Arsenal show welcome sense of fortitude in earning a draw vs. Spurs
Blood and guts are not words you normally find in the same sentence with Arsenal. You're more likely to witness Steve McClaren being given the keys to the city in Newcastle than you are to see the wilting Gunners battle back after two consecutive Premier League defeats that could generously be described as meek.
Apparently it took Arsenal's most bitter rival to trigger their heart and resolve -- just when the Gunners' title hopes were toilet-bound. Down to 10 men after Francis Coquelin's brainless red card and trailing 2-1 to a rampant Spurs side, Arsenal displayed the kind of competitive courage we see as frequently as a competent holding midfielder in a red and white shirt.
So thank you, Spurs, for being quintessentially Spursy and failing to take advantage of an Arsenal team flailing around like Conor McGregor in a rear-naked choke. Let's face it -- if Tottenham had shown a little more poise and incisiveness in the final third, Arsenal's chances for their first Premier League trophy in 12 years would be dead and buried instead of merely being on life support, eight points behind Leicester with nine games to play.
So while Gooners like me can proudly claim a moral victory after the 2-2 draw -- and we're top of the league in those -- it was actually the 5000-to-1 Foxes who were the real winners of the North London derby. Saturday's stalemate ensured that they still enjoy a five-point cushion over Spurs and don't have to worry about feeling masked Harry Kane's hot breath on their necks.
Meanwhile, Arsenal fans are left to wonder how glorious life would be if the Gunners had only played with this kind of fortitude against Manchester United and Swansea instead of laying down their arms at the first shot. But if one team was suffused with regret at the final whistle, it was Spurs. The last time they were this tantalizingly close to reaching the Holy Grail, humans were still five years away from walking on the moon. Add to this painful history the opportunity to put the final nail in the coffin of Arsenal's 2015-16 season and Mauricio Pochettino's high-flyers can be forgiven if they were a bit overanxious. And this time they couldn't blame some dodgy lasagna.
Yet it was Arsenal who entered the game in far more disarray. With their top four rivals striving to outdo one another in the face-planting department, the Gunners' road to the summit was thought to be as smooth a climb as they were ever likely to have. Anything less than the title would prove Jose Mourinho's famous epithet about Wenger being "a specialist in failure" to be sadly prescient. But even the Frenchman's fiercest supporters were gobsmacked at how many different ways the Gunners could find to self-destruct despite Wenger's best efforts. At halftime on Saturday, he all but drew a picture of a giant mushroom cloud on the blackboard and implored Coquelin to avoid the trigger.
You would think given that he speaks fluent French, the midfielder would have understood Wenger's instructions to not be a fool. Coquelin had been his usual combative self in the first half, snapping into tackles, harrying Spurs attackers into losing possession and foolishly picking up a yellow card for a deliberate handball. Still, it hardly mattered when against the run of play, Arsenal took the lead after Danny Welbeck and Hector Bellerin combined to find Aaron Ramsey in the box. The Welshman, who never met a back heel he didn't like, nimbly re-arranged his feet to flick the ball into the net.
Arsenal 1, Spurs 0. Normal service had resumed in North London.
My recent shoulder surgery may have left me confined to my couch but as my courage is well known, I valiantly one-handed smug texts to my fellow delirious Gooners throughout New York City. As I settled in for the second half, I felt secure knowing that no matter how soul-destroying Arsenal's title run had been, there's nothing quite as life-affirming as victory over our delusional neighbors.
It only took nine minutes for my shoulder to start throbbing with searing pain as Coquelin's brain returned to its frozen state and instructed both legs to lunge recklessly at Kane streaking down the left touchline. Referee Michael Oliver did the requisite math and Arsenal were down to 10 men.
Emboldened by Coquelin's vapor lock, Spurs went for the throat and within six horrific minutes had surged ahead, courtesy of an opportunistic goal by Toby Alderweireld followed by a Messi-like one by Saint Kane that curled past David Ospina and into Spurs folklore.
When the England striker ripped off his protective mask in the course of his wild celebration, I had two immediate thoughts:
1. Where was his yellow card for removing his goggles just as players are punished for taking off their shirts?
2. Arsenal's season was over.
I've seen this movie too often to believe that the Gunners could respond to Kane's dagger with anything but a perfunctory attempt at damage control. With Spurs hurtling around like they were in the CERN particle collider and Arsenal chasing the game, all I could imagine was further carnage. I don't know what was more shocking: the way Arsenal found a layer of mental resilience that had been in hibernation, or the way Spurs didn't know how to react to it.
Some of the credit has to go to Wenger who was decidedly un-French when he made the brave decision to put on Olivier Giroud in place of Coquelin's partner in defensive midfield, Mohamed Elneny.
The Egyptian had been impressively composed in his first league start, while Giroud had been so bad over the previous nine games that I was starting to confuse him with Theo Walcott. But the Frenchman offered a big target upfront and has the strength and skill to hold up the ball in attack long enough for the Gunners to get men forward. Even Oliver's lunatic decision to allow yellow card-carrying Eric Dier to remain on the field when he tried to swap shirts with Giroud at the half-way line didn't deter Wenger's men.
Besides, if goal-scoring was the only measure of an Arsenal player's worth, Alexis Sanchez would have been buried on the bench long ago. The Chilean, so electric last season, had not found the net in a league game since mid-October. But Wenger kept faith with his struggling star and was rewarded at the moment Arsenal most desperately needed a hero.
When Sanchez's scuffed shot billowed the net for 2-2, I instinctively leaped off my couch and punched the air Celine Dion-style. Or rather, I tried to punch the air. At that instant of euphoria I had forgotten I was wearing a sling on my right arm and the sudden upward thrust of my fist felt like a lightning bolt had sheared my shoulder. It was a move so utterly brainless that I dubbed it a Coquelin as the tears rolled down my cheeks. Thankfully, they were a mixture of pain and relief.
Arsenal had survived to torture me another day because they rekindled the kind of competitive fire that has been dormant since 2012 when Walcott, of all people, left the field to a standing ovation after the Gunners' memorable fight back from two goals down to demolish Tottenham 5-2.
As for Spurs, I'm afraid they may have blown their opportunity to shift the balance of power in North London. While I hold out only the slenderest hope of Arsenal overtaking Leicester for the title, I am confident of one thing. The Gunners will find a way to finish ahead of Tottenham in the table. After all, we've had 20 years of practice.
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.