Shortcomings of Tottenham and Arsenal exposed in derby draw
Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino put it starkly. Tottenham's 2-2 draw against Arsenal in a frenetic north London derby was "a missed opportunity."
Tottenham were trailing 1-0 to an Aaron Ramsey goal despite dominating the first half. They came out for the second period short of ideas and energy until Francis Coquelin committed what seemed like a catastrophic error. The Arsenal midfielder, booked for handball in the first half, left his feet and poleaxed Harry Kane. Michael Oliver, the referee, calmly administered a second yellow and the red card. He had no choice.
It was a mind-boggling act by Coquelin. Kane was running down a blind alley, the Arsenal defence was well set and in position to snuff out any threat. To boot, Ramsey's goal had stripped Spurs of the vigour with which they controlled the first 40 minutes of the game.
Now White Hart Lane, seemingly sedated for the first 10 minutes of the second half, erupted. Within seven minutes of Coquelin's transgression, Toby Alderweired and Kane had put Tottenham in front and the only question appeared to be how many Tottenham would win by against the 10-men Gunners.
Arsenal, so often derided for lacking character, now found some. Alexis Sanchez, out of form for so long, had been showing signs of flickering into life. With 14 minutes left, Hector Bellerin picked the Chilean out in the Tottenham area and Sanchez shot across Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to level the score.
Both managers felt themselves unlucky after this frantic derby. There was more pressing than passing, more chaos than craft, but in the end the result was about right, although Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger would never agree. He felt that Coquelin's sending-off changed the game. "He has big regrets," the Arsenal manager said of the midfielder. "If it was 11 v. 11, we would not have dropped points. He made a big mistake."
Wenger also thought referee Oliver made an error in not giving Eric Dier a second yellow card just after Sanchez's equaliser. The Tottenham midfielder tussled with Olivier Giroud, on as a substitute, near the centre circle and tugged the Arsenal striker's shirt. Many officials would have evened the numbers, although Giroud's swinging arm could have seen the foul awarded against the Gunners. "I cannot complain [about Coquelin]," Wenger said. "But I can complain about Dier," the Frenchman duly moaned, suggesting referees should have to explain their decisions in public.
The gripes will overshadow a more important refereeing decision: just after the sending-off, Kane fired in a shot that Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina repelled from behind the goal-line. Tottenham appealed and without technology, the referee would surely have given a goal. Oliver looked at his watch for a long time and then signalled "play on."
It was another "if only" moment for Spurs, They started better and should have been out of sight before Ramsey put the away side in front. All four goals could be used to highlight the brilliance and ineptitude that characterises both these teams and the flaws that have kept each from dominating the title race.
The opener came six minutes from the break, when an Arsenal throw-in to Ramsey was deflected and ran into the path of Danny Welbeck inside the left channel. Spurs were fixated on the ball and no one noticed Bellerin surging into the right of the box. The full-back passed to Ramsey and, although the ball was a little behind him, the Welshman improvised cleverly to loop it into the net with a delicate touch from his heel. The home side's defence looked at each other in despair. Lloris left the pitch at the half, muttering away in dour anger.
Alderweired's leveller also should have defenders asking questions of each other. Erik Lamela's attempt from a corner was blocked, but the ball squirmed out to the edge of the six-yard box where the Tottenham centre-back was standing alone in the most congested area of the pitch. The big Belgian had plenty of time to pick his spot and send the ball into the far corner from an acute angle.
Kane's goal was the pick of the bunch, but it too resulted from comedic defending. Per Mertesacker attempted to guide the ball out of play on the left, but Dele Alli, who had been trying too hard all afternoon and showing his inexperience, decided to chase the slow-footed German. The 19-year-old won the race and back-heeled the ball to Kane. The striker exploited the gaping space vacated by Mertesacker to move into the area and curl a magnificent shot around Gabriel into the far corner of the goal.
Tottenham should have closed the game down but naive defending let Sanchez level the scores. Bellerin again seemed to sneak into a dangerous position unnoticed and his pass found the Chilean in space that should not be afforded to a player of his talent. Kevin Wimmer, who lingered a yard deeper than the rest of the defence, allowed Sanchez to run beyond the centre-backs.
As the game neared its end, it could have gone either way. Arsenal's self-destructive urge is always just a bad kick away, though. With the minutes ticking down, Gabriel sliced a clearance and the ball barely cleared Ospina's bar. It was the last alarm for the Gunners.
They gave Tottenham a late scare. Ramsey went through on goal and it took an excellent challenge from Wimmer to stop the Welshman firing in a shot. Arsenal looked marginally more dangerous than Spurs after the score went to 2-2. Wenger replaced Mohamed Elneny with Giroud just before the equaliser and the different sort of threat posed by the French striker unnerved the home defence.
What does it mean for the title race? "I dunno," Wenger said when asked whether his side were still challenging. "We have to take encouragement from this performance and keep it up until the end of the season to have a chance."
Arsenal can at least feel steadier after a dreadful couple of weeks.
Pochettino, who used the phrase "missed opportunity" three times, took some positives. "We have to happy we keep the three-point gap over Arsenal."
Kane was more realistic. "We should have finished the game off," the striker said. "We should have got the third and fourth and that would have been the end, but if you give top sides room, they punish you."
The 22-year-old was right. Tottenham had the chance to go top and let it slip. Opportunities like that may not come along so often.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.