Ever since Arsene Wenger took charge of Arsenal 16 years ago, the Gunners have ruled North London with Tottenham never managing to finish above their rivals in that time. Last season, Spurs were cruising in the league, 13 points ahead of Arsenal and even had the title within their sights until they let a two-goal lead slip at the Emirates stadium and lost 5-2. The defeat had a crippling effect on the side and Arsenal overtook them to secure third place in the league while Harry Redknapp’s men were denied a Champions League spot. Even this early in the season, the North London derby is capable of deciding the fate of either side.
Both teams have endured a stuttering start to the season, have both lost key players over the summer, are dealing with injury woes and are placed side by side in the table in 7th and 8th positions. It’s safe to say that this particular derby has rarely been so evenly poised. Both sides will go into this derby feeling a little jittery and the thought of losing it will probably give the game with a nervy edge.
Arsenal's recent results have been disappointing
This derby isn’t just about bragging rights, it may give us an indication as to which side may secure a Champions League spot for next season. Make no mistake about it, Arsenal are not a team gunning for Premiership glory anymore, they haven’t been for a while. Instead, they have been reduced to competing in a sub-division in England’s elite league, one that includes the likes of Tottenham, Everton and Newcastle United scrapping for that coveted fourth spot.
It will be Andre Villas-Boas’ first game against fierce rivals, Arsenal and the fact that it is away from home won’t worry him too much. His side have managed only 8 points from a possible 18 at home this season. It’s almost as if the pressure to perform in front of their fans gets to the team. Meanwhile, Wenger may not be relishing taking his place on the touchline in front of his home fans either. Following the club’s AGM meeting and a string of poor results, the Arsenal fans who used to look at him with sheer admiration now watch his every move sceptically.
The old foes seemingly set-up quite similarly but there are subtle differences which lead to their varying styles. While Wenger opts for a 4-3-3 formation, Villas-Boas employs a 4-2-3-1 formation. Arsenal’s style of play often insists on playing through their opponent while Tottenham’s is rather more concerned with playing around them.
In Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale, Spurs have two of the most threatening wide players in the league and when used correctly, they can devastate the best defences. Their full-backs enjoy getting forward as well. Jan Vertonghen is doing a solid job at left-back in the absence of the even more attacking, Benoit Assou-Ekotto while Kyle Walker is notably accomplished in the opponent’s half.
As opposed to Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla, Clint Dempsey has a different role as an attacking midfielder. He is more concerned with getting into the box almost as a second striker rather than bothering too much with the task of distribution while his Spanish counterpart focusses on the latter. As a result, when a cross comes in, Dempsey, the striker and the opposite winger will attack it in Tottenham’s case. This is where Arsenal struggle to score goals. Although Cazorla, supported by the likes of Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere do well to create openings while playing some attractive stuff, when the final ball comes across goal, there isn’t too much to aim at.
Tottenham's strength is down the flanks
Furthermore, Arsenal just don’t play the ball wide enough and when they do, their wingers don’t have the habit of taking the ball to the by-line and delivering crosses like Bale and Lennon do on a regular basis. They prefer to keep things narrow, allowing their wingers to cut inside and then try to thread balls through for them.
On the other hand, Spurs struggle with their central midfield. Luka Modric and Rafael Van der Vaart used to be able to distribute balls out to the wide men expertly. Sandro and Tom Huddlestone aren’t capable of doing the same and with Scott Parker and Moussa Dembele still side-lined through injury, they look pretty blunt in central midfield, the one area in which Arsenal may have a clear advantage despite missing Abou Diaby.
Tottenham’s wide men just haven’t enjoyed the same kind of distribution they did previously and hence they haven’t been used to their full potential. It’s not that they don’t get the ball enough, they do but they don’t get it quickly enough and at the right time.
Jermaine Defoe has been in a rich vein of form but it’s unclear whether Villas-Boas will start with his top-scorer or persist with Emmanuel Adebayor as he prepares to face yet another one of his former employers. Olivier Giroud looks in fine form with a brace last weekend and Wenger will be hoping that he can use that as a platform to go on to score more goals as nobody else seems to be keen on taking on the goal-scoring responsibility that Robin Van Persie shouldered last season.
Will their top-scorer be benched again?
The one area in which the two sides find common ground is in defence. They may have suffered a few injuries in that department but the organization has been poor as well. A porous defence on either side of the pitch today should ensure that we see a few goals.
A lot of how the game pans out depends on the way Villas-Boas sets up his side. They were too defensive against Manchester City and that led to a rather fractious game at the end of which they were left empty-handed. In front of their home fans, Arsenal may just be under a bit more pressure than their opponents and the same could be said about their respective managers. Neither of the two sides are where they want to be in the league and neither have settled into their respective systems as yet. Nevertheless, today’s derby will offer plenty of answers for the victors although it may raise several more questions for the defeated.
Who do you think will come out on top in today's North London derby? Leave your comments below...
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