There are derby defeats (where a team loses to its rival narrowly), there are demolition derbies (where a team loses to its rival badly) and then there are disaster derbies (where a derby defeat threatens to undo a whole season’s work). After losing 3-0 away at Tottenham Hotspur – in the process losing both their remaining fit centre-backs, Rob Holding and Gabriel, to suspension and injury respectively – Arsenal can only hope that the North London derby does not turn out to be a truly disastrous derby.
Disaster Derby for Arsenal Ends in Defeat
Unfortunately for Arsenal, the scale of their defeat to Spurs was historic. It was not only the worst of the Premier League era (Arsenal had never before lost to Spurs by more than two goals since 1992), but made it a hat-trick of away losses to Spurs for the first time since 1961, when Spurs’ double-winning side was still at its zenith. However, given that Spurs scored their third goal almost immediately after half-time, when Arsenal were already down to 10 men following Rob Holding’s ridiculously foolish red card in the first half for continual fouling of Son Heung-min, Arsenal and their fans are probably grateful that the score-line was not even more damning and damaging.
Arguably, that was only because Spurs and in particular their manager Antonio Conte had already realised that goal difference is unlikely to be the deciding factor in the battle for Champions League qualification, and that even if it turns out to be important Spurs already have such a lead in that regard (+23, as opposed to Arsenal’s +11) that it was not worth their risking key players’ fitness just to score a few more goals against their bitter rivals. The suspicion was that if Spurs had needed to score more goals, they could and would have scored them, such was Arsenal’s parlous predicament with just 10 men.
Rob Holding was supposed to be the archetypal “Steady Eddie”, a supremely reliable (if somewhat limited) centre-back who could provide dependable and experienced cover at centre-back whenever either of Arsenal’s two first-choice centre-backs, Ben White and Gabriel, were absent. Unfortunately for Arsenal and for himself, Holding did much to shred that reputation against Spurs, persisting in fouling the far speedier Son to try and slow him down, even after he had been booked. For Mikel Arteta to try and imply afterwards, as he did, that his dismissal was somehow unfair was absurd – almost as absurd as Antonio Conte, the eternal complainer, complaining afterwards that Arteta “complains too much”.
Holding’s dismissal, when Arsenal were already a goal down after Cedric had clumsily given away a penalty to allow Spurs to take the lead, effectively destroyed any chance the Gunners had of getting back into the game. Worse still, it means that he will be missing for Arsenal’s next match, away at Newcastle United on Monday night, when they will struggle to field two fit centre-backs of any description.
Shakespeare famously wrote: “Our troubles are not single spies, but in battalions come”. Where Arsenal are concerned, he could have said the same of injuries, especially to centre-backs. With Holding suspended, there is a real possibility that Arsenal will not have a single central defender fit and available to play against Newcastle and in particular their strong, aggressive and aerially impressive target man, Chris Wood. Ben White is just coming back from a hamstring injury himself and his fitness is obviously still so precarious that Arteta decided not to risk him against Spurs after Arsenal had gone two down to a Harry Kane header shortly after Holding’s sending-off.
However, things went from bad to potentially awful for Arsenal late in the game when Gabriel limped off with what may be a hamstring injury of his own. If that is the case, he will almost certainly miss Arsenal’s last two games of the season, starting at Newcastle. Consequently, with Holding now suspended and White at the very least making his return from injury ahead of schedule, Arsenal will have to play one, if not two, players in central defence who are not specialist centre-backs, such as full-back Takehiro Tomiyasu, or who may never have played there before, such as Granit Xhaka. Indeed, given all the other injuries to Arsenal’s defenders, notably Kieran Tierney, it is entirely likely that they will only be able to field one first-choice defender (Tomiyasu) against Newcastle, and he will probably have to play out of position.
Is the Lack Of Squad Depth Down to Arteta?
Of course, Arsenal can complain (as Arteta did after the match) that they have been extremely unlucky with suspensions and injuries, especially to so many key central defenders at the same time. However, that is to ignore the fact that Arsenal were arguably already a centre-back down on what should be the required minimum as a result of Arteta’s transfer dealings, both in January and before.
Tony Adams, who is probably Arsenal’s greatest ever central defender, famously said that to win a title, or indeed anything, you need four good centre-backs. On that basis, Arteta gambled on Tierney being his fourth centre-back in an emergency, overlooking the Scottish full-back’s own physical frailties that are always likely to limit his availability to play in any position. Worse still, allowing both Pablo Mari and William Saliba to go out on loan simultaneously, when at least one of them should have been retained to provide necessary cover at centre-back, was another one of Arteta’s borderline-reckless decisions.
All Is Not Lost for Arsenal – but It Soon Could Be
Of course, all is not yet lost for Arsenal, especially as they are still a point ahead of Spurs going into the final two Premier League fixtures of the season. However, given the crushing defeat, suspension and injury that they suffered against Spurs, it soon could be. The players of Newcastle will literally be playing for their future in the new era of Saudi riches. As a result, contrary to the optimistic post-match tweets and messages of some Arsenal fans, they will certainly not be “on the beach” against the Gunners.
Consequently, what Arsenal and Arteta need to do right now and right up to the Newcastle match is to regroup and in particular to reorganise the defence with whatever players they have available after suspension and injury. Unfortunately, that is precisely what they have largely been unable to do this season, as they have regularly suffered runs of defeats after one particularly bad loss, most recently losing three matches in a row against Crystal Palace, Brighton and Southampton. They cannot afford to do so again now, because even a draw against Newcastle will almost certainly allow Tottenham, who play Burnley at home on Sunday, to go ahead of them and enter the top four before the final game of the season.
This season has almost literally been a rollercoaster for Arsenal, with some spectacular ups (including the recent trilogy of wins against Chelsea, Manchester United and West Ham) being followed by some truly stomach-ejecting downs (notably the hat-trick of defeats that started the season and now the abject loss to Spurs). If they are somehow to keep the rollercoaster on the rails, they will have to do what they have so far failed to do this season – stop one disastrous loss from becoming a whole series of disastrous losses.
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