This season’s first North London derby is here. On Saturday, Arsenal face bitter, local rivals Tottenham Hotspurs at the Emirates Stadium. After losing to a fluid Manchester City in the previous league fixture, this match seems to have come at a bad time for the Gunners. But then again, is there ever a good time to play your traditional, local rivals when they’ve recently had the upper hand?
Normally, the North London derby would mean a feisty, ill-tempered contest where the form book is usually thrown out of the window. Until recently, Arsenal used to win at home and would nick the odd victory at White Hart Lane. Arsenal’s edge over multiple generations can be seen from that fact that Arsene Wenger has seen 10 managers in the Spurs dugout, but none threatened Arsenal’s top dog position (in the local stakes) until Mauricio Pochettino arrived on the scene.
Regardless of the Spurs’ flying starts and talks of an endless crisis at Arsenal, the latter's supporters were usually secure in the fact that they would eventually finish ahead of Spurs in the league table — an Arsenal tradition which has been celebrated as St. Totteringham’s day. Arsenal fans would usually finish the season on a high, soak in the schadenfreude from the Spurs’ self-destruction, and proceed to celebrate the event with great glee; after all, derbies are great time to sing the chants out in full force and rub your close rivals’ noses in the mud.
The lowest point for Spurs in contemporary memory would have to be the 2015-16 season where Tottenham looked to have overcome the hex, only to stumble away to Newcastle and finish below Arsenal on the final day of the campaign. So near, yet so far. But all that seems a distant memory now; with last year’s standings, there is a sense that the centre of footballing gravity in North London has shifted northwards (towards White Hart Lane), and that both sides need to move on from the old narratives.
Despite his overall superior record in North London derbies, Wenger is yet to get the better of Pochettino’s wards; worse, Arsenal have lost the fixture twice (both away) and now genuinely look like the underdog. Spurs look like a team in the ascendancy. A young, vibrant team which is greater than the sum of its parts: a top-notch homegrown talent in Harry Kane; thrust provided from the midfield schemers of Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen; a stable backline which is arguably the best on English shores over the last 2 years. But Pochettino also needs a big result to show that his side are a genuine title contender. Despite striking it rich against Real Madrid and having finally overcome their Champions League allergy, they need to show progress in the league. Tottenham have threatened on and off over the last two seasons and emerged as the most likely title challenger, but they are yet to win away against their fellow aspirants — the big sides in England — since last season.
Going into the match, Tottenham are four points ahead of their rivals with only goal difference separating them from Manchester United in 2nd place. Therefore, even a loss against their rivals wouldn’t bring parity in terms of points. For Arsenal though, this is a must-win fixture. Their away form has been woeful, and all their closest rivals seemed to have improved from last year. With Manchester City galloping at the top of the table, the gulf between the Gunners and their conquerors in the last match seems painfully apparent. A top four spot is a more realistic expectation. Hence, they would need the maximum points from the fixture in order to make a statement of intent to the rest of the league.
How are the teams expected to shape up?
Both teams are expected to field identical 3-4-3 formations. Kane has found the back of the net against Arsenal in each of his last 5 fixtures, and Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny will have to be at his absolute best to keep the hitman at bay. Shkodran Mustafi is doubtful for the match, and up front Olivier Giroud will be conspicuous by his absence. Which versions of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez turn up also remain to be seen; a central midfield of Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka seem a bit lightweight compared to their rivals. Wenger’s usage of Alexandre Lacazette has been a bit puzzling this season — he’s started only nine times especially when he has had a decent return in the form of six goals. Pace has been the key to unlock the Spurs defence with speed merchants Anthony Martial and Mohamed Salah causing damage recently; Lacazette certainly has the tools, but whether he uses them is quite another matter.
What about the Spurs?
The current spate of injuries will be a headache for Pochettino — with both keepers in doubt for the game. Toby Alderweireld being ruled out till the New Year will also be a massive loss for Spurs but Davison Sanchez and Eric Dier should be more than adequate company for the reliable Jan Vertonghen. Victor Wanyama will also be absent but the duo of Mousa Dembele and Harry Winks should have the edge in the midfield battle. Luckily, Kane and Alli have shaken off their knocks are ready to face the Gunners. Pochettino faces a selection dilemma in the full-back department —who would battle with Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac? Would it be the more adventurous Serge Aurier and Danny Rose, or will he choose safety in the form of Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies?
The result of the match would largely depend on the attitude of the two sides. Man for man, and as a unit, Spurs should have the edge in this contest. But considering that this is not a must-win fixture for Tottenham, Pochettino’s side might resort to playing on the counter. Don’t write off the Gunners at home though; over the last few years, they’ve had the habit of popping up with the unexpected result. Given his love affair with this fixture, Kane will probably end up scoring. Though both sides might claim moral victory with a draw, only a win will appease both the sets of fans and strike a psychological blow towards the end of season stakes.
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Updated Date: Nov 18, 2017 11:49:15 IST