Arsenal's young midfielder Serge Gnabry played a key role in besting Tottenham's positive, but flawed approach.
Any lingering Premier League title aspirations for Tottenham Hotspur were all but extinguished in the 5-0 defeat to Liverpool last month. It left them eight points behind table-toppers Arsenal and capped a series of results against the division's top teams that appeared to underlined their limitations in this pursuit.
Hopes of staying at least in the hunt for Champions League places were the main motivator behind the Tottenham hierarchy's decision to remove Andre Villas-Boas as manager. After losing 2-0 to the Gunners in the FA Cup's third round Saturday, it could be viewed they have one less hindrance in that hunt.
The trouble is, in as competitive a Premier League campaign as there has been for some time, a top-four place is far from a given for Spurs, who sit sixth with 37 points and one behind Everton and two behind Liverpool. Pursuing silverware this season offers another option for the club in making something of 2013-14. Now the Europa League remains their only viable route on the trophy front.
Tim Sherwood certainly set his side up to be positive in Saturday's game, the importance of which to him and his players he made clear pre-match, telling Tottenham's official website:
Tim: "This club has great history and tradition in the FA Cup and we hope to continue that by winning at the Emirates." #THFC— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) January 3, 2014
One change to his starting lineup from Wednesday's 2-1 win over Manchester United saw Nabil Bentaleb selected ahead of Etienne Capoue in centre midfield for his first start. Spurs' approach was positive at Old Trafford, but here was an indicator Sherwood wanted to focus on what his side did in possession against Arsenal, rather than set up primarily to negate the home side's quick, incisive passing game.
Though effective in his defensive work, Capoue's distribution left a lot to be desired versus United, with his stats section on Spurs' official site recording his passing accuracy at just 54 percent. Bentaleb is a cool customer on the ball, so you could understand Sherwood wanting him, Mousa Dembele and Christian Eriksen attempting to take hold of the ball in midfield.
In their better passages of play, it worked decently. Eight minutes in, Dembele directed a run into the left-hand channel and played in Eriksen, whose perseverance saw him through on goal. His shot was saved comfortably by Lukasz Fabianski, but you could see the potential for Spurs causing their hosts problems.
The trouble was, their setup left Spurs a little softer in the middle than had Capoue (or had he been fit, the destructive Sandro) played. Santi Cazorla, Serge Gnabry, Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott were too often able to get in between Spurs' midfield and defence without too much difficulty.
Cazorla's opener was the result of one such instance, with Arsenal getting beyond the Spurs midfield and allowing them scope to bamboozle the back four. Vlad Chiriches was lured away from Gnabry by Walcott's run, with the 18-year-old then drawing the attentions of Michael Dawson and Kyle Walker to play Cazorla through in acres of space.
Capoue's presence may not have made too much of a difference against Arsene Wenger's on-song maestros, but it likely would have given them more to contend with.
Emmanuel Adebayor cannot believe he's fluffed his lines in front of goal for Spurs. pic.twitter.com/7T7Ycg1yjb— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 4, 2014
More from Spurs' attack would have helped. Be it through tiredness following a hectic few weeks, an off day or a combination of both, Emmanuel Adebayor, Eriksen, Aaron Lennon and Roberto Soldado all flattered to deceive in linking up satisfactorily between the thirds of the pitch. In addition, the harrying and pressing from them resulted in the midfield quickly subsiding after a promising opening spell.
It is the risk you run in looking to take the game to a team as impressive as Arsenal have been this season. It paid off against United earlier in the week. Here the Laurent Koscielny-led defence was that much more stout, and Cazorla and co. cleverer in their movement and passing.
Sherwood's 4-4-2 needs fine tuning for such opponents, as did Villas-Boas' 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 that was similarly stifled by Arsenal in September. The solution will likely come in the form of integrating fit-again personnel, with the options of players like Paulinho, Sandro and even the much-maligned Erik Lamela offering different ways of combating tougher sides (albeit, with plenty more needing to go right).
Work in all these respects will continue in the Premier League, with dreams of Wembley and the FA Cup done for another year. The Europa League and February's meetings with ex-Spurs boss Juande Ramos' Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk provide the club's next opportunity to test themselves in a cup format.
By that point a clearer picture of Tottenham's league prospects will have taken shape, as well an idea of how their currently injury-hit squad is looking. Focusing on domestic affairs could be tempting if they remain in close proximity to top-four rivals.
Understandable in one respect, it would also be a shame not to see Sherwood encourage his side to be positive in that competition too.
It did not work against a superior Arsenal side this weekend. But with careful refinement, there is the potential for the adventurous style that has reinvigorated Spurs' season to pay further dividends down the line.