Arsenal held on for 55 minutes, before they succumbed to two second half goals against a Spurs side they never looked like beating.
Sunday’s final North London Derby at White Hart Lane was a tale of a finely-tuned machine, three years in the making, working in perfect synergy to overcome a loose clutch of more talented individuals trying to make the best of something they’ve been working on for three weeks.
Even though Arsenal have only been working on this system for three weeks, some form of change was absolutely necessary after their disastrous run of away defeats. Their execution-loose variants of 4-2-3-1 had been utterly found out, they couldn’t make it work again no matter how hard they tried, and Wenger was right to adopt 3-4-2-1 as an emergency measure.
But it was clear to see on Sunday that the players don’t yet fully comprehend it yet.
The lack of familiarity with the system was compounded by selecting a couple of square pegs in round holes.
Wenger included Oliver Giroud, with the specific instruction of defending the near post zone from the Tottenham 6-footers at Christian Eriksen’s set-pieces. He did that particular job commendably, but unfortunately offered absolutely nothing to trouble the Spurs defence at the other end.
Starting Giroud deprived Arsenal of a pacey body on the break in a match where their biggest threat would have been on the counter. Starting Kieran Gibbs at left wing back also cut the pitch in half and deprived Arsenal of a creative spark in their build-up.
Both teams had soft spots in their defences behind their respective fullbacks and wing backs.
Arsenal failed to select a mobile forward to really attack Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies at pace, chasing balls into the channel.
By contrast Spurs deliberately targeted the space in behind Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gibbs and the warning shots were fired even before Dele Alli and Eriksen missed the target from point blank range in the first half.
Another key difference is that Trippier and Davies were afforded a level of protection that was not provided to Ox and Gibbs.
Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil provided minimal defensive aid, while the outside centre backs, Gabriel and Nacho Monreal, were reluctant to be drawn out into this space due to uncertainty over what could be developing behind them should they vacate the middle of the pitch.
After five minutes, it was abundantly clear that every Spurs player knew what they were supposed to be doing, both with and without the ball.
They have a cohesive, functional system, where everyone at the club understands the requirements of each role in the XI. Each player knows what they themselves need to do, and also what their teammates around them will do in any given situation.
They don’t need to guess. They can trust each other. They don’t panic. They’ve harnessed The Power of Habit.
The Spurs unit is far greater than the sum of its parts.
The players look after each other and compensate for one another’s individual shortcomings while enhancing one another’s strengths. In a vacuum, you wouldn’t rate some of their players more than 6/10, and you almost definitely wouldn’t buy them for a different club with a more free-form expressive system where they’d receive less protection, but they’re absolutely fine where they are and look thoroughly comfortable and competent in Pochettino’s system.
By contrast, some of Arsenal’s incumbents are 8/10 players, but they look miles off that in Arsene Wenger’s laissez-faire set-up.
If you put most of these players in a more regimented system with prescribed duties, they’d look every bit the players they are purported to be. Most of them aren’t bad players, they’re just not being given the best possible opportunity to thrive.
It was evident that the Arsenal players weren’t entirely sure where they were supposed to be with and without the ball, and couldn’t be fully sure what their teammates would be doing one minute to the next, which resulted in guesswork and moments of panic, such as the one from Gabriel ahead of the penalty, which would ultimately prove the final nail.
Arsenal’s best spells saw them press from the front, looking to make it difficult for Spurs to play out from the back. It was proactive and forced a couple of errors, but Arsenal were unable to capitalise.
At no point did Arsenal look like they were building towards a goal. It was always going to require a gift from Spurs, something from a set-piece, or Alexis to punctuate yet another poor performance with a moment of magic.
Nobody stepped up.
When Wenger shuffled his pack at 2-0 down, he switched to 4-2-3-1 with Welbeck wide right, Gabriel at right back, Monreal still at centreback, and the Ox alongside Ramsey in central midfield.
It looked even more disjointed and chaotic than anything fielded at Anfield or Selhurst Park.
Your mileage may vary on the team at the start of the match, but by the end, it was clear that this was a loose clutch of individuals with no collective identity. No identifiable philosophy.
It’s understandable that the game got increasingly chaotic as Arsenal looked for a way back in, but you couldn’t identify a tactic by which they were trying to achieve this.
With the exception of Bayern Munich, the sides that have beaten Arsenal this season have not done so because they have technically outclassed them or had more man-for-man talent. They’ve been victorious because they have had cohesive systems and effective gameplans, which they have not compromised by individual players being inattentive or reckless.
This is modern football.
A cohesive unit of 6/10s with a couple of stars who all do their jobs will beat a disorganised rabble of 8/10s.
The personnel changes, but the structural issues remain.
New signings and individual upgrades may result in more moments of magic, but the same Achilles heels will remain.
This goes beyond players and individual errors.
Whoever manages Arsenal next season will need to come up with a cohesive system that gets the best out of the talented individuals at their disposal.