The North London derby is now regarded a prominent fixture in what many are classifying as the most compelling title race of the Premier League era. Historically speaking, Arsenal tend to always finish above Spurs, and though that also occurred last season, it’s worth noting that they were both runners-up to Leicester City.
If this were any other year, it would be a brief catastrophic failure for Spurs, but considering they were in the title race within the final weeks of the season, and finished within the top four, Mauricio Pochettino’s side were a product of optimism and growth. But following Manchester City’s recent dip in form throughout October, the two North London sides can still be considered in the title hunt.
Over the last decade, both teams have been renowned for challenging for the final Champions League spot, but now, they’re making a genuine stake at being annual title contenders for contrasting reasons. Arsenal represent a stable side that’s welcomed two world-class players in recent years, whilst avoiding regression unlike Manchester United and Chelsea.
On the other hand, Pochettino’s formed a youthful cohesive team built around organized pressing, quickly regaining possession, and the meteoric rise of Harry Kane. Spurs are one of the few Premier League sides that epitomize the definition of unit, and burnout was the of the few factors in their eventual collapse towards the conclusion of last season.
“It was the first time our players had ever experienced this type of situation and it was very difficult,” said Pochettino. “When you lose your objective, like we did when we lost the chance to win the league at Chelsea, it was tough for them to manage the situation.”
Likewise, an early exit in the Europa League and the ability to name a fairly unchanged side for majority of last year’s campaign was integral to their title challenge. This season, injuries to first-team players, along with the additional midweek Champions League fixtures have disrupted Spurs’ attempt of replicating their aforementioned success.
Coincidentally, the contrast between Spurs and Arsenal extends to the current campaign as well, with the latter enjoying a great run of form since their opening day loss to Liverpool, whereas Spurs have scored a solitary goal from open play in six matches. Although Pochettino’s men remain unbeaten domestically, there’s a clear issue regarding their attacking philosophy.
On paper, though, it’s quite straightforward: the full-backs stay close to the touch-line beyond half, and the centre-backs split into half-spaces as the holding midfielder drops deeper to ensure Spurs play out the back. Kane could come short or spin-off his marker into the channels, while the attacking midfield trio cleverly combine intricate passes in the final third.
Yet, Spurs generally spurn several chances around the box, and remain at their utmost best when they win possession in midfield and quickly facilitate the ball towards goal. Kane’s finishing and link-up play has been missed – the England international has scored 36 per-cent of Spurs league goals in the past two seasons – but more importantly, Tottenham’s passing has been sloppy and laboured.
The Gunners, however, are scoring goals for fun with key players Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, and the returning Olivier Giroud showing signs of ruthless efficiency. It’s believed that form weighs no significance on the eventual outcome of a derby, and that may play a factor here, as well, but it provides an interesting element to this anticipated rivalry.
Stylistically, though, the match favours Spurs, who equally produced their best performance of the season against a Manchester City side obsessed with possession.
“The performance was nearly perfect. To play a great team like Manchester City, you need to do a fantastic job. For that, I’m very proud of our players; work,” Pochettino said afterwards.
“Today, collectively, we worked very hard — all the players were fantastic. It was a real exciting game. Both teams played in an exciting way. We share a similar philosophy.
Spurs’ display could prove to be one of the standout performances of the season as they never allowed Pep Guardiola’s men time to settle, despite succumbing to fatigue and conceding a handful of legitimate goal-scoring opportunities in the second half. Likewise, even when Tottenham flustered City with their energetic man-to-man pressing in midfield, they continuously wasted opportunities in the final third. It was a clear indicator that even at their best, Pochettino’s men could improve their productivity in the final third to overshadow their inability to build play from the back
And while Pochettino was heavily credited for Spurs’ fitness levels last season, his star performers have now endured a severe dip in form since Euro 2016. Christian Eriksen’s creativity has been non-existent in terms of breaking down deep defensive lines, Eric Dier’s moved to a centre-back role and doesn’t appear required in midfield with Victor Wanyama in most situations, whereas Dele Alli has yet to convert quality chances into goals – the partnership developed with Kane could also be a factor in the Spurs youngster’s stagnation.
