Arsenal vs Spurs: Who will win the crucial top-four battle for Champions League football?

Mikel Arteta Antonio Conte Arsenal Spurs Premier League 2021-22 GFXGetty/GOAL

There are four matches to go in the 2021-22 Premier League season and although the title race clearly takes narrative precedence, one could argue that the battle for the fourth Champions League spot is of greater long-term significance.
Arsenal are in their fifth consecutive season without Champions League football and desperately need the extra financial boost – and pulling power in the transfer market – for Mikel Arteta's project to go to the next level.

Although there have been plenty of ups and downs under Arteta, the strong tactical identity he has built, coupled with his apparent command of the dressing room, suggest he could achieve something special at Arsenal with enough time – and enough forward momentum.

As for Tottenham Hotspur, it is difficult to see how Antonio Conte will be convinced to stay if the club fail to land fourth, while it may also lead to Harry Kane once again angling for a move.

Spurs forever seem to dangle on the precipice of falling out of the elite.

Financially speaking, both Arsenal and Spurs are a tier below the other four in the so-called 'Big Six', and the longer they spend outside the Champions League, the harder it will become to compete with the others – once Manchester United get their act together, that is.

Inevitably, attention turns shortly to the north London derby at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, and yet that is not necessarily going to decide who gets fourth.

Their respective fixture lists suggest Conte's side could have an advantage...

Arsenal could stutter in their final two

Arsenal are on a three-match winning run thanks largely to the influence of Mohamed Elneny, who has added a metronomic quality to central midfield alongside Granit Xhaka.

Elneny's battling defensive qualities and his calmness under pressure is more reliable than when Xhaka was playing in front of Albert Lokonga.

Elneny and Xhaka side by side lacks the spark with which Arteta wants to play, but it is a good compromise at the moment while the squad is without Thomas Partey.

Coupled with the return of Takehiro Tomiyasu for the win at West Ham, it gives Arsenal the defensive foundation to avoid being overrun in the transition.

However, once Arsenal get past Leeds United – which they ought to, considering their pace up front makes them favourites in most end-to-end games – they may come unstuck in their final two, against Newcastle United and Everton.

Arsenal ran out 2-0 winners when they hosted the Magpies in November but a lot has changed since then.

Bruno Guimaraes James Milner Newcastle Liverpool Premier League 2021-22 GFX

Eddie Howe's team have come together thanks to the emergence of Bruno Guimaraes, the repositioning of Joelinton, and the influence of Dan Burn.

Newcastle can hold their own in a midfield battle with Elneny and Xhaka, before counterattacking with purpose through a defence that still looks vulnerable with Nuno Tavares at left-back. 

Howe's well-compressed midblock, hard-pressing in the middle third of the pitch, and focus on using the pace of Joelinton and Allan Saint-Maximin in the transition is worryingly similar to how Southampton and Brighton recorded wins against Arsenal.

On the last day, they face an Everton team fighting for their lives, but enjoying the challenge when it means camping around their own penalty box and pulling off heroics.

Their 1-0 wins against Chelsea and Manchester United were defined by this simple strategy, and it could be enough to win at least a point against the Gunners.

Spurs can seize momentum from Liverpool match

On paper, Tottenham have the far greater challenge ahead of them, starting with this weekend's game against Liverpool.

However, Conte's focus on playing a direct game  – built on drawing the opposition press, then attacking vertically behind them – is better suited to games like this one.

Jurgen Klopp's high line is very vulnerable to the way Kane drops and Heung-Min Son and Dejan Kulusevski make runs beyond.

Harry Kane Tottenham Leicester Premier League 2021-22 GFX

Liverpool don't tend to get caught too often this way anymore, and yet the speed and detailed coaching in Spurs' passing out from the back has the potential to suck Liverpool into exposing positions.

Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg will not be concerned by the pressure they are under, while the aggressive positioning of the Liverpool full-backs hands Son a chance to do what he did to Manchester City in Spurs' 3-2 win at the Etihad.

Should Tottenham win this one, they can build enough momentum to cast aside Burnley (who have a very poor 'Big Six' record, particularly away from home) and then get an easy three points against relegated Norwich on the last day.

Derby may not prove decisive

If, as predicted here, Arsenal draw their two tricky games against Newcastle and Everton while Spurs win all of theirs, then a draw in the north London derby would be enough for Tottenham to finish in the top four.

It may not prove decisive, then, although of course a win for either club would most likely be a six-point swing from which the loser cannot return.

Yet a draw seems the most likely result, given that neither manager will wish to take many risks should we be level past the hour mark.

Conte is particularly good at grinding games down, and he will instruct his players to use any tactics necessary to take the sting out of things.

Meanwhile, Arteta will be wary of Spurs' threat in the attacking transitions and avoid playing daringly out from the back, instead plumping for longer balls out to the flanks.

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We should expect a fairly cagey game in the end, as two well-drilled sides refuse to be drawn forward by the other.

When matches are so obviously in danger of descending into chaos – and Chelsea's 4-2 loss to Arsenal reminded Arteta how easily his direct runners can be drawn in – the managers tend to overcompensate.

At the final whistle, a nervy draw would look like a good result for the visitors Arsenal. But considering how the other fixtures are shaping up, it might just hand Tottenham the initiative.