By now, even the most casual of EPL followers know the result of this weekend's North London Derby between Tottenham Hotspur and the Arsenal Gunners at "the Swamp". The game was really a tale of two halves and as Arsenal sprinted out to a comfortable 2-0 first half lead, the story looked familiar for Spurs fans. Arsenal has had Tottenham's number at Swamp for years, but not this Tottenham team, not this year. Halftime adjustments, super stars stepping up, and an unlikely hero, brought Spurs the 3 goals in the second half, 3 points in the table, and the swagger they'll need to carry into this rough stretch in their season.
Defensively, the storyline going into the game was William Gallas' return to the stomping ground which let him go at the beginning of the season. Gallas was apparently a bit of a head case and left the team with some bad blood, particularly with Samir Nasri who was quoted to say he refused to shake Gallas' hand before the derby. Early in the game, Nasri had Gallas' response to the quote as a fight for the ball finished with Gallas' elbow hitting Nasri's nose. This may not have been a blatant foul, but I won't go as far as to say it was unintentional either. The pre-game spotlight may have been on Gallas, but Tottenham's defensive impact on the game was centered around a costly mistake by Benoit Assou-Ekotto who simply fell asleep during Nasri's first half goal, and Younes Kaboul who proved to be an offensive threat and a defensive rock throughout the game.
With Huddlesone out, Jenas had to step in alongside a banged up Lennon and VDV, with Bale and Modric rounding out the mids. Starting out in a 4-5-1, a halftime substitution left the midfield with 4 players as Redknapp brought Lennon off the pitch after it was clear he's still hampered by his injury. The mids held strong in the first half, playing well on the defensive side of the ball but not creating much in the way of offensive chances. In the second half, it was Bale and VDV who brought Tottenham back into the game.
Roman Pavlyuchenko started the game as the sole striker before Jermaine Defoe (in his first game action since returning from injury) was brought on in the second half. Pavy proved ineffective in the first half as the Tottenham offense seemed to sputter as a whole. Passing was off, positioning was poor, Spurs looked intimidated. In the second half, Crouch replaced Pavlyuchenko as Harry Redknapp was hoping Crouch would do what he does best in knocking down headers for other strikers/mids to bang home. Ironically, although Defoe did not really touch the ball much in his time on the field he was probably the most effective of Tottenham's strikers, as the Arsenal defense had to account for his ball handling skills in the open field.
Huerelho Gomes - In my eyes, Gomes was partially at fault in the events that led up to Arsenal's first goal of the game. BAE was the main culprit, but Gomes made a poor play on the ball initially and probably should have kept possession. Having said that, he made a few great saves late in the game that more than made up for the early blunder.
Alan Hutton - Hutton was the defender to blame during Arsenal's second goal of the game around the 30 minute mark in the first half. Andre Arshavin was left wide open on the left side (Alan's right) of the pitch as he centered the ball freely to a streaking Chamakh who put it home.
Younes Kaboul - In my opinion, Kaboul was the man of the match. Strong defense throughout the game along with a few offensive threats, including the game winning goal off of a free kick.
Will Gallas - After an early pop to the nose of Samir Nasri, Gallas was pretty quiet, which I consider a very good thing. He didn't play particularly great, but he played well, and sometimes thats a lot to ask of Tottenham's defenders.
Benoit Assou-Ekotto - BAE was at fault for Arsenal's first goal. He was in a deep sleep at just before mid-field on the left side and didn't wake up until Samir Nasri was three steps ahead of him. For all of the talent he has, I'd give it up for someone who has their head in the game for 90+ minutes. Sometimes BAE just doesn't show up.
Gareth Bale - After a silent first half, Bale made his mark early in the second half as he and VDV found themselves on a fast break with only a man to beat. Bale was able to put the ball perfectly out of the reach of Arsenal's GK Fabiansky with the outer part of his left foot. The comeback was sparked.
Jermaine Jenas - JJ was the logical choice to start in place of Huddlestone as Sandro has proven himself to be risky, and Palacios, while great on defense, is not a great passer or particularly quick. He didn't have much of an impact, was a part of the Spurs poor passing in the first half, but played well when the midfield was opened up with the 4-4-2 in the second half.
Luka Modric - Sometimes the center of attention and difference maker, today took a backseat to Bale and VDV in the midfield. Known for his inventiveness and great possession skills with the soccer ball, he was able to spark a few runs for Gareth Bale up the left sideline and keep pressure on the Arsenal defense during the second half.
Rafael Van der Vaart - VDV was as fired up as ever, getting carded early for challenging the head referee after a foul was called against him. I love how VDV sticks up for his fallen/hurt teammates in an almost violent way after an opposing challenge may have seemed dirty. VDV set up and scored the second goal of the Tottenham comeback as he launched a free kick from just beyond the box into the outstretched arm (yes I said arm) of Cesc Fabregas inside the box. VDV put home the put home the penalty kick with ease.
Roman Pavlyuchenko - Pav is hit or miss. Today he was a miss. I think the best way to utilize him is off the bench. His energy is much more effective when everyone else on the pitch is a little tired and a few steps slower than him. Crouch was the more logical choice to start here. At least he provides a big target for Bale/VDV/Modric on the cross.
Jermaine Defoe - Defoe, while quiet, was a nuisance for the Arsenal defenders. As I said above, they have to respect his skills, so even the deep passes to him that ultimately went nowhere, required a little more attention than if Crouch or Pav were up there.
Crouch/Palacios - Niether really played long enough to have an impact on the game. Crouch's biggest influence is the fact that defenders were so focused on him during the late free kick, that Younes Kaboul was left open for the ricochet header and game winner.
Bizarre Play of the Game
Half way through the second half, VDV took a free kick that was batted out of the air by Cesc Fabregas who seemed to forget for a moment that he's playing a sport in which using your hands is prohibited (especially in the box!). What were the odds that VDV would've made the free kick if Fabregas didn't raise his hand? 100-1? Did Fabregas not realize that a free kick over a wall and from distance is a little tougher to hit than a penalty kick? This was not the first time he's found this to be an acceptable form of defense on a free kick. He must've assumed he could get away with it, since he had in the past. Luckily for Spurs, the referee was not completely blind and noticed the blatant handball as a serious infraction.
Great game, Spurs!