This piece originally appeared on SpursStatMan.com.
It seems like we say this every time the two sides play, but this North London derby could well be the biggest ever for Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.
We are all familiar with the recent narrative: every year Spurs blitz the Gunners in the transfer market, establish what appears to be obvious supremacy in the squad comparison stakes and race into a ten point lead by January. The world and his wife declares that North London is, from now on, white.
Then, as tiredness and injuries mount, it becomes obvious that Tottenham’s squad is not quite as deep as it seems, leading to inevitable collapse in March/April and an eventual finish a place or two below a beleaguered Arsenal.
While Spurs arrive at the Emirates with a squad now overflowing with exciting young players – one that seems genuinely capable of mounting a title challenge – Arsenal have twelve fit senior players and are one goal away from total meltdown. However, it would be foolish to suggest this is going to be a walk in the park.
Admittedly, Arsenal were hopelessly poor in their season opener at home to Aston Villa – click here to see their anarchic midfield perfectly skewered by Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher – but they have been close to flawless in subsequent games against Fenerbahçe and Fulham.
There is an element of truth in the idea that their basic quality shone through against desperately poor sides but nonetheless Arsenal’s starting eleven presents more of a challenge than many pundits will suggest. Since their low ebb defeat in the March North London Derby at White Hart Lane, the Aston Villa game is the only blotch on a close to perfect formbook.
While the stereotype persists that Arsenal’s attack is almost uniquely frustrating – to most British viewers, they pioneered inefficient tippy-tappy – their primary mode of offence is far more direct than most realise.
As the last two games have shown, the Gunners may lag behind in the transfer market but they have finally moved in line with recent advances in tactical theory. They are no longer reluctant to break forward in a co-ordinated and swift manner. Their short passes are now penetratingly vertical as well as safely horizontal.
In fact, their goals versus Fulham were reminiscent of those scored by the trailblazing teams of the last few years, like Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Club, Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund and Frank De Boer’s Ajax.
With Spurs likely to play the now-standard high-ish line on Sunday, expect Theo Walcott to repeatedly dart in between Danny Rose and Jan Vertonghen in order to enable these lightning bursts. Indeed, Rose versus Walcott could prove the game’s decisive individual battle.
The young left-back shot to fame with his famous howitzer in the April 2010 derby but this will be the truer test of his ability. With Walcott’s movement key to initiating Arsenal’s attacks, Rose will have to be wide awake and on his toes at all times. Walcott may not be the most clinical of thinkers but one single sprint in behind could decide the game.
Equally as important will be the one-v-ones in midfield. If the line-ups are as expected then the respective triangles will pit each player against a direct opponent: Spurs’ holder Étienne Capoue will mark Arsenal’s excellent number ten Tomáš Rosický, Paulinho will take the great white hope, Jack Wilshere, and Mousa Dembélé the man of the moment, Aaron Ramsey.
Tottenham’s midfield trio have impressed sporadically in their short time together but their lack of familiarity will be a concern in a game of this magnitude. In terms of quality, they probably have the edge on Arsenal and given how badly the Gunners trio played positionally against Aston Villa one would have to be quietly confident, but it may be that Arsenal’s collective understanding tips the scales in their favour.
Speaking more generally, both teams try to keep defensive lines fairly high up the pitch, favour quick bursts in behind and have obvious quality in wide areas, so it seems likely to be another frenetic, end-to-end encounter.
Indeed, given the proactive nature of both coaches’ ideas we can be sure that any games between the two sides will never be as dull as last week’s Manchester United-Chelsea clash. In addition to Walcott, Santi Cazorla, Nacer Chadli and Andros Townsend will present potent attacking options. Erik Lamela is likely to feature at some point, most likely replacing Townsend on the right and cutting inside.
This would be to Tottenham’s advantage. As the excellent Vinesh Parmar noted while watching the Dinamo Tbilisi game on Thursday night, the Spurs attack has suffered for having Kyle Walker on the same side of the pitch as a touchline-hugging wide player, given that the wide attacker on the opposite flank usually drifts inside.
With so many players going forward on the right and nothing on the left, Tottenham are imbalanced and easy to play against. With Lamela likely to drift inside onto his stronger left foot, Walker would have the right touchline to himself in the same way that Benoît Assou-Ekotto and Danny Rose have had on the left. Overall, this evolution will make Spurs a more balanced unit.
Spurs’ aim against Arsenal must be to score the first goal. If they do, the famously fickle Emirates crowd will turn in a second. This will only weaken the home side further – despite their excellent record of comebacks last season, morale is currently fragile and the hostility of the crowd is having an obvious effect.
For all the talk of Arsenal’s lack of spending, their major problem is that everyone connected with the club is totally miserable rather too often. The words ‘Arsenal in crisis’ have become familiar to every reader of print and digital media for a good reason.
It often appears that the staff, players and fans all arrive on a match day expecting everything to go spectacularly wrong and for the crowd to turn, so that is what happens. Arsenal’s identity has become one of disaster on the pitch coupled with misery and fury in the stands. Tottenham must exploit this.
Before kick-off André Villas-Boas must reiterate to his players that Arsenal are neither as bad as they were against Aston Villa or as good as they were away to Fenerbahçe: they are somewhere between those points – and despite the doom and gloom that surrounds the club at present, they are probably closer to the latter. Underestimating Arsenal has repeatedly seen leads become embarrassing deficits.
Sunday presents a chance for Tottenham to put them to the sword once and for all. They have to take it.