When Erik Lamela wound back the clock to score with a quite outrageous piece of skill and impudence, Arsenal had a familiar sinking feeling. They had dominated this derby and yet, with 33 minutes gone, they were behind.
Mikel Arteta has argued, with some justification, that his team have not had the results their football has merited, at times, this season. Was this to be a hard luck story? Happily for them, it was not, although goodness knows they appeared determined to throw away victory at the death.
On a day when Arteta dropped his captain, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, for disciplinary reasons, believed to be related to the captain’s match-day timekeeping, his team were excellent for the first 70 minutes, by which time they had the lead through Martin Ødegaard and a hotly contested Alexandre Lacazette penalty. Lamela’s goal for Tottenham had come when he addressed a breaking ball inside the area and swung his left foot around the back of his standing right one to sculpt a shot through Thomas Partey’s legs and into the far corner. The power in the execution was breathtaking and it recalled his famous Europa League goal against Asteras from 2014.
Lamela, who had come on as a 19th-minute substitute for the injured Son Heung-min, would have another trick up his sleeve – a descent from hero to villain. When he collected a cheap second yellow card on 76 minutes for flinging an arm across Kieran Tierney, the game looked over. And yet it was the prompt for Spurs to belatedly throw caution to the wind and Arsenal to be gripped by anxiety; to fail to manage the game.
Harry Kane came alive for Spurs. He had almost picked out the substitute Dele Alli with a 70th minute cross and had a header correctly ruled out for offside. He and Spurs would go agonisingly close to a stoppage-time equaliser. Kane struck a free-kick low and venomously only to watch it come back off the far post and, on the rebound, Davinson Sánchez’s goal-bound effort was superbly cleared by Gabriel.
It added up to a missed opportunity for Spurs, who had entered in form, believing they could make up ground on Chelsea, who drew at Leeds on Saturday. For Arsenal, though, there was delight, particularly Arteta, whose decision over Aubameyang had felt as if it had the potential to backfire.
It was certainly a bold statement from the manager, a flexing of his authority, and his players displayed similar qualities for much of the game. They pressed high, snapping into tackles and, during the early running, it looked as if they were the only team who realised it was a derby.
Emile Smith Rowe was denied by the crossbar on 16 minutes after Arsenal had pressured Sergio Reguilón into a loose pass and it was not the only time that the attacking midfielder caught the eye. He and Tierney made inroads up the left while Bukayo Saka darted into dangerous positions off the right. Saka, though, took a couple of tough challenges and did not reappear for the second half. José Mourinho’s big selection decision had been to prefer Matt Doherty to Serge Aurier at right-back. Doherty was repeatedly exposed.
Smith Rowe beat Pierre-Emile Højbjerg for pace before cutting back for Lacazette, who could not make a clean contact, while it was the remorseless Smith Rowe again on 38 minutes, pulling back for Lacazette. The centre-forward dummied when he might have shot and Cédric Soares, arriving at the edge of the area ahead of Lucas Moura, rattled a shot against a post.
By then, Lamela had produced his moment of magic. He knew in a heartbeat what he had to do after Gareth Bale’s crossfield ball had been volleyed into the area by Reguilón and come off Lucas. Reguilón held his head in his hands in disbelief when the shot went in. Viva la rabona.
Lamela’s goal had come from Spurs’s only first-half flicker and Arsenal were deservedly level at the break. Tierney beat Doherty to cross and, although Ødegaard did not really get hold of his shot, it deflected off Toby Alderweireld to beat Hugo Lloris.
Arsenal continued to push in the second half with Mourinho forced to substitute the ineffective Bale and Tanguy Ndombele, although what would prove to be the winning goal was undercut by good fortune. Lacazette failed to kill a fizzed pass by the substitute Nicolas Pépé before he completely sliced his attempted shot. Sánchez had already committed to the slide challenge and, with the ball heading away, he went into the forward. Technically it added up to a foul and Lacazette picked out a bottom corner.
Arsenal’s late wobble would be pronounced. Lucas tore into them and the Spurs bench howled when Granit Xhaka, already on a booking for a foul on the winger, went into him again. Arsenal’s nerve just about held.