Wenger’s men back at the summit

This was Wenger’s first game since signing a new contract. No matter what the Arsenal board said to him, the thrilling potential of the squad must have been the most persuasive argument of all, writes Kevin McCarra.

Arsenal head the table but no other club would have taken their route back to the top. By anyone else’s reckoning the footholds are just too treacherous. Arsene Wenger, for instance, must be the only manager who would give the apparently uninjured Eduardo da Silva the afternoon off, after his international travels with Croatia, when there are only two other established strikers in the squad.

The same kind of principle applies to the defence. With Johan Djourou allowed to join Birmingham City on loan, the recognised centre-halves are William Gallas, ruled out by a groin strain after missing half of the Premier League programme last season, Philippe Senderos, suspended at the weekend, and Kolo Toure.

The holding midfielder Gilberto Silva had to be pressed into service at centre-back, despite feeling the effects of the transatlantic journey back from Brazil’s midweek victory over Mexico in Boston. At White Hart Lane he was as glassy-eyed as a passenger yet to recover from a particularly stupefying in-flight movie.

Given the background, Arsenal fans will hoot all the more. Their side could even cope with Manuel Almunia, a shot-stopper whose decisions are guesses. With his team losing 1-0, he elected to run out 30 yards when Dimitar Berbatov collected a pass from Steed Malbranque in the 51st minute. The Bulgarian went round the goalkeeper but decided he should also attempt to beat Toure and was tackled.

“He is the No. 1 because he plays,” said Wenger of Almunia, “but when Jens (Lehmann) is back we’ll see.” The Germany goalkeeper is not expected to recover from an elbow injury before the Champions League home fixture with Sevilla. After reciting all these difficulties and eccentricities the main conclusion to be drawn must be, none the less, that Arsenal, thanks to Wenger, are a unique gift to football.

The manager brought his unorthodoxy to bear on the English language when evoking the attitude of the team emerging in the post-Thierry Henry era. “I don’t know if the word exists — they are ‘playerish’,” Wenger said of his line-up. “They love to play. Even at 2-1 they don’t go to the corner flag. They continue to try to score.”

Against their north London rivals that makes perfect sense. Martin Jol’s team got the opener, yet, they are incapable of plugging gaps in midfield and the defence is thereby exposed. The Dutchman might be facing the sack but he does not have full responsibility for an imbalanced batch of signings and there ought also to be questions for the sporting director, Damien Comolli. A breezy commitment to entertain would be easier to celebrate if a scatterbrained team were not 17th in the Premier League. It is so long since Tottenham beat Arsenal that the match highlights probably appear on an illuminated manuscript.

An opener for the home side after quarter of an hour was more of a novelty than a defining moment. Gilberto dozily pursued Berbatov as he was going sideways and brought him down. Almunia might have reached the free-kick from Gareth Bale that beat him at the near post but Wenger queried the positioning of the defensive wall. Despite that blow Paul Robinson was soon pulling off saves from the visitors and a reckless Abou Diaby should have done better than to hit the bar.

This Arsenal line-up now has more variety but it may never be as prolific as the one that contained Henry. “If Thierry was here we would have won 4-1 or 5-1,” said the striker Emmanuel Adebayor. “He’s not here and we have to do the job for him. He will see our games and be very pleased for us.”

Henry would approve of Adebayor, who dominated to such an extent that no one dwelt on the reclusive traits of his supposed partner Robin van Persie. The Togo forward exploited indecisive goalkeeping when he got in front of Robinson to head in Cesc Fabregas’ free-kick for the equaliser after 65 minutes.

Tottenham were never short of opportunities either and might have re-established the lead three minutes later when Robbie Keane was unable to beat Almunia. All the same Arsenal held a deeper promise and goals for Fabregas are now as routine as they were once exotic. With his fifth in seven appearances he eclipsed last season’s total as he piloted a 30-yarder beyond Robinson in the 80th minute.

An appreciative Wenger was more admiring of the way in which the 20-year-old holds sway and no longer tires. There was, in the wake of Fabregas’s goal, an inevitability to Tottenham’s futility. Who could be shocked when the substitute Darren Bent miskicked instead of equalising? In stoppage-time Adebayor flicked the ball up jubilantly and, on the turn, thrashed a drive beyond Robinson.

This was Wenger’s first game since signing a new contract. No matter what the Arsenal board said to him, the thrilling potential of the squad must have been the most persuasive argument of all.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007 THE RESULTS

September 16: Manchester City 1 (Johnson 48) bt Aston Villa 0. Half-time: 0-0.

September 15: Birmingham 1 (Kapo 37) bt Bolton 0. Half-time: 1-0; Chelsea 0 drew with Blackburn 0; Everton 0 lost to Manchester United 1 (Vidic 83). Half-time: 0-0; Portsmouth 0 drew with Liverpool 0; Sunderland 2 (Jones 29, Wallace 47) bt Reading 1 (Kitson 85). Half-time: 1-0; Tottenham 1 (Bale 15) lost to Arsenal 3 (Adebayor 65 & 90, Fabregas 80). Half-time: 1-0; West Ham 3 (Bowyer 45, Young o.g.-51, Ashton 62) bt Middlesbrough 0. Half-time: 0-0; Wigan 1 (Koumas pen-80) drew with Fulham 1 (Dempsey 11). Half-time: 0-1.