By Alex Young
There are a multitude of derby fixtures in the Premier League. Be it the all-Manchester affair between United and City, the Merseyside bragging rights going up for grabs between Liverpool and Everton or the Tyne-Wear festivities when Newcastle United and Sunderland face off.
The list goes on and on even when locality is thrown out of the window, with the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool enjoying many a feisty tete-a-tete over the years, while the growing threat of Chelsea has also thrown up some tasty encounters.
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The first game my father ever attended was a north London derby at Highbury in October, 1963. The final score? 4-4.
And, over the years, goals have become a regular contributor to the derby. Taking the 10 previous meetings between Arsenal and Tottenham as a sample, scores such as 5-1, 4-4, 4-1, 3-2, 3-3 and 5-2 flash up.
Now, even without comparison that record seems particularly high. A look at other notable derbies in the division, however, underlines the generous goalmouth action.
Looking back at the previous 10 games, the Manchester derby between United and City racks up an average of three goals per game, the Merseyside derby boasts 2.8 goals per game and the clashes between United and Liverpool brings a 3.3 goals-per-game ratio.
The north London derby has a staggering 4.6 goals-per-game ratio over that same period.
And it is not just the regularity of the goal scoring, it is also the nature. Take the 4-4 at the Emirates Stadium from October 2008. David Bentley broke the deadlock with his infamous 35-yard half-volley before an Arsenal fightback saw the score lie 4-2 in favour of the Gunners heading into injury time only for Jermaine Jenas and Aaron Lennon to pop up at the death and claim a dramatic, and seemingly unlikely, point.
Move forward three years and Arsenal are 2-0 up at half-time at the Emirates. However, come the hour mark and it is all square. A tense end-to-end game flows towards the final five minutes until Younes Kaboul pops up inside the area to head home a Rafael van der Vaart free-kick to seal a remarkable second-half comeback and Tottenham’s first ever away win to a traditional top-four side since the formation of the Premier League in 1993.
It is not just the goals that trump other derbies or, even, other matches on a regular basis. It is the tension, unpredictability and, more recently, the higher stakes.
If you look back at the 10 fixtures that precede those analysed above - in a period between 2005 and 2008 - the goal-to-game ratio drops to 2.8, and the most notable change between the two sides since then? Tottenham’s rise to a team capable of challenging for Champions League qualification and Arsenal’s slight decline as genuine title challengers.
This closing of the gap in quality has intensified the repercussions that a loss or a win could have on the teams’ end-of-season achievements.
Six months on from Spurs’ second-half comeback at the Emirates, Arsenal again found themselves with a two-goal lead over their rivals, this time at White Hart Lane and closing the gap on first-placed Manchester United to just four points with five games to go.
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However, another comeback earned the hosts a deserved point and the Gunners ended up earning just four more points for the rest of the season as Arsenal not only missed out on a second-place finish, but surrendered their current position of third to finish fourth - and with it having to navigate the Champions League play-off round.
And similar has happened to Tottenham. In February 2012, Tottenham went to Arsenal as favourites for the first time in recent memory. Arsene Wenger’s side had recently been thrashed 4-0 by AC Milan and been knocked out of the FA Cup by Sunderland to all but confirm their trophy-less streak would continue for a seventh year.
Tottenham were 2-0 up after 34 minutes, and cruising. But two goals in three minutes left the scores level at half-time. A further three goals before the 70-minute mark and Arsenal were 5-2 to the good and Spurs were shell-shocked. Spurs ended up conceding the seven-point lead over their rivals, their previously comfortable placing of third and, eventually, even the opportunity to qualify for the Champions League group stage after Chelsea’s triumph in the May final.
A north London derby is not just about locality now, it is a legitimate clash between two clubs chasing qualification to Europe’s elite club competition.
It is not solely a matter of passion or the desire of the fans. It is not even just about the goals. The entertainment comes from the increased stakes. The winner-takes-all incentive. That is why the north London derby has become the Premier League's most watchable fixture.
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