I’ve always found that the week leading up to the North London derby drains you of a small part of your soul, torturing you with a combination of angst and uncertainty.
There will always be those fans who are convinced that their team will win, however improbable that may be, just as there are those fans who are so pessimistic that they expect every derby to end in ignominious defeat.
For my own part, I sit somewhere in the middle. I’m never confident of success until the final whistle blows, but I’m almost always convinced of Arsenal’s superiority over our neighbours.
It’s no different this time around. Man-for-man, Arsenal have the superior squad, with genuine world class options all over the pitch. You really can’t say that for Tottenham.
But what they do have is a petulant siege mentality whenever they come to the Emirates. However awful they may be playing, their level raises for the derby, as some form of bizarre act of childish rebellion. Why can’t they just roll over and take the beating they deserve?
Last five meetings at the Emirates:
- February 12: Arsenal 5 Tottenham 2
- November 12: Arsenal 5 Tottenham 2
- September 13: Arsenal 1 Tottenham 0
- September 14 Arsenal 1 Tottenham 1
- November 15 Arsenal 1 Tottenham 1
It’s no secret that Tottenham are in a very average run of form of late. While they remain the league’s only unbeaten side, they have drawn their last three games, and have also been abject in cup and European competition.
Currently, they are without Toby Alderweireld, Moussa Sissoko, and Erik Lamela, with Moussa Dembele also a doubt. Harry Kane is expected to return but has not played in seven weeks since injuring ankle ligaments.
Simply put, they are a team there for the taking. They are in poor form, they are missing key players, and they are coming to the Emirates. There won’t be many better occasions in which to strike a telling blow over our rivals.
And yet, somehow, as is always the case, their performance will almost certainly defy expectation.
I think we can safely assume that Mauricio Pochettino will instruct his team to do as Jose Mourinho does in these occasions and seek to spoil the game in as cynical a way as possible.
All over the pitch they will be pressing, hassling, and putting a foot in. They will be looking to win the ball back high up the pitch and break as quickly as possible. They will set up, primarily, to make themselves very difficult to beat. We can expect no less.
For Arsenal’s part, the success of failure of this derby will hinge on whether they can be alert enough to keep it tight at the back when Tottenham do inevitably win the ball back. If they leave themselves as exposed as they did against Ludogorets, they could find themselves on the end of a very nasty surprise.
Of course, we were chasing the game in Bulgaria and needed to over-commit in attack, but there is no need to do so again on this occasion. Not from the outset, anyway.
This will be a test of Arsenal’s patience. Typically, the North London derby starts at a frenetic pace all over the pitch, something not really conducive to patience, but if Arsenal can see that period off and go on to assert control in the middle of the pitch, then they will give themselves the best chance of success.
I’m pretty sure Theo Walcott will return for the derby, and I think we will see Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin back, too. I think they may well have been ready for the Ludogorets game had they really been required but Arsene was, it ultimately transpired, wise to leave them at home.
I don’t expect to see Santi Cazorla back until later this month. It seems as if his Achilles’ tendon injury was a little more serious than first prescribed.
While I’m confident that Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud will return to the bench, with Alexis returned to the solo striker’s role, I really only have suspicions as to what Arsene will do in the middle of the pitch.
On the balance of probabilities, I suspect Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin will continue in the centre, as much as that tends to blunt our creativity. It will bring a measure of stability as it is sure to be a real battleground in the middle of the pitch.
I can’t rule out the inclusion of Granit Xhaka, given his goal in midweek and tendency to be much more of a creative force, but a question mark remains over his temperament. Unfortunately, justified or not, his reputation proceeds him and we simply can’t afford to lose someone to a rash tackle in a game as symbolically important to fans as this.
All things considered, this is shaping up to be an incredibly interesting match up. On paper, and given the circumstances, you’d think that this was a good chance for Arsenal to put one over their fierce rivals and open up a healthy gap in the league, albeit still at a very early stage.
But, as recent history has taught us time and again, form goes out the window for the North London derby.
- Arsenal are winless in their last four Premier League north London derbies (D3 L1) – they’ve never gone five without a win against Tottenham in the league under Arsene Wenger.
- Mauricio Pochettino is undefeated as a manager in his four Premier League north London derbies. No Spurs manager has ever gone unbeaten in their first five league games against Arsenal in top flight history.
- The only previous north London derby that kicked off at noon in the Premier League was in November 2004 – Arsenal won 5-4 at White Hart Lane.
- The team scoring first has failed to win this fixture on 23 occasions, the highest number in Premier League history (15 draws, eight defeats).
- The Gunners have scored at least once in 42 of their last 43 meetings with Tottenham in all competitions.