By Rory Smith
One step forward, at times, can feel like more than two steps back. It can seem like a spiral, something irresistible and somehow unavoidable, dragging and twisting you no matter how hard you struggle, no matter how far you think you have come, all the way back to the start.
In this case, it was David Luiz’s step forward: a minor, momentary misjudgment, his right foot no more than a couple of inches out of place, but enough to give Tottenham the lead in Sunday’s North London derby, to sap the energy from the Emirates, to send Arsenal back to the beginning.
This has been a summer of hope for Arsenal. For the first time in a while, a sense of momentum has gathered around a club that had been locked in something between a drift and a decline.
It wheeled and dealed and made the most of every penny to inject some vitality into its squad: a midfielder on loan from Real Madrid; a veteran center back with character and nous; and, of course, it smashed its transfer record to sign Nicolas Pépé.
Most fans might not have seen a vast amount of Pépé during his couple of years at Lille, in France. Most might have been going on YouTube highlight reels set to thumping, earsplitting Europop. But sometimes players have a genuine power regardless of who they are or what they do. Sometimes, the simple act of signing them has a value. Pépé’s arrival was a sign of ambition, a flicker of life in a club desperate to believe again. How he fares, what he adds, is not secondary, but it is separate.
When the start of the season arrived with a win at Newcastle and a stroll against Burnley, Arsenal felt refreshed, renewed. It had a structure, at last — the head of football, Raul Sanllehi; the technical director, Edu Gaspar; the head coach, Unai Emery — and it had a sense of purpose, too.
It did not evaporate in a defeat at Liverpool last week. Arsenal never wins at Anfield anyway. Liverpool, like Manchester City, is in a class apart. And Emery’s team was not humiliated, not this time. It was a defeat, not a disaster.
Sunday’s visit from Tottenham was a much better test of where Arsenal was, of how far it had come. It was a chance to assess whether it had closed the gap on its near neighbour, the team that has, over the past few years, taken on the mantle as the best team in this part of London, and possibly in London as a whole.
For the first time in some time, it felt as if Arsenal was the team with the impetus, the team going places, like Tottenham was adrift. It felt as if Arsenal could be confident, that it could lay down a marker. The Emirates was noisy and hopeful and bathed in sunshine.
And then Luiz took one step forward. He bought Son Heung-min’s feint, and behind him the space unfurled. Spurs burst through. Bernd Leno, the Arsenal goalkeeper, parried Erik Lamela’s shot straight at Christian Eriksen’s feet, and suddenly Arsenal was two steps back. More, in fact. Arsenal was back at the start.
Arsenal’s Emery is new, in his post for only a year. Many of its players are new, too, or new in soccer terms: Of the 11 who started this north London derby, Granit Xhaka was the longest-serving as a senior player, and he arrived in 2016.
And yet it is one of sport’s curiosities that — just as a car can somehow be the same, still yours, even when the engine has been replaced, and the windshield is new, and quite a lot of the bodywork is different — teams can have traits that jump from generation to generation, characteristics that endure even as the parts that produce them change.
It does not matter who plays for Arsenal, it seems. No matter the name on the jersey, there is a tendency for self-destruction and, at times, for sheer, bloody-minded stupidity encoded deep in the DNA of the club.
It has become one of the team’s calling cards, its ability to hurl itself headlong into trouble. It does not shock the Emirates anymore, not really. There is no intake of breath when Xhaka, the captain, bafflingly launches himself at Son from several yards away inside the penalty area. There is no surprise when he misses, and misses comfortably, and gives away a penalty kick. There is anger when Harry Kane converts it, to give Tottenham a two-goal lead, but it is a resigned, familiar anger. Arsenal’s fans are used to this. Sadly, troublingly used to it.
A few minutes later, they are drifting away for halftime. It feels as if summer is over, all of that hope and all of that change and all of that momentum, evaporated in 40 minutes or so. Typical: That was the word they used to use for Spurs. Typical Spurs, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Typical Spurs, throwing it all away. Typical Arsenal, now: dimly complicit in making a bad situation worse.
And then the ball broke for Alexandre Lacazette inside the penalty area. His first touch helped him dart away from a defender. His second was to steady himself. His third was a fierce, certain finish. This felt new, different, like the sort of thing a different team would do: Arsenal was fighting back. The hope bubbled again. It is never far from the surface. It is always there, waiting for a release.
Later, José Mourinho would describe the final 10 minutes of this game as “completely out of control.” A strategist by taste and by inclination, he most likely did not mean it as a compliment. Arsenal attacked; Tottenham attacked. Mourinho sees soccer in terms of shape and patterns; he wants signal, not noise. This was all noise. It was, he said, “funny.”
The chaos started with another step forward, another minor, momentary misjudgment. Arsenal had tied the match through Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang a few minutes earlier, and was in the midst of a surge. Spurs was rocking, on its heels, manning the sandbags to keep the tide at bay, when Sead Kolasinac sprang through down Arsenal’s left. He crossed low, fast. Danny Rose, the Spurs defender, tried to clear but steered the ball into his own net instead.
This was the moment the Emirates had been waiting for; the one that it would tell itself had been coming. It capped more than Arsenal’s comeback; it was proof that the theme of the first few weeks of the season had held true. Arsenal was the team with the momentum, Tottenham the team in drift. Power was shifting in north London. The gap was closing, had closed.
And then the big screens flickered into life, and Martin Atkinson, the referee, held his finger to his ear. The goal was being checked by the video assistant referee; there was a suggestion that Kolasinac had been offside. The footage was clear — or as clear as these things, judged in millimeters, ever can be — though the fans, in the stadium, could not see it. Kolasinac was offside: one step forward, one step too soon. The goal would not stand. The decision was accepted with a murmur of disgruntlement, a sigh of frustration.
Not long after the review, Atkinson blew his whistle. Matteo Guendouzi, Arsenal’s best player, sank to the grass in disappointment. The crowd applauded politely, satisfied — but not overenthusiastic — by what it had seen. It was a stirring comeback and a proud struggle and a disappointing draw, marred by self-inflicted wounds, all at once.
It was hard to tell which bit mattered most, what the story was, what all of this said. A point gained, or two dropped. Sometimes — often — the stories we tell are not neat, and rounded, and the journeys they describe are not direct and preordained. It can depend which snapshot you take, which moment you analyse, when you choose to pause the tape.