Unai Emery had spent much of his pre-match press conference trying to make clear that Arsenal fans should not expect a performance anything like they produced in their previous three matches.
Arsenal had scored 10 goals in meetings with Bate Borisov, Southampton and Bournemouth, playing a brand of energetic, flowing attacking football that would have concerned any side in Europe. Against Tottenham Hotspur, though, Emery wanted something different.
Arsenal have struggled on the road in previous seasons, and in much of this campaign, so Emery had decided to alter the tone of their performance. The primary concern was not how to break down Spurs, but how to avoid being broken down themselves.
It was not the usual Arsenal way, but for so long it was effective. And, if Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had not missed his last-minute penalty, it would have been one of the most memorable victories in a north London derby in Arsenal’s recent history. They showcased a side to their game which most observers did not believe existed. It was only an erroneous offside call, in the build-up to the Spurs penalty, and another brain-fade from Shkodran Mustafi that breached the Arsenal back line.
“I am proud of the players, of our work,” said Emery. “Above all we played like a team. We played with a big collective spirit and tactically, I think we adapted well to battle them.”
Emery enjoys speaking about “battles”, talking frequently about “spirit” and a willingness to fight. He likes the game to be run on passion. In many ways his approach is a continental, highly advanced adaptation of the old “up and at ‘em” adage, with the blood pumping and the tackles flying. Old principles intertwined with modern positioning. That was the approach when Arsenal demolished Spurs at the Emirates earlier in the season, although here the passion was matched with more caution and defensive balance.
There was no better example of that than the performance of Sokratis, who has become loved by the Arsenal fan base in part because of his willingness to celebrate sliding tackles as if they were goals. The centre-back is an Emery sort of player, and he led Arsenal’s defence magnificently against Spurs. “In the last matches he is coming with his best confidence in himself,” Emery said.
Not since January 2015, at Manchester City, have Arsenal defeated one of the “big six” sides away from home. Their performance that day was so far removed from the usual showings produced by Arsene Wenger’s side that it is seemingly permanently etched into the minds of their supporters. They were compact, organised and defensively responsible, and it was an afternoon that made many believe that Arsenal had finally realised that expansive football is not always the best solution.
Of course, it did not quite work out like that. The old problems continued to resurface for Wenger and so Emery arrived with the brief of improving the club’s away record against the big sides. The way Arsenal set up here – before and after Aaron Ramsey’s early goal – was proof that Emery wanted a performance similar to that match at the Etihad four years ago. The selection of Nacho Monreal over Sead Kolasinac was defensively-minded, as was that of Mustafi at right-back instead of Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
But defensive solidity is not achieved with defenders alone. Emery demands a full-team approach. Every player must put in the work at both ends of the pitch.
Alexandre Lacazette toiled from the front, Sokratis was enormous in defence and Monreal was tireless on the left. There was the sight of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Arsenal’s most creative player, sprinting back into his own box and hacking a clearance into the stands from a Spurs breakaway. Even Mesut Ozil, when he came on, was committing himself to tackles.
The plan was working, and Spurs struggled to create chances. When they did break through in the first half, with Christian Eriksen darting in behind, they were thwarted by Bernd Leno, the Arsenal goalkeeper, who produced two of the season’s finest saves in the space of around three seconds.
But for all these defensive efforts, there is a reason why this Arsenal side are scrambling to finish in the top four rather than aiming any higher. Mustafi’s brainless barge on Harry Kane undid so much of their hard work, even if it would not have mattered had Aubameyang converted his late penalty. The fine margins cost Arsenal the three points, but when the frustration ebbs away, this will be seen as a refreshingly unfamiliar afternoon.