Arsenal shrug off derby pressure to send Man City title warning

LONDON — Arsenal found a way. Sunday’s 3-2 win at bitter North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur came through a combination of hard work, quality and a little luck, but Mikel Arteta’s side earned the victory they needed to keep Manchester City honest during the Premier League title run-in.

The Gunners are determined to avoid a repeat of last season when they ran out of steam in the final weeks of the campaign. A cavalier team willing to take on all comers anywhere, anytime lacked the adaptability to negotiate the pressure of playing when the prize is in sight.

Arteta revealed in the buildup to this game that he has sought the counsel of former Arsenal boss Arsène Wenger on how to navigate the “later stages” of a title race. It may not be enough — City will finish on top for the fifth time in six seasons if they win their remaining games — but Arsenal are showing clear signs of handling these occasions with the requisite skill set, which serves as encouragement for the future.

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After sacrificing his principles to employ a safety-first, defensive game plan to secure a 0-0 draw at City last month, Arteta spoke about the need to sometimes “leave your ego and your ideology aside and do what you have to do to win the game” to succeed in big matches. Arsenal were similarly conservative here, although this time Arteta admitted that was a product of Tottenham’s front-foot approach rather than a pre-conceived strategy. “They forced us,” Arteta said. “We had an issue with the high press.”

But Arsenal still made it work. And unlike their draw at City, this time the Gunners allied a potency in attack to defensive diligence to race into a 3-0 lead courtesy of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg‘s 15th-minute own goal, Bukayo Saka‘s wonderful counter-attacking strike and a Kai Havertz header seven minutes before the break.

What followed was a reminder that Arsenal’s evolution as a team capable of winning in a number of ways with the sort of authority City routinely demonstrate is very much a work in progress. Spurs had hit the post through Cristian Romero and had Micky Van der Ven‘s equalising goal ruled out for offside on VAR review, but they needed Arsenal to spark their comeback. David Raya gifted the ball to Romero for a simple 64th-minute finish that stirred a malcontent crowd into life, roused further by another error, this time from Declan Rice as he kicked Ben Davies in the box, to give Son Heung-Min an 87th-minute spot kick he despatched.

A frantic finale followed but Arsenal held their nerve for a victory which ticks off one of their toughest remaining challenges. The destiny of the title will definitively shape conclusions, but it seemed fair to at least pose the question to Arteta whether Arsenal are showing a genuine evolution from the team that fell short last April.

“I think so,” Arteta said. “When you win it’s always the case. Last season we didn’t, because we want to West Ham and we missed a penalty [and drew], and against Liverpool we conceded in the 91st minute [to draw] and then you’re not capable.

“At the end, the judgement is going to be based on that outcome. If they got the goal in the last minute to make it 3-3 then we wouldn’t have been ready. The margins are so small. Don’t get carried away with yourself. We want to be better.”

Arteta’s team displayed a savviness that his opposite number, Ange Postecoglou, may feel Tottenham lack. The Australian has never employed a dedicated set-piece specialist among his staff, entrusting that responsibility to an existing member of the backroom setup. There is no fool-proof method for success, but on days like this it does feel as though the 58-year-old may be missing a trick when that is contrasted with Nicolas Jover. Poached from City in July 2021, the Frenchman prowls the touchline at every dead-ball situation presiding over a record that has now seen Arsenal score more Premier League goals (16) from corners in a single season than any other team since Tony Pulis’ West Bromwich Albion side in 2016-17.

Yet Postecoglou focused more on Arsenal’s maturity in their game management as the significant factor in explaining why Spurs are battling — and potentially losing — the race for fourth place while Arsenal are mounting a second consecutive challenge for the title.

“If I thought us fixing defensive set-pieces was the answer to us bridging the gap then I would put all my time and effort into that but it is not where we’re at,” said the Spurs boss. “For us, it is about … we are not as focused on the details, not just set pieces. There are a lot of moments in game where we don’t sense that if you give good opposition the time and space to do things, they are going to hurt you.

“We’re still not laser-focused on the small things that get you from where we are to a team that contends. Credit to Arsenal. They are there now. They are a team that does deal with the details well. There are thousands. The little things. You can’t give time and space to good opposition, you can’t lose focus on any given moment.”

Asked specifically about Romero’s contribution, Postecoglou was decidedly pointed in his answer when he replied: “He was outstanding. He’s a World Cup winner, and I’ve just got to get some of what’s in him into some of the others.”

Arsenal and Arteta have seemingly done that already, utilising Havertz’s big-game experience, Rice’s personality and Saka’s relentless willingness to commit defenders and carry the fight. Gabriel and William Saliba continue to provide a solid foundation while Thomas Partey‘s physicality was a welcome addition in midfield.

The combination may not deliver them the title they crave, but Arsenal appear set to take City right to the wire.