Mikel Arteta and Arsenal now face a thorough examination of their mentality and focus after Thursday’s morale-sapping 3-0 north London derby defeat blew the race for fourth wide open.
While the importance of Champions League qualification might feel exaggerated to some given the financial muscle of practically every Premier League club, regardless of finishing in the top four or not, the end of 2021-22 will undoubtedly have significant implications for both clubs.
A top-four finish would be Arsenal’s best Premier League season in six years and simultaneously the first time since the same season that they’d finished above their bitter rivals.
Champions League qualification would also be vindication of the faith placed in Arteta and a clear sign of genuine progress since he replaced Unai Emery.
For Spurs, on the other hand, it’s difficult to look at these final 10 days of the season being anything other than a sliding-doors moment.
Failure to return to European football’s top table would plausibly see Antonio Conte call it quits, whereas the possibilities could be endless under him with the extra cash, exposure and lure provided by the Champions League, particularly when you consider the transformational effect he’s already had in north London and elsewhere previously.
With those points in mind, it was no surprise to see Thursday’s contest – the first with fans present at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – labelled the most important north London derby in Premier League history, and it’s fair to say the hosts handled the occasion far better than the Gunners.
Perhaps that wasn’t actually as shocking as it initially felt during the match.
The turning point came with just 33 minutes on the clock. While Tottenham were already ahead thanks to a Harry Kane penalty, it was just past the half-hour mark when Rob Holding’s pushed his luck once too often.
Having already been booked – frankly, he could have been carded several times by this point – Holding cynically blocked off the relentless Son Heung-min with a combination of shoulder and elbow, deservedly earning himself a second yellow and subsequent red card.
It had been coming. Holding’s early duels with Son had the South Korean showing signs of frustration – not because he couldn’t get the better of his opponent, but because he was getting the better of him. He just kept getting fouled by the Arsenal defender.
Holding’s wry smile when walking away from an angry Son after a tangle that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Judo mat belied a degree of arrogance and misplaced confidence.
It was ill-judged to say the least.
But of course, this is by no means the first time indiscipline’s been seen as the scourge of Arsenal. Since Arteta’s appointment, the Gunners have been shown five more red cards (13 in total) in the Premier League than any other team.
13 – Arsenal have had 13 players sent off in the Premier League since Mikel Arteta’s first game in charge, which is five more than any other side during this time frame:
13 – Arsenal
8 – Brighton
7 – Southampton
7 – Everton
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 12, 2022
Granted, they are the youngest team in the Premier League, so perhaps a hint of indiscipline is to be expected as a consequence of inexperience – but that argument can’t really be applied to 26-year-old Holding.
Arsenal had actually started the match quite well. Their pressing intensity was excellent, so much so that a Spurs passage of play consisting exclusively of passes between the defence and Hugo Lloris drew significant jeers of derision and frustration from the home crowd.
But Spurs identified they could find joy by playing direct, which was exactly how the opener arrived, with Cedric Soares – no, not Holding this time! – the one guilty of barging Son over at the back post as he looked to reach a deep delivery.
Just four minutes after Holding’s red card, Kane – who had endured a career-worst derby drought of two matches prior to Thursday – exploited Eddie Nketiah’s lack of awareness to stoop in at the back post to head home his second goal of the game, extending his all-time record as this fixture’s top scorer.
Conte was a figure of calm after the first goal, but this time he wore his near-trademark terrifying jubilation with pride, presumably aware only a miracle would save Arsenal now.
The sparkling Son made sure any Arsenal hopes were thoroughly extinguished less than two minutes after the restart, pouncing on a loose ball in the area before steering beyond Aaron Ramsdale with the kind of expertise we’ve come to expect from a player only outscored by Mohamed Salah in the Premier League this season.
Arteta can console himself with the fact Arsenal remain fourth heading into their final two games of the season. Had you given him the option of being in that situation back in August, he’d have snapped your hand off.
But Thursday’s ultimately crushing defeat once again raised questions of the Gunners’ mentality and discipline, and their squad is becoming more depleted by the game. It’s hardly an ideal combination when the pressure is on – and boy is it on now.
Tottenham – whose kind run-in sees them face Norwich City and Burnley – still need either Newcastle United or Everton to do them a favour at the very least.
But Thursday was evidence of Spurs keeping their cool when it matters. Arsenal didn’t, and there’s nothing to suggest they’re too good to capitulate.