The target on Arsenal’s back has got bigger and bigger, as Antonio Conte had noted on Friday, but hardly anyone has been able to hit it over the first half of the Premier League season. Certainly not Conte’s Tottenham, who suffered another stinging derby-day reverse.
The 3-1 loss at the Emirates Stadium last October was bad or maybe it was just explicable, more expected. This one was worse, mainly because of the first half, when Arsenal called the tune so completely and put the game to bed with two goals – the first on a calamitous Hugo Lloris handling error; the second a sweet Martin Ødegaard finish.
A prominent subplot had involved how Mikel Arteta’s young team would cope with the intensity of the occasion. Pretty well, it turned out. Their first away win over Spurs in the league since 2014 was built upon the assurance of Thomas Partey, the artistry of Ødegaard and the cut and thrust of Bukayo Saka, although it seemed a little unfair to only highlight their contributions.
Arsenal are eight points clear at the top after 18 matches, after Manchester City’s loss at a resurgent United on Saturday, and a first title since 2004 is theirs to lose. On this evidence, it will take an almighty wobble from them if they are to fall short. And they have not given the remotest hint that this is to be their destiny. Next up for them is a visit from United on Sunday.
There were boos from the Spurs crowd at full-time and a mass flare-up on the pitch sparked by a confrontation between the Arsenal goalkeeper, Aaron Ramsdale, and the home substitute Richarlison. After it, a Spurs fan behind the goal stepped on to the hoardings to aim a kick at Ramsdale, connecting with him – an utterly shameful moment.
Spurs were better in the second half, creating chances, albeit precious few of clear-cut note. But Ramsdale was a solid last line for Arsenal and an abiding image came after the players from both sides were pulled apart – Arteta had to work hard to extract Granit Xhaka – and those in red ran over to celebrate in front of the away enclosure. This victory and the weekend as a whole felt hugely significant.
Arteta’s team had oozed confidence at the outset, pressing on to the front foot, grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck. Their passing was easy on the eye, the examples numerous, with one being the diagonal that Partey swept out to Saka in the buildup to the breakthrough goal.
Saka ran at Ryan Sessegnon, who backed off, but Spurs’s woes were only just beginning. When Saka crossed, Lloris had the position at his near post and it looked like being a regulation catch. But he not only allowed the ball to slip through his fingers, he contrived to divert it up and into his own net. Behind him, the South Stand was stunned. The silence was broken only by the delayed reaction of the travelling fans at the other end.
Arsenal had threatened before then, Spurs getting away with one when Lloris played Clément Lenglet into trouble and the defender seeing his clearance blocked by Ødegaard. Gabriel Martinelli crossed deep and Eddie Nketiah extended Lloris. Partey also headed high from an Ødegaard free-kick.
The first half quickly descended into an ordeal for Spurs. It felt as if Arsenal had more men on the pitch. They worked their way into spaces time and again, their slickness in possession too much for Spurs. Saka ran riot on the right against Sessegnon, whom Conte had started ahead of Ivan Perisic, and the only wonder was that it was only 2-0 at the interval.
Arsenal’s second was beautifully converted by Ødegaard, blasted low into the bottom corner from outside the area after a lovely move and yet another Saka run. There was no sign of any Spurs defender close to Ødegaard and quite a few home supporters suddenly had the idea to beat the half-time drinks queues.
The goal had been sign-posted. Ødegaard worked Lloris after a lovely move and there was the moment on 24 minutes when a Martinelli volley sparked panic, Spurs just about getting away with it but, on the second phase, Partey ran on to a volley and caught it so sweetly. The shot almost uprooted the post.
Son Heung-min shot at Ramsdale on 18 minutes and Harry Kane forced the goalkeeper into a smart save just before half-time but they were the most isolated of flickers.
Spurs did attack the second half with more feeling. Kane started to show, as did Dejan Kulusevski – back in the team after injury – cutting in from the right and trying his trademark curlers. Ramsdale saved again from Kane and then brilliantly from Sessegnon after a neat Kane pass.
Tempers were never far from boiling point. Arsenal wanted a second yellow for Cristian Romero after he stretched into a risky challenge on Xhaka, sparking angry words between the Arsenal midfielder and Conte. Spurs just wanted the next goal.
They did not get it and the hard truth was that Arsenal went closer to a third, with Nketiah denied by Lloris. How Nketiah has made light of the injury-enforced absence of Gabriel Jesus. He was excellent again, here. Spurs had needed a statement win, having beaten only two teams this season from the top half of the table – Fulham and Brighton. It was Arsenal who departed with the swagger.