Sky Sports are obsessed with the notion of having matches become ‘adverts’ for the premier league. They want goals, cards, emotional atmospheres and controversy. They want nothing more than the fixture to follow a narrative, entertain the neutrals, deliver the unexpected and provide enough ammunition for a classic post-match montage. They may trivialise the battle between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur as a box ticking investment, but to the clubs, players and fans involved; it’s always means so much more than that.
Saturday will mark the 250th occasion on which these two sides have met, and yet again it could prove to be a defining game for either club depending on the outcome. Neither has started the season playing to their full potential; they’ve both shown flashes of what they’re capable of, but have ultimately failed to consistently provide positive results. In time honoured tradition, the clubs find themselves at closer quarters than they’d wish in terms of predicament; yet it never ceases to amaze how the primal urge for one to outdo the other provides more incentive for success than anything else possible.
Where Arsenal are concerned; they’ve gone through another summer window where they’ve sold their best player and captain. Early season hopes of defensive assurances under the keen eye of new assistant manager Steve Bould have all but disappeared in calamitous circumstances. They have injury problems in defence, pockets of fan unrest with their manager and chairman, goalkeeping decisions to make and questions over their leadership; all of which sounds grimly familiar. Having stated that manager Arsene Wenger views fourth place and subsequent champions league football “like a trophy”, some Arsenal fans may well be concerned given their current league position going in to Christmas; however their knack of stringing together an impressive run of form toward the end of the season usually stands them in good enough stead.
Tottenham have many of the same questions to answer; the only difference being that our manager doesn’t have a sixteen year affiliation with the club to fall back on. The summer transfer window oversaw a change of management, the loss of key playing staff and the inception of a dreaded season of transition at White Hart Lane. Redknapp’s style of minimal-tactic boom and bust football cost us dearly last season, and married with his inherent lack of loyalty to the club saw his position become ever more untenable. Under the studious approach of Andre Villas-Boas, Tottenham have too shown flickers of potential improvement. While Wenger’s legacy could be coming to a close, Villas-Boas may well light the touch paper of his own with an away win at the Emirates.
Squad selection is essential for Villas-Boas should he come to mastermind his most important win during his short time in charge. Perhaps a hangover from his troubled time at Chelsea, he appears to be making a conscious effort to show faith in, and placate the senior members of the Tottenham squad. While he doesn’t possess disruptive figures such as the triumvirate of Lampard, Terry or Drogba in the Spurs dressing room, in a bid to avoid past mistakes he has persisted in playing Friedel, Gallas and Defoe, often to the detriment of the team. Friedel, while reliable, has shown himself to be an average shot-stopper and increasingly slow and reluctant to come away from his line; which in tandem with walking liability William Gallas has seen the pair become the fulcrum of Tottenham’s defensive frailties.
In attack, Jermain Defoe continues to approach holding the line of attack with all the intelligence of Joey Essex. While from my point of view the Arsenal team all but picks itself for weekend; there are important calls to be made from the Tottenham management. While I don’t at all agree with the decision I fully expect both Friedel and Gallas to start the match, but I hope after his excellent performance against Manchester City Emmanuel Adebayor will once again spearhead the Tottenham attack.
Possible Arsenal starting XI:
From what I’ve seen from this current Arsenal side, they tend to set up using a flexible 4-3-3 formation, giving Cazorla free reign to roam in the final third, while both Wilshere and Arteta have more disciplined games to play, having to track back just as much as join in attack. The front three of Giroud, Walcott and Podolski could be Arsenal’s most effective partnership, with all three in relatively good form. While he craves to be the central striker, Walcott must adapt his game to provide for Giroud as much as possible; the Frenchman looking much more comfortable using his head in front of goal rather than either foot.
Although he started his Arsenal career in dynamic form, Podolski too prefers the central role, and has been lapse in tracking back to help his full-back in recent weeks; something Aaron Lennon should be keen to exploit. Szczęsny’s timely return to fitness should see him back in goal, while left-back Kieran Gibbs looks set to miss out, meaning either Thomas Vermaelen or Andre Santos will again have to cover.
