack of organization that allowed Benfica to score two of their goals in a 3-1 win. Meanwhile, when in possession Spurs' passing was sloppy and purposeless. The only way they could think of to get forward was to aim hopeful balls up to Emmanuel Adebayor. While Sherwood provided some fans with a breath of fresh air upon his arrival, Tottenham’s latest performance was an insipid as anything served up under Andre Villas-Boas.
After an initial bump in results, there is a sense not only of Sherwood being found out but that of his players being aware of his limitations, too. Publicly criticizing players is a bold move and generally can only work once and when the manager has absolute authority and respect. Just 18 matches into his management career it’s hard to imagine Sherwood have either of those.
It was against Arsenal in early January that Sherwood’s lack of tactical acumen was really exposed for the first time. Then the lack of a defensive midfielder and the decision to play two men up front left them sorely overrun in the midfield, allowing their rivals to win comfortably.
Sherwood has since proved himself more flexible, in personnel terms at least. On Sunday there will surely be no repeat of the two man front line, while Sandro is likely to be selected to try and provide some tenacity in midfield. But it’s one thing having the players in nominally the right areas of the pitch, another having them play to considered instructions. If the likes of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Cazorla are willing and able to make runs off of Olivier Giroud then Arsenal should make hay in behind the Tottenham defense and bring an end their rival’s Champions League hopes.
Prediction: Tottenham 0-2 Arsenal