There have been more than 550 matches in the professional career of Jorginho, a footballer who has spent the majority of his life receiving the ball under pressure and popping it past an opponent. Thousands of passes and thousands of identical moments, all baked into his subconscious, but none of them provide a guarantee that disaster will not one day strike.
If Mikel Arteta could choose one player to receive possession in midfield, just a few seconds after Bukayo Saka had given Arsenal the lead for a second time , he would probably have picked Jorginho. On this occasion, though, the Italy international’s brain sent a message that his legs did not understand. A heavy touch, a sudden turnover, and then a goal for Spurs.
This, evidently, is what the intensity of a north London derby can do to a player. Few fixtures are as consistently frenetic as this one, and few games are as testing of a player’s mentality. With Arsenal’s blood running hot — perhaps too hot, Arteta hinted afterwards — their composure was lost and their control of the game disappeared with it.
“There were moments where we played super-hyped,” said Arteta. “These derbies and atmospheres take you there. We lacked a certain composure on the ball to be more dominant, to get a structure in the game that we needed.”
If Arsenal largely won the midfield battle in the first half here, they largely lost it in the second. And there can be no doubt that the absence of Declan Rice, removed at half-time with a back problem, had a significant impact on that changing dynamic.
It is a measure of Rice’s impact in north London, following his £105 million move from West Ham United , that Arsenal already appear to be reliant on him in the heart of their midfield. Arteta spoke last week about how the 24-year-old has adapted quicker than even he expected and here, once Rice departed, there was a hole in midfield that Jorginho simply could not fill.
In defence of Jorginho, his game is not built on defensive intensity and aggressive pressing. It was striking, though, to see how Spurs were able to seize control of the central part of the pitch once Rice had departed. Jorginho was playing the same game as the Spurs midfielders, but he was often doing so a second too late. By the time he reached the ball, it was already on the way to someone else.
WOW WOW WOW! This GAME! pic.twitter.com/DKpUISIApR
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) September 24, 2023
With Jorginho swimming against the tide, it was Yves Bissouma who took ownership of the afternoon. The Spurs midfielder is a man reborn under Ange Postecoglou and he eased through the gears after the break. No Spurs player passed more accurately, and no player did more to prevent Arsenal from finding their usual rhythm.
At which point it should be noted that Arsenal’s Thomas Partey, another high-calibre defensive midfielder, was missing through an injury of his own. Arteta’s options are suddenly becoming a little limited, especially with Gabriel Martinelli and Leandro Trossard also absent from this derby because of injury.
To be clear, Rice was not exactly dominant in the first half. But he was certainly more dominant than Jorginho and it will be a source of significant concern for Arteta that his team appeared more frail, especially mentally, without Rice’s energy and power on the pitch.
“I think that affected the team emotionally quite a lot,” said Arteta of Son Heung-min’s second goal, converted after Jorginho’s error.
As for the mistake itself, Arteta was strong in his support for his midfielder. Asked what had happened to Jorginho in that moment, he replied: “What happened is I love him, and we love him. Errors are part of football. They are allowed to make errors because they play and we don’t play. For us it’s really easy, but if there is someone who is willing to help the team, it’s Jorgi.”
The challenge for any team, of course, is to cope with the injuries that materialise over the course of the campaign. Arsenal found themselves without their first and second-choice defensive midfielders in this second half, and life became significantly more challenging. On this evidence, they can only hope that Rice’s absence is not long-term.