When the Premier League fixtures were announced, you didn’t need to be a fan of both Arsenal or Tottenham to grab a sneaky look at the dates of the north London derby.
Such a huge game captures the attention of everyone, especially when both sides, in their more optimistic moments, will feel they have all the ingredients to be lifting the trophy a little under a year from now.
Both sides will have to wait a while, though. There are some big games to come before Tottenham travel the short distance to the Emirates Stadium to face Arsenal in the first north London derby of the season on – or on the weekend of – November 18th. Perhaps the more interesting clash between these two, at least from this juncture, will take place in February at Wembley; where Arsenal’s recent good memories contrast with Tottenham’s bad.
It’s always a futile exercise to predict too much when it comes to fixture announcements, but it’s probably not too big a stretch to suggest that Arsenal might have wanted Spurs away to come a little earlier in the season. With their north London rivals having to move across the city and settle into a stadium where they failed quite notably – and with alarming frequency – last term, any team traveling to Wembley in the first few weeks of the season will fancy their chances, at least until the novelty wears off.
Last year, when West Ham United moved into the London Stadium, a similar teething period was observed. That may not be the case for Tottenham, who might overcome their Wembley jinx straight away and have yet another wonderful season, but it does at least look like a similar story.
Rather than facing Arsenal at Wembley early on, Spurs will welcome another capital rival, Chelsea, to the national stadium in their very first home game. And although the extra motivation of avenging their FA Cup semi-final defeat might come in handy for Mauricio Pochettino’s side, Arsenal might be wishing it was they who had the chance to ruin Spurs’ welcome party, and possibly get one over their rivals whilst they’re still trying to settle in.
Instead, the Gunners will travel to Wembley in February, by which time Spurs will have had more time to settle in.
This season, given the relative relative equality of riches and the fact that each of the Premier League’s top six will be targeting the same goal – the title – such marginal differences might well hold the key to how the season turns out. In the end, though, it’s probably more likely that summer recruitment matters more than the actual fixture schedule.
For Tottenham, that might pose a similar problem to last season: the squad isn’t noticeably weak in any department, and the temptation to simply add squad players to help with strength in depth is a risky strategy. Last year’s addition of Vincent Janssen is a prime example of such a signing.
A player bought for his goalscoring ability and potential, Janssen came to the club as a clear understudy to Harry Kane, and although his work rate is beyond reproach, he hit the net only twice in the league even though Kane spent two spells on the sidelines with injury.
The problem with buying players who are obviously going to be second choice is that they never get the chance to prove they’re as good as the player they need to replace when injury or suspension bites. But, like Son Heung-Min last year, Janssen might find his second season at Spurs is a more fruitful one. And if so, he’ll be – as the cliche goes – just like a new signing.
Arsenal, on the other hand, should be fairly clear where their squad needs work – in attack, defensive midfield and probably even defence – but the biggest factor in deciding what they need from the summer transfer window is the formation Arsene Wenger plans to use for most of the year.
Deploying a back three means less need for a specialised defensive midfielder as the central midfielders have three centre-backs behind them to help out. The signing of Sead Kolasinac also looks prescient from this point of view, too, as the Bosnian’s size and mobility look perfect for the role of the left-sided centre back in such a formation.
Despite the contrasts in fortunes for both teams last season, the entire top six still looks like a tightly-packed bunch and a few clever signings will likely be the difference between who wins the league, who finishes in the top four, and who – like Arsenal this time – has to settle for a finish in the Europa League places. But the fixture schedule has given both teams some big top six clashes before then, so we’ll know quite a lot about the state of the teams by then.
This game will be at the end of November, and last season, you can point to two pivotal games around the same time – end of November, start of December – where Chelsea took two giant steps towards the title. They beat Tottenham at Stamford Bridge 2-1 to go top before beating Manchester City 3-1 at the Etihad to open up a gap. The champions’ 3-0 defeat to Arsenal will forever be remembered as the seminal moment of the season, but those two victories before the Christmas period were vital.
If neutrals are looking for the north London derby on the fixture list, then, it’s not just because it’s a big derby. Arsenal v Tottenham has become huge in the context of the Premier League’s title race, and given how tight the top six are and the time of year it comes at, this could end up being more crucial than usual.