Jonathan Wilson previews the weekend's North London Derby between Arsenal and Tottenham, two rivals vying for Premier League glory.
Back in September, Tottenham faced Arsenal at home in the Capital One Cup. Neither side was quite at full strength, but neither side was weak enough that resting players could be used as an excuse. Tottenham played well, dominated possession and lost to two goals from, of all people, Mathieu Flamini. Arsenal fans celebrated–some rather too energetically as they ripped boards form the front of the second tier at White Hart Lane–but the sense that night was that Tottenham might not be far from finding a balance that might make it a serious threat at the top of the table, that in time, it might regard that game as the start of something special.
That impression was confirmed by a 4-1 win over Manchester City three days later, even if Spurs got the benefit of a couple of refereeing decisions and City rather collapsed in the second half. Since then progress has been steady rather than spectacular with draws against Swansea and Liverpool, but with Harry Kane back to goalscoring form, comfortable recent wins over Bournemouth and Aston Villa have suggested Champions League qualification should be well within Spurs’ grasp.
In part, of course, that was always likely to be the case with Chelsea’s stuttering start, but Spurs at the moment are playing well enough that if they take fourth place it will not simply be by default. Given Manchester United’s struggles to score goals, they may even have their eyes on third. They’re unbeaten in 10 league games and only five points off the top of the table. Sunday’s trip to Arsenal in the league offers a significant test of both teams.
This, after all, is a wounded Arsenal, coming off the back of a 5-1 mauling away to Bayern Munich on Wednesday.
The familiar injury problems have struck again. Laurent Koscielny should return after being rested with a hip problem in Munich, but Hector Bellerin is almost certainly out, as are Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck and Jack Wilshere.
That probably means Joel Campbell playing again on the right. Although the Costa Rica international scored away at Swansea last Saturday, his defensive shortcomings were brutally exposed by Bayern. That could be a major problem against Spurs, who habitually play an attacking left back in Danny Rose, who has linked up well recently with Christian Eriksen, moved to the left to admit Mousa Dembele in the absence of the injured Nacer Chadli.
Arsene Wenger had experimented in training last week with fielding left back Kieran Gibbs on the right of the midfield, which is where he finished in Munich, and it may be that Gibbs is deployed there to try to block up Tottenham’s left flank. That in turn, though, risks costing Arsenal fluency going forward.
That fluency may be compromised anyway by Tottenham’s excellence at the back of midfield, where Eric Dier and Dele Alli have formed an exceptional partnership that has been recognized with both being called up by the England manager Roy Hodgson for the friendlies against Spain and France later this month. No team has made more tackles per game that Spurs, an indication of the bite of that midfield, and one of the reasons only four teams–Arsenal among them–have averaged more possession this season.
It may be that Tottenham, following Bayern’s example, press hard early, partly because that is a way of unsettling Arsenal, and partly because the chastening experience of Wednesday may have left scars.
Whoever wins the battle in midfield should be able to dominate the game–and, although they lost, it was Spurs who achieved that in that Capital One Cup meeting in September.
But really this is about more than parochial pride and about more than the points on the day. It’s also about Tottenham establishing once and for all that it is capable of properly challenging Arsenal, that it is capable of sustaining a run that will carry it into the Champions League and, for once, of taking advantage of an opportunity that exists rather than, as it has done so often in the past, falling just short.
Mauricio Pochettino’s reign so far has been one of promise and gradual development. With Chelsea and United wobbling and Arsenal far from its best, this feels like a chance it cannot pass up.