This article originally appeared on SpursStatMan.com.
Sunday’s North London Derby will be a strange one. While still a huge game for both sides, it is lacking the apparently epoch-defining gravity of the encounters of others played in the last few years. This is obviously because Tottenham have completely imploded: following on from the abject losses to Chelsea and Benfica, it seems almost unthinkable that this was supposed to be the season that the gap between Arsenal and Spurs was not only closed but re-opened in Spurs’ favour.
As we all know, the hope and expectation that followed Tottenham’s sale of Elvis and subsequent purchase of the Beatles was totally false, while Arsenal’s lack of transfer activity led to popular discontent until the surprise signing of Mesut Özil changed everything and turned the Gunners into a good team again.
Once again, Arsène Wenger’s men come into the game heavy favourites and few home fans will be surprised if the outcome is anything but an away win. Of course, Tottenham have players capable of beating Arsenal and are not so utterly hopeless that a total pasting is expected, but with Tim Sherwood looking increasingly lost in the dugout and his side’s tactics barely discernible, it will be an uphill struggle to get anything out of the game.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Arsenal once again pulling away from Tottenham is that they have barely had to do anything to do so. They have stumbled across an extremely good centre-back partnership and by keeping the core of the squad together for once, have developed stability throughout the side that has enabled them to become more mature tactically.
The willingness they have shown to grind out results this season – be it through actively seeking to surrender possession once ahead, making defensive substitutions to close out games or by attacking directly when the situation demands it – is in stark contrast to the spineless naivety of the side that surrendered so meekly at White Hart Lane just over a year ago.
That is not to say this Arsenal has a totally different set of tactical characteristics. Obviously, they still look to dominate possession and they are very good at doing so. Only three Premier League sides have more of the ball on average and only two have higher pass completion rates. They still rely on quick passing combinations to create chances and rarely sling the ball into the mixer for the hell of it.
Indeed, they remain one of the most patient sides in the Premier League, not shooting at goal unless it is a good opportunity to score. This is why despite posting only the ninth highest number of shots taken per game they post the fourth highest figure for shots on target per game. That said, this team cannot be accused, as many Arsenal sides in recent years have been, of looking to score the perfect goal. They are happy to score ugly when they have to – but Plan A is always to play the percentages.
Defensively, they have improved a lot. The back five of Wojciech Szczęsny, Bacary Sagna, Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny and Kieran Gibbs has been one of the success stories of the season, with Mertesacker and Koscielny particularly outstanding. Gone, for the most part, are the hapless individual errors that characterised the backline for so long. In its place is a steely resolve and well-refined understanding of their characteristics and responses to danger.
In recent weeks, however, as fixtures and injuries have piled up, the defence has started to look more and more vulnerable. They have not kept a clean sheet in any of their last six games in all competitions and have not recorded one away from home since beating Newcastle in December.
Indeed, they have been hopelessly exposed when the midfield has not provided them with adequate protection. The defensive collapses away to Manchester City and Liverpool, for example, came when the midfield repeatedly committed itself high up the field. Against two of the division’s best teams at attacking transitions, leaving that sort of space is a recipe for disaster.
To that end, the Gunners’ biggest problem is that most of their attacking midfielders – in particular Jack Wilshere, Tomáš Rosický and Mesut Özil – have massive deficiencies in their defensive contribution. While all press and close angles with admirable vigour – in Wilshere’s case, too much vigour – they are prone to leaving gaps behind them and then failing to track opposition full-backs post-transition.
Of course, Wilshere and Özil are injured and will play no part in this derby, but Rosický will surely start and Santi Cazorla, another likely starter and a player schooled in tactical theory at the highest level in Spain, contributes ably for the most part but, like Özil, gives too much going forward and not enough going back. If Spurs are to take a hold on the game, it will be the same way that they did it last season: by attacking quickly and with lightning pace on the counter.
As is customary for this time of year, Arsenal’s squad has been depleted by a string of improbable injuries to key personnel. Despite this, the starting eleven that will take the field against Tottenham will be very strong indeed.
Between the sticks, Wojciech Szczęsny will return having sat out the midweek tie against Bayern Munich due to suspension. Never short of confidence and always ready to give Spurs fans stick, Szczęsny has been greatly improved this season, his undoubted quality has been turned into consistent performances with help from the assured Mertesacker and Koscielny in front of him.
The rejuvenated but probably departing Bacary Sagna will play at right-back and Thomas Vermaelen or Nacho Monreal will deputise if Kieran Gibbs cannot shake off the type of niggling injury he always seems to be carrying. After a very promising debut campaign in the Premier League, Monreal has at times looked helpless this season. Coming in and out of the team and often in high-pressure games cannot have helped, but the impression remains that the Spain international has not shown his best.
With more proactive midfield options like Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere unavailable, Mikel Arteta will surely be partnered by über-passionate sleeve-cutting nutcase Mathieu Flamini, though misery-provoking loanee Kim Källström could make his debut should Arsenal seek a more controlling technical presence in the middle.
The third-band trio should be Cazorla, Rosický and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – by all accounts the most popular English footballer around, if only because he has a convenient nickname – though Wednesday’s goalscorer Lukas Podolski could be included on the left if Wenger fancies giving Tottenham a fighting chance by wasting a shirt.
Handsome Frenchman Olivier Giroud will continue as the lone striker, his instantly recognisable array of melodramatic reactions to abject misses giving the home fans something to riff on, while his one-touch flicks turn the ball over to the home side time and again until the most difficult one of the afternoon lays on the decisive goal for an onrushing midfielder.
It is not this column’s intention to be so pessimistic but with the increasingly unhinged Tim Sherwood in charge of such a high-pressure game it is difficult to summon a modicum of optimistic thought that cannot be shot down in by the simple fact that the manager is totally out of his depth.
Still, even a stopped clock is right twice a day and all that jazz, and if Sherwood can somehow stumble across a tactically coherent alternative to his seemingly dada team selections, who knows what could happen.