Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Arsenal 4 (aet)

Arsenal strolled into the fourth round of the Carling Cup this evening, winning away at bitter rivals Spurs after extra time. The game was preceded by a minute's applause for Bobby Smith* which both sets of supporters respected. The away pocket continued to make noise throughout the 120 minutes. This is the loudest I can remember Arsenal - a club reputed for its quiescent support - at White Hart Lane. They cherished tonight's Carling Cup victory and sang, without irony, of going to Wembley. The surrounding home faithful responded to their thrashing in bedlam or tight-lipped shame.

Wenger, serving a touchline ban, went 4-2-3-1 as is now customary for Arsenal. A welcomely aggressive Wilshere continued to impress in a deeply born, darting midfield role next to incomer Denilson; Henri Lansbury, flanked by Rosicky and Nasri, worked higher up the pitch to support Carlos Vela. Of the several no.10s on display in red, Lansbury impressed as the most predatory, by getting on the end of a cross which sped across the face of the Spurs goal - a cross worthy of the chalkboard-messy, passing move it completed.

Harry Redknapp, not as up to speed with the sport as his counterpart, fielded a Venables Christmas tree: 4-3-2-1. Arsenal broke its branches at ease, isolating a Russian angel. Palacios, Jake Livermore and Brazilian debutant Sandro started without discipline (and so the ball) in midfield. They couldn't cope with the coherent haranguing by Densilson and Wilshere among others. Livermore - thankful Parret and Bostock are out on loan - struggled to express himself. Sandro made more of an impact and managed some critical interceptions and wily dribbles. Palacios quickly became Arsenal's best player, a phantom capable of illicit tackling. The whimsical David Bentley and Vela's international teammate Dos Santos were inverse but narrow wingers. Pavlyuchenko, up front, looked very alone. With no other options he fired shots from distance that were skyward or blocked. Arsenal did not have to move up a gear. Despite humiliating Spurs with the ball, the visitors could only force one shot inside the box before the interval. Bassong and Caulker defended resolutely.

1-0 down at half time, Redknapp brought on Aaron Lennon and Robbie Keane - whose determined movement and pressing were rewarded by a goal. An awkward finish - what we have come to expect from the Irishman - pattered from the edge of the box to Fabianski's left. The goalkeeper has a habit of making blunders against Spurs in the Carling Cup and let the ball squirm through his gloves. Shot-stopping is not normally the flaw of an Arsenal goalkeeper: Almunia will know his immediate future is secure. Only recently, Harry Redknapp told us in The Sun that football is 10% tactics, 90% players. Tactless but talented, Spurs dominated approximately 10% of this match. Thirteen minutes after conceding the equaliser Arsenal reimposed their style: Vela came close on the hour but couldn't net with his head. Before the (first) final whistle Vela, Denilson, Wilshere, Djourou, Eboue and substitute Chamakh all threatened Pletikosa's goal. Meanwhile Lennon, put off by a recovering Koscielny, spawned a straightforward opportunity to nobody's surprise.

Niko Kranjcar was withdrawn from the lineup close to kick off, and then perplexingly came on as a substitue for Sandro in extra time when the score was 1-1. This meant that for 90 minutes against a world class passing outfit in a North London derby, Redknapp burdened Sandro with the sole responsibility of playmakership for his first game in England, let alone Europe. The onus was never going to fall on the industrious types, Livermore or Palacios.

In extra time two clumsy challenges - first by Bassong and then three minutes later by Caulker - saw Nasri convert two penalties. After Spurs right back Kyle Naughton conceded a foul and fell asleep, Arshavin was through, into the box and finished with aplomb. Once Nasri had cleared off the line, Fabianski saved a close-range effort by Keane and the game ended 4-1, Arsenal's biggest win at White Hart Lane in 32 years.

Arsenal's familiarity and cohesion meant they were the opposite football team to a raw and miscommunicative Spurs. Arsenal's greater number of first team regulars making appearances also ensured they were comfortable. What won them the match though was a program of passing Spurs were unable to better or rebuff. If an attacking team are drawn in a Cup against Arsenal, then assured and interdependent passers must play. Kick and rush football will not suffice. The two teams shared possession at 50% each. But having shot twice as much as Spurs, shot twice as much on target as Spurs, and having committed half as many fouls, the superiority of Arsenal's passing culture in Tottenham's own half is impossible to get away from. Without Tom Huddlestone, control becomes something of a myth in the Spurs midfield. The absences of Modric and Van der Vaart are explicable but did not help. Tonight for Tottenham, it was a defence and midfield of strangers. And yet without Cesc Fabregas, the enemy is still well-prepared and idiosyncratic, home or away. The gap remains but it would be a lie to say only one team in North London has improved in 2010. Neutrals will savour a Premiership derby if Huddlestone, Modric and Van der Vaart confront Song, Wilshere and Fabregas.

Player Ratings

Pletikosa - 6
Naughton - 3
Caulker - 6
Bassong - 6
Assou Ekotto - 5
Palacios - 4
Livermore - 4 (Lennon - 6)
Sandro - 7 (Kranjcar - 5)
Dos Santos - 6 (Keane - 7)
Bentley - 5
Pavlyuchenko - 6

Fabianski - 5
Eboue - 7
Squillaci - 7
Koscielny - 7
Gibbs - 8 (Clichy - 6)
Denilson - 8
Wilshere - 9
Rosicky - 7 (Arshavin - 8)
Lansbury - 8
Nasri - 8
Vela - 6 (Chamakh - 7)

*Smith, a conventional no.9, top scored in Tottenham Hostspur's greatest ever team, the 'Double' winners of 1960/61.

The achievment might have been repeated the following year had it not been for the distraction of Europe and Alf Ramsey's ruthless Ipswisch Town. Spurs were knocked out in the semi finals of the '62 European Cup by Benfica, but Smith scored in both legs. He also scored in both of the FA Cup finals he played in when Spurs triumphed in '61 and '64. In '62 he became a Cup Winners Cup champion. He also represented Chelsea and Brighton & Hove Albion, retiring from professional football with an admirable goalscoring record: 218 in 376 club appearances; 13 in 15 for England. Bobby Smith passed away yesterday, aged 77.

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