By Ewan Roberts
"How do you stop Lionel Messi? With a gun!" joked Juventus boss Antonio Conte in February. Arsene Wenger might want to borrow the Italian's Beretta for Arsenal's trip to White Hart Lane where the in-form Gareth Bale awaits.
The Tottenham winger has bagged eight goals in his last six games – the aforementioned Messi has just five goals in his last six matches. Bale has not been stopped in the Premier League since leaders Manchester United travelled to north London on January 20, a mammoth 42 days before the north London derby.
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"We don't plan for anybody," the French boss revealed in his pre-match press conference. "It is always the same – focus on our strengths and forget about your opponent."
Bale, however, is becoming increasingly hard to forget about. Once tamed when pushed infield onto his right foot, he has now become as deadly through the middle as he is when hurtling down the left flank.
"If you go in too tight on Bale, he skips past you and, if you make him hit it from 30 yards out, it's got to be a hell of a strike to score," remarked West Ham boss Sam Allardyce after Spurs' 23-year-old winger-cum-free-roaming-doom-bringer had fired an unstoppable, devilish 30-yard shot past an inspired Jussi Jaaskelainen in a 3-2 win over the Hammers.
Arsenal cannot legislate for wonder-goals such as his last-minute winner at Upton Park but they can deny him the conditions in which he thrives - namely, space. Unfortunately for the Gunners, space is exactly what they will forfeit if they focus only on their own football and not the strengths of the opposition.
Arsenal are inherently vulnerable to counterattacks, as highlighted by their match against Aston Villa where 50 per cent of the Villans' eight efforts on goal came after swift breaks. With Carl Jenkinson and Nacho Monreal pushing forward (against Villa, their average positions were beyond the halfway line), the Gunners' centre-backs, Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker, were frequently exposed.
In the 68th minute that vulnerability produced a goal as Andreas Weimann, picking the ball up on the halfway line, ran straight through the middle of the pitch, under no pressure, before firing the ball past Wojciech Szczesny.
Spurs' speed merchants, Bale and Aaron Lennon, will devour the space that Arsenal's defence afford. Lennon especially, a constant threat for Tottenham this season – it was he who crossed for Clint Dempsey to score a late equaliser against the Red Devils when Bale was last neutralised – will profit from the space left in behind Monreal.
Villa's right flank of Charles N’Zogbia and right-back Matthew Lowton noticeably targeted Monreal, with the majority of their first-half threat coming down his flank. But if Arsenal's left-back could be a source of joy for Tottenham, then Spurs' own, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, could equally be a player upon whom the Gunners can prey.
The 28-year-old, a cult figure at White Hart Lane, traditionally struggles against inward runs between him and the left-sided centre-back alongside him – a trait which Arsenal have routinely exploited in the past.
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Walcott has become even more masterful at making out-to-in runs, splitting the centre-back and full-back. The ex-Southampton player – who, it should be noted, has not scored in his last five games – relishes space in behind defences, something which Tottenham's high line offers and which heightens the fragilities of Assou-Ekotto.
With Bale playing predominantly infield, often in more advanced areas than forward Emmanuel Adebayor, Spurs can become a little lopsided. Lewis Holtby – or Gylfi Sigurdsson, who was excellent off the bench against West Ham; Bale may have won the match but the Icelander changed it – will likely be forced out wide and it will be critical that they provide support and cover for Assou-Ekotto.
At Upton Park, only two players who started the match averaged more touches per minute of the ball than right-back Guy Demel. The Ivorian used the ball poorly but Jenkinson is unlikely to be as charitable on Sunday – only Arsenal's cultured trio of Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and Mikel Arteta had more touches of the ball than the ex-Charlton full-back against Villa, while he also played seven crosses (the third most).
For Tottenham, the brilliance of Bale continues to be their best chance of victory but the construct created to help him flourish could play into the hands of Arsenal and in particular one-time Southampton team-mate Walcott. Though, as with any derby, form, game plans and tactical tweaks can often be rendered inconsequential, as noted by Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas: "I think in the end it will be emotion that will decide the game, not any tactical preparation."
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