If the jury has been out on Unai Emery’s ability to reverse Arsenal’s fall from the Premier League’s top four then this was the most compelling evidence yet that the Spaniard’s methods are working.
His team’s deserved 4-2 win over Tottenham in Sunday’s pulsating north London derby was their first over another team from the big six for more than a year, suggesting that Emery is mending their weaknesses.
August fixtures against Manchester City and Chelsea, which both ended in defeat, came too soon in Emery’s tenure to pass judgement on the Spaniard, while drawing at home to Liverpool was inconclusive.
And while an unbeaten run that now spans 19 games has looked encouraging for some time, even late-era Arsene Wenger Arsenal teams would enjoy purple patches until meeting formidable opposition such as Spurs.
This was Emery’s finest hour in his new role, then. Wednesday’s trip to Manchester United is another test, given that Gunners haven’t beaten a big six team away from home since January 2015, but they will head to Old Trafford in buoyant mood.
Arsenal depth wears Spurs down in the end
A defining feature of Emery’s first four months at the helm has been that Arsenal have tended to finish strongly, winning matches in the second half, and so it proved against Spurs.
When Eric Dier’s header and Harry Kane’s penalty within the space of four minutes eclipsed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s early spot-kick and sent Spurs in at half-time ahead, the Arsenal manager acted.
On came Alexandre Lacazette and Aaron Ramsey at the interval and the changes helped to turn the contest again.
Ramsey set up the next two goals – the first bent home by Aubameyang and the second scored by Lacazette – before Lucas Torreira capped the win with his first for the club.
That Arsenal finish strongly, overwhelming often tired opponents, is undeniable. Whether it is by accident or design is another matter.
Emery has a strong bench to use, and bringing on players of the calibre of Lacazette and Ramsey is a luxury few teams even among the big six have.
It’s also true that the intensity with which Arsenal press wears teams down, and that was in evidence here.
Tottenham tire after testing week
For Tottenham, this was a third big game in nine days – following last weekend’s victory over Chelsea and the midweek defeat of Inter Milan – and it felt like a bridge too far for tired players.
While Emery changed 10 players from Thursday’s Europa League trip to Kiev, for which he left his key players at home entirely, Mauricio Pochettino was working with a weary squad.
And although they fought back through Dier – whose shushing celebration to home fans drew an angry response from Arsenal substitutes and led to a touchline scuffle – and Kane, fatigue duly set in.
Tired legs may even have contributed to Jan Vertonghen’s lunge for the ball that earned a second yellow card five minutes from time.
This result might have moved Arsenal into the top four at their neighbours’ expense, but considering the teams’ schedules – as well as the fact that, against form, they won this fixture last year – it would be hasty to talk about balances of power in north London yet.
No Ozil, no problem
For the 10th time this season, Arsenal were without Mesut Ozil, their marquee player, highest paid star and – increasingly, it seems – their biggest conundrum.
Emery said Ozil missed out with “back ache”, swerved questions about whether the German had declined to be as a substitute, and wore the air of a man less than happy with his player.
The manager had to deny claims of a falling out when Ozil sat out a win over West Ham in August, citing illness. Back spasms were also given as the reason when he missed October’s win at Fulham.
What this latest absence means for the 30-year-old’s future at the club in unclear but with Emery proving successful so far, Ozil – unlike United’s Paul Pogba, whose relationship with Jose Mourinho looks similarly complicated – may not be able to bide his time for a likely change of manager anytime soon.