Wenger avoids derby defeat but Coquelin almost wrecks his plans
Arsene Wenger was left to wonder what might have been after the entertaining 2-2 draw in the north London derby on Saturday, in which the 55th-minute dismissal of Francis Coquelin wrecked a game plan that had appeared to be working to perfection.
Retaining his sense of pragmatism in big games, Wenger deployed a steely double pivot in Coquelin and Egypt international Mohamed Elneny, who made his first Premier League start since his January move from Basel. The combative duo formed the core of a compact defensive shape that largely succeeded in shutting down Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela; the playmaking trio who operated just behind Harry Kane.
Wenger was also rewarded for benching Olivier Giroud in favour of Danny Welbeck, whose run down the left created Aaron Ramsey's opener. Until that point, Tottenham had been limited to one clear-cut chance, but Coquelin's red card triggered a spell of pressure in which Spurs turned a 1-0 deficit to a 2-1 advantage in seven minutes. Wenger later introduced Giroud as Alexis Sanchez started moving infield, which yielded an equaliser almost immediately -- and a draw with which neither manager felt satisfied.
Elneny inclusion foils Spurs
Though both stances were understandable, Wenger will have been particularly aggrieved given how well his side started. Mauricio Pochettino had moved Lamela and Eriksen infield in an attempt to outnumber Arsenal centrally, with Eriksen particularly close to Alli.
But Elneny and Coquelin kept their positions diligently and Spurs only had one big chance before the red card, which came when Kyle Walker cannoned in a cross that Lamela directed at David Ospina.
The downside for Arsenal was that Elneny and Coquelin offered little on the ball. One poor Elneny touch led to a Kane effort saved by David Ospina, while Coquelin got his first booking when handling the ball to stop a counter that had originated from his own hesitation in possession.
Still, their inclusion long looked a shrewd move. Elneny made the second most ball recoveries (10) on the pitch, with all coming in the first 55 minutes. Over the same period, Spurs didn't complete a single dribble in the dangerous central area.
Welbeck stretches defence
Going forward, Welbeck was favoured as part of a counter-attacking approach, and Arsenal tried a series of early passes to launch him forward alongside Mesut Ozil.
Welbeck seemed particularly intent on seeking out the right flank, perhaps in a bid to outpace Kevin Wimmer, the left-sided centre-back who is less mobile than Toby Alderweireld.
One early ball from Ramsey nearly reached Welbeck, only for Hugo Lloris to clear with a diving header, though Spurs were generally well organised down that side. Arsenal also had fewer players around given that Ramsey often drifted inside from the right.
About 15 minutes before the break, Welbeck switched sides and soon looked more dangerous. With Sanchez occupying Walker, Welbeck was able to run in behind and draw out Alderweireld, and it didn't take long before he had produced a corner off the Belgian.
Five minutes later, Welbeck and Ramsey combined to great effect. Eric Dier unwittingly tackled the ball into the path of Welbeck, who squared to Hector Bellerin before the Spaniard's delivery was flicked in by Ramsey.
Shortly after, Sanchez clipped in a cross that Welbeck headed at Lloris. Later on, a better Welbeck touch might have converted Ozil's sumptuous pass into another goal. Welbeck had been a menace down the left, with Alderweireld forced into three tackles out wide inside the last 15 minutes.
Coquelin red prompts comeback
The opener appeared to set it all up perfectly for Arsenal. They could now stay patient, use Welbeck's pace and let Coquelin and Elneny break up attacks. Instead, Coquelin's tackle on Harry Kane and subsequent dismissal filled Spurs with belief. Though Wenger moved Welbeck out right, Ozil up front and Ramsey down next to Elneny, his tweaks didn't stop the avalanche of chances that ensued.
An Alli volley soon produced a corner that Kane hammered at Ospina, who narrowly kept the ball out. Three minutes later, Alderweireld converted another corner to take the number of Spurs goals from set-pieces this season to 15 -- three more than any other side.
Another two minutes on, Alli back-heeled the ball to Kane who cut inside from the left to curl a beauty into the far corner. That capped an impressive seven-minute turnaround and Mauricio Pochettino would regret that his side did not add a third. Dier fired low at Ospina, Rose had a shot off target and Kane dragged wide from a good position.
When Wenger made his changes in the 75th minute, Spurs had mustered 10 shots in the last 20 minutes.
Sanchez central in Wenger rejig
Part of the problem for Wenger was the lack of a natural focal point. Welbeck no longer troubled the backline and Ozil was never a likely False No.9, so Giroud came in at the expense of Elneny, with Ozil moved deeper.
The form of certain individuals didn't hint at an imminent comeback -- Giroud had not scored in 10 games, while Sanchez had one goal and one assists in nine fixtures since returning from injury in January -- yet within a minute, the Chilean snuck in behind the defence to fire past Lloris.
That equaliser came after Sanchez had moved into a central position, much like the ensuing Arsenal moves. Six minutes before the end, they turned a Spurs corner into a counter, but Sanchez's final pass was cut out.
The 27-year-old also had a free kick beaten away by Lloris, and three minutes into stoppage time popped up again to feed Ramsey, whose effort was blocked by Wimmer. That final chance materialised moments after Gabriel had gone close to slicing a cross into his own net, though considering how many calls Wenger got right, a defeat would have been harsh.