This was a victory for Mikel Arteta as much as Arsenal. An afternoon that began with Arsenal facing unexpected disciplinary issues ended with victory over a Tottenham Hotspur who had Erik Lamela sent off after scoring a contender for goal of the season.
The irony will not be lost on Arteta, who decided to drop club captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang after the striker reported late to their London Colney training base on Sunday morning. It was a contentious call, one made more seismic by Aubameyang’s recent form — nine goals from his past 12 appearances — and the identity of their opponents, buoyed by recent results and a sense that Son Heung-Min, Gareth Bale and Harry Kane were finally forming the formidable triumvirate widely anticipated earlier in the campaign.
As it turned out, Son left the field with an injury after 20 minutes, Bale was substituted before the hour mark and Kane was anonymous aside from a late flurry in which he had a goal ruled out for offside and hit the post with a late free kick.
Spurs didn’t deserve anything from this and that is to Arteta’s considerable credit. Aubameyang is an influential figure in the Gunners’ dressing room and the manager will have known the implications of leaving out his talisman at such a late stage. The Gunners were also fighting fatigue after making a 3,000-mile round trip to Athens for their Europa League last-16 first-leg engagement at Olympiakos while Spurs played Dinamo Zagreb on the same night in north London.
Yet Arsenal were the more energetic throughout, aside from the final frantic 10 minutes or so when Spurs finally decided to break the conservative Jose Mourinho mould and go on the offensive. And so as it turns out, Arteta could make his point on Aubameyang and still win three points.
“I made what I thought was the right decision and we draw a line there and now let’s move on again,” he said. “We know how important Auba is for us and for the club and that’s it. It’s been dealt with, now let’s move on.
“For me, [off-field standards] are the foundation and the platform that we can build something medium and long-term that is sustainable and that can bring us joy and happiness. Without that, I don’t believe that it would happen. That’s why I keep talking about it and acting about it.”
Arteta was rightly criticised in December’s reverse fixture for falling into Mourinho’s trap, conceding two goals on the counterattack as individual errors undermined their general play. Here, they controlled proceedings for long periods, denying Kane space whenever he dropped deep to link the play, and constantly causing the visitors problems, most notably down the left-hand side as Kieran Tierney and Emile Smith Rowe gave Spurs right-back Matt Doherty a torrid 90 minutes.
Arteta has wanted to get Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard, on loan from Real Madrid, into the same team to give Arsenal more creativity and they were highly influential here, offering far more than Spurs’ more-celebrated forwards could muster.
They were aided by an early injury to Son, who limped off after 20 minutes. The South Korea international admitted last month that he was feeling tired and the accumulation of matches appears to have taken its toll.
Robbed of Son’s speed on the break, Kane struggled to influence the game and Spurs were indebted to a moment of superb brilliance by Son’s replacement, Lamela. Lucas Moura played a short pass behind the Argentine and the latter improvised with an impudent Rabona finish that arrowed into the far corner. Sergio Reguilon, Spurs’ closest player, ran off in celebration with his hands on his head in disbelief.
It was Tottenham’s only shot on target of a first half that Arsenal thoroughly dominated. Smith Rowe had already hit the crossbar with a dipping 25-yard effort and he later set up Cedric Soares to hit the post after Alexandre Lacazette had declined a chance to shoot. A minute before half-time, Tierney crossed from the left and Odegaard was free in the box, his shot flicking off Toby Alderweireld and rolling past Huge Lloris.
“We played really bad in the first half,” Mourinho told Sky Sports afterward. “The 1-1 was not a fair reflection of the first half. We were poor. Defending bad. No intensity or pressing. Some important players hiding. Really bad.”
Lost in the noise surrounding Aubameyang’s appearance on the bench were other significant calls, choosing Cedric over Hector Bellerin at right-back, leaving Nicolas Pepe out until a hamstring problem for Bukayo Saka prompted his inclusion at the interval. And it was Pepe’s incisive 64th-minute pass that led to the match-defining moment, Lacazette controlling and slicing his shot horribly wide as Davinson Sanchez came in to tackle.
Referee Michael Oliver awarded a penalty for the contact, and with Aubameyang still off the field, Lacazette converted. He is now the fifth Arsenal player to score 10 or more League goals in at least four consecutive seasons after Ian Wright, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Olivier Giroud.
Lamela was sent off after two yellow cards in six minutes, the second a needless aggressive palming off Tierney with an arm to his face. Mourinho wanted a second yellow card for Granit Xhaka after he fouled Moura in a similar central position on the pitch but they seemed to need a sense of injustice to stir them into life, a damning indictment of just how flat they were to that point.
Spurs still hold the upper hand in the table, but this was a blow to their hopes of gate-crashing the top-four conversation, while Arteta has a result to back up his assertion earlier in the week that his “project” will “bang” in the months ahead. That bold claim needs tangible evidence to look credible and here, in more unlikely circumstances, was it.