You could see the game plan right from the start. Arsenal had two substitutes on the left side, so Conte put his best player – one who is challenging for the Golden Boot, and is Spurs most in-form and even fastest player – on the side with the two subs and told the team “get Son the ball”. From there it was easy to turn this into an emotional match. Son did his best crying mask face every time Holding got touch tight with him. And Conte complained to the referees so often in the first 20 minutes that he eventually got a yellow card. Though, from what I’ve heard he got the yellow for making a double-handed decapitation gesture – as if to say “they are decapitating my player!”
And I can’t entirely blame Conte. I want Arteta to do the same when the opposition defenders knee Saka in the back, then kick him in the ribs while pretending that he’s accidentally falling over Saka while he’s laying on the ground. Both of these were things Holding did to Son.
Then Son and Holding got into it again, this time wrestling on the ground a bit and Son elbowed Holding in the head, so Holding threw Son off him. Tierney and the VAR official (who was Mike Dean) didn’t quite have the stones to make the right call there (which is a red card for Son) and so they instead did nothing.
It’s not a surprise that a few seconds later when Tierney gifted Spurs a penalty it was once again Son at the heart of the action. This time a curled ball was sent his direction and both Holding and Cedric crashed into Son. It was a soft penalty but also, Cedric turned his back on the play and did just crash into Son’s back. Tierney was laser focused on Arsenal and Son at that moment. So, that’s the moment that you can’t try to get away with anything at all, that you have to be super straight-laced and Cedric just couldn’t do it.
Referee Paul Tierney was clearly effected by Conte’s antics and Holding’s blatant stupidity. His next call was a yellow card on Holding for holding Son.
All of this is happening because Conte made such a big deal of the way his player was being treated and Tierney fell for it hook-line-and-sinker. And, to be honest, so did Rob Holding. Holding is one of my favorite squad players but he totally let the moment and Son get into his head. So much so that out in the open field, he tried to make a foul seem like it was an innocuous shoulder-to-shoulder challenge but right at the crucial moment, you can see him raise his arm to make it into a shoulder shrug. If you’ve spent any time at center back, you know exactly what Holding was doing there. He was “leaving something on him”, he was getting a little retribution for the elbow “Sonny” had given him a few minutes earlier. And again, Tierney was laser focused on that entire interaction between those two players, so of course he saw it.
The only question, then, is why he didn’t see Son elbow Holding. I think he did. But that he was turned by Conte and the Spurs fans. He couldn’t rise to the occasion and make the right call.
This doesn’t absolve Rob Holding. A more experienced player would have correctly read the room. If you want to leave one on a player, you can do that but maybe give it, I dunno, 10 minutes? Maybe wait until someone else gets the ref’s attention? But like Tierney, I think Rob got swept up in the emotion of the game.
And the problem is that Conte’s plan worked because Arsenal’s backups are probably just not quite good enough against the best players. And it’s the problem Arsenal have had this entire season. The starters are probably good enough to get into top four this year, the backups are definitely not. This is the story of this season: that we should probably make top four and also probably shouldn’t.
And none of this absolves Mikel Arteta. Arsenal needed a point and everyone knows that the best way to match up against Conte’s 343 is to play 343 in return. Arsenal seemed to have the players for exactly that as well with Tomiyasu, Holding, and Gabriel slotting in perfectly as a back three. Or if you didn’t want to play with a crazy formation, the other option is to play them on the counter attack. Spurs love and thrive on space, in fact it was Son in space that gave Holding the shits. Arteta kept telling his players to push up, and they kept not wanting to, because they knew how crazy that was.
But that might be seen as post-match quarterbacking, which is a fair criticism (as long as you’ll accept that maybe Arteta didn’t get it right). I think, however, we can all agree that the big problem at Arsenal is that there’s a drop off in quality and mentality from the first team to the backups. Which, frankly, doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season, since Gabriel was hauled off with a hammy and Ben White warmed up but didn’t come on.
Still 4th place is 100% in our hands. We are 1 point above Spurs still and all we have to do is have a better record than they do in our final two matches, matches against 14th place Newcastle and 16th place Everton. These games won’t be easy but they are meat and drink for a team who wants to play in the Champions League.