Seconds after Tottenham Hotspur had clawed their way back to parity from a two-goal deficit midway through the second half, there was a glimpse of how Arsène Wenger's opponents really see him. Clive Allen, one of Harry Redknapp's battery of assistants, brushed past the Arsenal manager on the touchline with a transparently disrespectful brusqueness, ostensibly to get the ball back into play. Try to imagine such a thing happening to Sir Alex Ferguson.

Redknapp himself would not stoop to commit such a breach of etiquette. Just as Joe Jordan was on hand to square up to Gennaro Gattuso at San Siro in February, so Allen was available to add irritation to Wenger's frustration. The Frenchman responded by haranguing the fourth official but at such moments he can look very lonely indeed and, even after 15 seasons and much success in the Premier League, peculiarly vulnerable. The contrast with the Spurs manager, surrounded by his consiglieri, was marked.

Was it the imagination or did Wenger really look leaner and more gaunt than usual – more haunted even – as he stood in the technical area, waiting for the match to start? After the events of the past few weeks, starting with a shattering defeat in the Carling Cup final and culminating in what felt like a highly symbolic meltdown in front of his home crowd on Sunday, the Frenchman's true thoughts could only be imagined.

All Premier League managers must feel they are constantly on trial but against Spurs Wenger seemed to have been put in the dock by one of his own players. Even more unusually, as Arsenal raced to a 2-1 lead on their local rivals' turf within the breathless first quarter of an hour of this high-stakes match, his accuser turned out to be one of the principal witnesses for the defence.

There was nothing irresponsible about the measured dissection of Arsenal's season attributed to Cesc Fábregas by a Spanish football magazine this week. In a better world such honesty would be the norm. Nor were Fábregas's alleged comments remarkable for their originality. Wenger claimed afterwards that his captain's words had been twisted by the interviewer and further distorted in translation but, when Fábregas appeared to be so explicitly questioning the club's philosophy, he was merely echoing the thoughts of dozens of commentators and tens of thousands of supporters.

What Arsenal did at White Hart Lane as they scored three first-half goals was to show that they are capable of playing, albeit in the special conditions of a local derby spiced with an extra incentive for both sides, without the tendency to over-elaboration that has been their undoing over recent seasons. Theo Walcott's opener, in the fifth minute, could hardly have been more economical as the Englishman elegantly put a lethal finishing touch to Fábregas's crisp through-ball.

When Samir Nasri restored the lead eight minutes later, it was with a similar combination of decisiveness and precision. So impressive before Christmas, so disappointing when the going got tough in recent weeks, Nasri did not pause to reflect on his options when collecting Abou Diaby's pass but fired a 20-yard shot through Michael Dawson's legs and inside the left-hand post. Another important virtue, that of persistence, was behind Robin van Persie's goal after fine work by Bacary Sagna and Walcott.

And yet once again they conceded a clear lead. Not as traumatically, certainly, as in the collapse from 4-0 up to 4-4 at St James' Park in February, when their mental fragility was exposed with a thoroughness that pulled the rug from under their entire season but nevertheless further evidence of a systemic weakness.

Like Arsenal's three strikes Tottenham's two first-half goals, coming via marvellously accurate shots from Rafael van der Vaart and Tom Huddlestone, were moments of lucidity and self-possession in the midst of a hectically entertaining encounter.

In response Arsenal tried to show that they are not a soft touch, via rough treatment of Gareth Bale, the newly installed players' player of the year, and bookings for Gaël Clichy, Alex Song and Johan Djourou for fouls on Van der Vaart and Luka Modric, but they had lost their coherence and rhythm by the time Spurs were awarded the penalty that sealed the result. Stung by the equaliser, Arsenal responded by reviving their earlier inclination to shoot on sight but to no avail.

Once again Wenger was doing his dance of exasperation in the technical area. In most years a 3-3 draw at White Hart Lane would represent a satisfactory outcome. On this night, however, it was the home side who drew pleasure from the stalemate, despite the knowledge that a single point was not the return they had been looking for in the chase for fourth place. For Wenger, however, the ordeal continues.