The Arsenal Monday verdict: Enjoy the afterglow, but don’t lose sight of the bigger picture
18:31 27 February 2012
Gunners can revel in derby glory, but the more important job of staying in the top four starts now
A result that could change the fortunes of a season? It certainly felt like it on Sunday after a tumultuous north London derby which, even by the standards of this strangest of campaigns, took some believing.
After all the familiar talk of a power shift in north London, one that was backed up by the Premier League table, Arsenal sent Spurs packing back up the Seven Sisters Road with a beating so severe it made you wonder just how Harry Redknapp’s side have been title contenders this season.
But now the dust has settled, the reality is still there for fans of both clubs to see. Arsenal remain seven points behind their bitter rivals and only in fourth place above Chelsea by virtue of goals scored.
What Arsenal must guard against now is what has been Spurs’ undoing for so long – thinking that victory in the derby can in some way make up for a failed season.
For Tottenham, for so many years, it could. A mediocre campaign was salvaged if they defeated or even sometimes took a point off Arsenal. Local pride was intact, so what if Arsenal were 20 points ahead and winning the title?
The nadir came in 2004 when Spurs wildly celebrated claiming a late 2-2 draw with the Gunners, even though the point was enough for Arsene Wenger’s side to clinch the title, at White Hart Lane to boot. Spurs had lost sight of the bigger picture, one that saw Arsenal crowned unbeaten ‘Invincible’ champions a few weeks later.
The tables have turned now, but not quite as dramatically as it appeared this time last week, when Spurs were preparing to head into a derby with the unfamiliar feeling of being favourites.
Perhaps the weight of history did have some impact and they never quite believed it themselves, even when they were 2-0 in front on Sunday and seemingly heading for a second successive win away at Arsenal for the first time in over 80 years.
“We buckled when we conceded that first goal,” admitted Redknapp afterwards, and that was no understatement. Whether or not Redknapp can rebuild Tottenham’s confidence this week, with Manchester United heading to White Hart Lane on Sunday, is as intriguing as wondering if Arsenal can maintain the form that swept the old enemy aside with five goals in a quite blistering 28-minute spell.
There were minor miracles everywhere for Arsenal – the brilliance of Robin van Persie may be taken for granted as his stellar season shows no sign of slowing down, but Tomas Rosicky, Bacary Sagna and Theo Walcott emerging as rampaging, goalscoring heroes truly was in the realm of the unlikely.
Wenger will know that Liverpool will not be so accommodating this weekend. They are unbeaten at Anfield this season, and have conceded just eight goals in 12 games. Only leaders Manchester City, with their flawless record, are so miserly on home turf.
The Frenchman is acutely aware that defeat at Anfield would not only see Arsenal lose ground on Chelsea and Tottenham, but also see Liverpool re-enter the running for the top four places themselves. But it is not only fourth place up for grabs now. Spurs are suddenly looking vulnerable in third and with a dozen games to go Wenger knows his side must go for the jugular now.
“It is still possible [finishing third], if we keep our run going. Why not?” said Wenger on Sunday. “I always thought it was possible, but it would be down to consistency. Everybody in the Premier League can lose points. They [Tottenham] have a different schedule to us, but if we continue to play like that, then why not?”
Why not indeed? After hosting United on Sunday, Spurs face two away games at Goodison Park against improving Everton and then at Stamford Bridge.
Arsenal, however, must focus on themselves. Their away form, with six defeats from 13 games and 26 goals conceded, is woeful and the main reason no title challenge has materialised.
Talk of redemption must wait. In a season that saw them concede eight times at Old Trafford but score five against Chelsea and Tottenham, it is hard to know what to expect around the next corner.
That win at Stamford Bridge in October was supposed to herald a return to form, but proved a false dawn. This five-star show must now be a catalyst for a top-four finish.
Sunshine memories of a derby glory will provide much glee for now, but will not be quite so comforting next season if the Gunners are playing on chilly Thursday nights in the Europa League. For Arsenal, winning the derby alone is not enough.