Interestingly enough, the pressing Spurs have been renowned for could be a decisive tactic against an Arsenal side that also monopolizes possession. Still, the Gunners are equally devastating on the counter, and possess the personnel that can harm Spurs’ high-line if they push men forward.
The team with the best defence and offence generally wins the Premier League, and though they still remain defensively solid in terms of shape and structure, conceding a league best five goals, Arsenal arguably possess the best attack in the division on current form.
Wenger’s fluid attack will test Spurs’ resolve, though, and it’s likely Pochettino will effectively instruct his side to man-mark in midfield given the evident threat of Ozil and Sanchez between the lines. The latter may revert back to his preferred position on the left, but similar to Ozil, he prefers to buzz around space between the lines and through the channels before running towards goal. Ultimately, Spurs lack players of this mould: a creative dynamo capable of placing his teammates in goal-scoring positions, and dynamic, yet diligent dribbler that offers a goal-threat anywhere in the final third.
Victor Wanyama has been a revelation in the centre of the pitch, and with Moussa Dembele unlikely to start, the Kenyan may be encouraged to solely monitor Ozil’s movement in these zones. Dier’s presence would be helpful, here, but Pochettino’s use of a 4-1-4-1 would enable Alli and Eriksen the role of pressing the Arsenal double-pivot to effectively negate their threat in central areas, and quickly break forward when possession is regained.
This is the other reason why Olivier Giroud’s return and instant goal-scoring form could trouble Spurs’ back-line. Unlike City’s Claudio Bravo, Petr Cech isn’t renowned for constantly setting the tempo of the match with his distribution. Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi’s passing under pressure presented issues in the past, which could lead to balls punted into Giroud to bypass Spurs pressing in midfield and encourage runners forward.
Elsewhere, Spurs simply haven’t scored enough goals following Kane’s injury, and are hopeful the 23-year-old will make his return to action this Sunday. Son Heung-Min form peaked upfront during the early stages of the season, but the South Korean international is more of a threat on the counter-attack where he is provided ample space to dribble towards defenders. The other option upfront in Vincent Janssen offers link-up play, and prefers to peg centre-backs towards their goal, but the Dutch international doesn’t possess Kane’s all-round ability and struggles to create his own chances.
More so, given the case Spurs are unable to utilize their pressing to create goal-scoring opportunities, the reliance on pushing the full-backs forward would be their alternative attacking route. Toby Alderweireld’s diagonal balls from centre-back were always a useful outlet in terms of shifting play, but Danny Rose and Kyle Walker’s influence in advance wide positions will be vital.
Walker and Moussa Sissoko failed to spark a reliable partnership midweek against Bayer Leverkusen, and Pochettino will hope Eric Lamela is fit to start, here. Arsenal’s wide players, though, have diligently provided support for their full-backs this season, and it’s unlikely, Rose, in particular, will receive the space that Riyad Mahrez provided last week against Leicester.
Although Arsenal still possess defensive issues in certain areas, the side’s overall structure has improved over the past year. It also helps that Wenger can utilize various options in midfield. He can turn to power in Elneny and Francis Coquelin, all-round personnel in Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey, or rely on the diminutive passer in Santi Cazorla.
With that being said, the evolution of both sides remains intriguing, nonetheless: by Premier League standards, Wenger’s group of experienced players are now living up to expectations led by their adapted world-class stars, albeit still prone to defensive lapses. In contrast, Pochettino’s youthful cohesive unit must prove they can find other routes to victory if they’re unable to sustain their dynamic pressing throughout the season.
Last season’s incredible overachievement was overshadowed by their wilting post-April results, and although Spurs’ current form is inconsistent, Pochettino’s influence still appears sustainable. However, another shortcoming against Wenger’s Arsenal would put Pochettino’s philosophy under potential scrutiny.
Coming so close to Premier League glory last season suggests the main goal is to go one step further, but history shows they must buck the trend and finish above Arsenal. With several London derbies approaching subsequent to the international break and Champions League group stage qualification on the cusp, Pochettino’s margin for error is slim.
Similar to their last pre-international break fixture, a win at the Emirates could uplift Spurs’ quest to ignite their title bid.