Psst.. big game on Sunday. Arsenal v. Tottenham. The North London Derby. A match that would be the biggest match of the year even if both teams were mid-table but a match which has taken on new significance since Tottenham finally put together a half decent team.
Over Wenger’s entire tenure, 19 seasons, Tottenham have finished below Arsenal in the League table. Under Wenger Arsenal have won 9 major trophies and 6 Community Shields while Tottenham have won the League Cup, twice. The League Cup, the most junior of trophies. A cup that fans don’t even show up to watch, despite slashed ticket prices. A cup where teams routinely play their youth sides. It’s a mixture of the FA Youth Cup and an adult cup. Maybe the adolescent’s cup?
And like an adolescent, Tottenham have a lot of big ideas about how good they are and where their place is on the League table. Especially so in these last few years when Tottenham finally made it into the Champions League places and nearly pipped Arsenal to second place last season. They are still hanging around this season as well, sitting just three points below Arsenal on the League table. A win for them on Sunday (at 4am???? WTAF?) would take them level to Arsenal in the League table, but a win for Arsenal opens up a 6 point lead for the Gunners.
This promises to be a tasty match.
Under Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham deploy a pressing system which seeks to win the ball deep in the opposition half. It’s aggressive football and they often ride on or over the line into foul territory. That raises the temperature of what is already normally a chippy game. Mark Clattenburg is the referee in charge and he’s well known for his permissive tendencies, Arsenal have to be ready for the physical challenge of this match.
But it’s the pressing that should be the biggest tactical concern. Arsenal’s center backs, along with the midfielders, will have to either play a perfect passing game and dazzle fans with elegant triangles and constantly flowing movement, or (more likely) find long outlets and escape routes through tricky feet in midfield, and fleet footed running up front.
Arsene Wenger didn’t deliver any good news for Arsenal fans on the injury front. Arsenal’s fastest forward, Theo Walcott, is “the closest to coming back”, but speaking of the midfield General and all around most important player on the team, Santi Cazorla, Wenger said “he has not practised yet – he will try to go out today and we will see where we go from there. He is a doubt, yes.”
How Arsenal set up in this game is important as well. Wenger has an option to start Giroud up top. Giroud is big and can win a lot of cleared or long passes. And his ability to hold up play and bring late-running teammates (like Özil and Alexis) into the game could be a boon. But Wenger may opt instead for fast, needling players, like a front three of Iwobi, Alexis, and Walcott. Both have their benefits and drawbacks, with the latter being the constant groan of the crowd whenever Mustafi, Cech, or Koscielny hoof the ball out and it goes right back to Spurs.
Arsenal’s midfield has many question marks over it as well. Granit Xhaka is the kind of player whose long passes can pick out an eager runner or can find Giroud up top but Xhaka’s ill discipline could be a factor in this match. Wenger called for him to calm down but Xhaka has no chill. After drawing a yellow card for a foul that I think most Arsenal supporters would consider a red, he then went on to commit three more fouls which each could have been yellow cards. That was against Ludogorets, a match which held little emotional value. Against Tottenham, Xhaka will find himself in the cauldron, and Spurs players (who are the dirtiest players in the League) will be looking to wind him up with little niggling fouls, stamps, pushes, dives, and other shithousery. If he can keep his calm, this could be the match where he rises above his reputation.
Tottenham got a huge boost today with the announcement that Harry Kane is fit. Kane has scored more goals against Arsenal than any other team. He’s also a physical threat, like Giroud, and quite technically adept as well. His screamer from outside the box, on a tight angle from the left last season, was one of the best goals I’ve seen from a Tottenham player, ever. And they have scored some amazing goals against Arsenal. In fact, it usually takes one or two “goals of a lifetime” for them to get the win.
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino bemoaned his team’s attitude after a tough loss on Wednesday to Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League saying that they “are in a bad moment” and that they “are much better than we played today. Maybe it is taking my players time to manage the Premier League and Champions League – the two toughest competitions in the world. It is good to see how we react.”
Tottenham are in a bad place at the moment, Arsenal are riding high after a good comeback win off the back of a goal of the decade candidate by Mesut Özil over Ludogorets. But don’t count on the psychology of the match to play any part. Both teams will need to give maximum effort and play mistake free football to get the three points.
Arsenal are in a three-way tie for first place in the League. Dropping points here, getting a draw, wouldn’t be the worst result in the world. But this is an early test of Arsenal’s title credentials because a win here and you build a little more padding into the points total. Not to mention the mental advantage of knowing that you beat the best Tottenham team of the last 20 years.