The North London Derby returns this weekend. One of the most eagerly anticipated fixtures for the neutral after those heady days just a few years ago when Spurs, under Harry Redknapp, were part and parcel of some miraculously free scoring fixtures. In the Redknapp years this fixture saw 30 goals in 5 games at the Emirates including two 5-2’s in Arsenal’s favour. Yet since ‘Arry has moved on to pastures new, the goals have dried up and have been replaced by a much tighter and cagey affair on the field.
Firstly, Arsenal. It’s hard to pinpoint where to start in assessing Arsenal’s mindset going into this game. An impressive 3-0 victory against Swansea last weekend at the Liberty Stadium demonstrated their ability to bounce back after the embarrassment of that midweek display at Hillsborough. However, Wenger’s team selection also eluded to a greater issue for Arsenal, a lack of squad depth. Whilst potentially missing up to 10 players this weekend is quite some injury crisis, the impact of Arsenal’s customary mid-season injury woes were clearly apparent in Munich on Wednesday night and emphasis the difficulty in pin-pointing what Arsenal will turn up to the party on Sunday afternoon. The loss of Hector Bellerin in particular is of note as the once reliable Debuchy seemingly struggles for form in his new role as a second choice to the young Spaniard. Whilst Debuchy’s performance against Munich in the second half was much improved after his struggles with Coman and Costa in the first 45 minutes, it was Debuchy’s performance against Tottenham in the League Cup at White Hart Lane which will cause the most concern for Arsene Wenger. Debuchy had a truly forgettable night at right back that time round and cannot afford such a performance in a game with league significance. Other noted absentees still include Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain and with Giroud playing up top, Joel Campbell could deputise down the right hand side. Impressing against Swansea, Campbell was somewhat over-awed in Munich in a performance which would be difficult to hold him personally accountable for. A big return for Wenger would be the evermore impressive Laurent Koscielny, now one of the best Premier League centre backs, Koscielny’s inclusion will certainly give the back 4 a further confidence boost after the defeat in Munich as well offering a potential remedy in nullifying the resurgent Harry Kane.
It is Tottenham’s mid-week exploits which further make this game so difficult to call. The ill-fated Europa League adventure and the seemingly arduous task of a Thursday – Sunday game pattern, yet Pochettino has somehow managed to buck this rather bizarre trend that English clubs cannot cope with Europa League football. Immediately after their three games so far this season Tottenham have gone on to pick up 7 points – a win against Palace, a draw with Swansea and a 5-1 victory against the increasingly listless Bournemouth, potentially putting to bed the Europa League curse. Such results emphasize the sense of progress being made at Tottenham at the moment. Whilst not ripping up trees, Tottenham currently sit 5th in the table, unbeaten in the league since the opening day which includes the stand out performance against Manchester City at the end of September, this Tottenham team could well be producing a tilt towards the Top 4. Harry Kane has finally started scoring, the addition of Toby Alderweireld has undoubtedly strengthened the Tottenham back line, and Pochettino’s confidence in younger players is being proven again with Delle Ali’s recent inclusion in the last England Senior squad. Tottenham have one of the youngest average ages in the Premier League and with the joint second best defence in the league and the 5th best team for scoring goals, the patience shown with Pochettino and his methods are really starting to come into fruition.
This game is far too close to call. Whilst a victory for either club will not be season defining, after the defeat to Munich I can’t help but feel a win for Arsenal will be all the more sweeter and will firmly place Arsenal in the title race this year. A victory could also prove an indication for Arsenal fans to see where this squad is at psychologically, and whether the fragility of their confidence that has been witnessed over the last decade could be well and truly banished. For Tottenham, if they beat Arsenal at the Emirates and with the plight of Chelsea still dominating the back pages, Tottenham really could be playing Champions League football this time next year.