Possible Spurs starting XI:
Injuries to regular starters Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Younes Kaboul and Mousa Dembele have played their part in Tottenham’s current selection headaches, but above is the side I would choose to play given half the chance. I feel it’s imperative for Adebayor to continue to play as the focal point of Vilas-Boas’ preferred 4-2-3-1, but the service in to his feet needs to be improved compared to last week’s defeat away to Manchester City.
Without Dembele, the fluidity of Tottenham’s midfield has drastically suffered, the sole responsibility falling on Tom Huddlestone’s shoulders, who can only do so much while helping the ever improving and impressive Sandro anchor midfield. I’ve opted for Tom Carroll as the centrally attacking midfielder for Tottenham, as his performances this season and last have demonstrated his innate ability to pick a pass. His stature won’t suffer against a mostly diminutive Arsenal side, and his pace should worry their slower centre-halves. Villas-Boas has spoken of his admiration of our development squad since his arrival, and I’d love to see them utilised more in higher profile games, but in reality I think one of Sigurdsson or most likely Dempsey will occupy the position from the start.
Some Tottenham fans chose to lambast the performances of wingers Bale and Lennon after our failure to fully exploit their pace against Manchester City, but my view from the stand and subsequent viewing of extended highlights reaffirmed my opinion that it was more down to Mancini’s superior full backs both having excellent games. Dropping Gallas and allowing Vertonghen back in to the centre of defence kills two birds with one stone; the Belgian international has been increasingly exposed and wasted out wide against stronger opposition, while the aforementioned Gallas is more hindrance than help.
French media pressure aside; Hugo Lloris needs to become Tottenham’s number one sooner rather than later. Friedel’s level of performance is slowly deteriorating and it is a waste of talent having someone better than him sat on the bench. Lloris provides a level of dynamism and distribution that Friedel has lacked his entire career, and a run in the side could see him demonstrate why some feel he could be Tottenham’s keeper for the next ten years.
There are key battles all over the pitch that will need to be overcome in order to win the game on Sunday, most notably between new Arsenal signing and standout player Santi Cazorla and Tottenham’s midfield hatchet man Sandro. Cazorla is Arsenal’s trump card against Tottenham, a type of player that without the likes of Modric, Van der Vaart or Dembele available Villas-Boas will be without. The Spanish playmaker will have the freedom to roam in the final third, and possesses the ability to test the keeper from range as well as recycling possession and creating countless attacking opportunities for the front three. It will be Sandro’s job to stop Cazorla as much as possible; stop the ball getting to his feet, not allowing him to run forward or dictate the pace of game.
Put simply; if Sandro stop’s Cazorla, Arsenal’s attaching threat is largely nullified. Both sides have the tendency of focussing their play down the wings, the likes of Walcott, Podolski, Bale and Lennon as much inside forwards as wide-men, so their individual battles against their respective full backs will have a huge say in the success of their teams attacking play. If the Belgian pair of Vertonghen and Vermaelen are forced to play out of position covering their injured left-backs, both Lennon and Walcott should look to exploit their lack of comfort at every opportunity. Kyle Walker hasn’t started the season as well as he played last year, but his performances against Manchester City and Maribor were his best for some time, so Podolski will have some work to do. Bacary Sagna has established himself of one of the leagues strongest right-backs in recent years so Gareth Bale will have to be on top form to get the better of his man, but he has the ability to terrorise anyone on his day, so that match-up could provide food for thought.
This derby above all others is unpredictable. There’ll be goals, there’ll be passion and there’ll pride on the line; but even beginning to contemplate what will happen is beyond use. However; stating what may occur post-game in every eventuality isn’t all that hard to comprehend. I started the piece by comparing the two sides; highlighting their similarities, shared flaws and equal strong points. In my opinion; the two clubs are perfectly balanced ying and yang. One succeeds while the other fails. It’s almost like a sibling rivalry the relationship between the two clubs; opposition fans enjoy the other clubs failures as much as their own successes.
Whoever comes out on top this Saturday will have the better Christmas period, the fans will have the bragging rights, bigger smiles and the effect of winning will produce a boost in their overall form. The losing manager will feel under even more pressure; the boo’s will come faster and louder, belief in their ability will be more readily doubted and premature calls for sackings will rear the heads ever quicker. This derby above all others has the ability to define a season, the rivalry something both clubs thrive from. Come what may Saturday lunchtime; my fingers will be crossed, my heart in my mouth and Sky Sports will have their advert for the premier league.