At midday on Sunday, one of football’s great matches takes place. The Emirates Stadium will be host to not only one of Europe’s bitterest rivalries, but a potentially pivotal Premier League fixture.
Three points currently separates the two north London clubs in the table, with Liverpool and Chelsea in between them. Goal differences mean that Spurs would need a comfortable win to leap frog their local rivals, while Arsenal will be aiming to avoid dropping points on Liverpool and Manchester City – with whom they currently sit level at the top of the table.
Make or break games simply do not exist this early in the season, at least not for two teams who have had strong starts domestically. Momentum, however, will be key. Spurs have drawn their last three league games and were unsettled against Bayer Leverkusen in midweek, leaving them in Champions League peril. Arsenal thrashed Sunderland last weekend, with Olivier Giroud scoring twice from the bench, and recorded a last-gasp victory over Ludogorets in midweek.
The Gunners’ poor defensive spell that allowed their Bulgarian midweek opponents to take the lead will give Spurs optimism of finding similar weaknesses. Mauricio Pochettino’s side, however, have struggled to create of late and will only have the option to use Harry Kane from the bench.
Tottenham’s own back line issues are the theme ahead of this game. Pressed into mistakes and inefficient with the ball in midweek, they have conceded in each of their last three games and look shaky without the excellent Toby Alderweireld.
Neither team is perfect at the moment. Arsenal’s recent shutdown against Middlesbrough and initial struggles against Ludogorets reflect a team who are sorely missing both Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott. Their opponents were disorganised and shaken by Leverkusen and have not scored two goals in a game since their victory over Manchester City on 2nd October.
Home advantage and recent performances make Arsenal the natural favourites for this game. The implications of another drab display from Spurs could be significant, though. The defensive stability that underlined their successes last season and at the beginning of this has seemingly vanished, while the supporting cast of last season have failed to deputise in the lead role in the absence of Harry Kane.
Defeat is unlikely to change Tottenham’s league position, but it could leave them languishing six points off the top of the Premier League table. Ending their unbeaten start to the campaign and making it seven games without a win in all competitions. Pochettino would then be in by far the greatest rut of his tenure to date. Recovery from such troubles is what makes a great manager, but it would leave Spurs under the sort of pressure they are unaccustomed to. Increased expectation this season makes this fixture so much more significant than ever before. Victory is not only needed because of the opponent, it is needed to maintain their status as realistic challengers.
It has been a rarity that either of north London’s powerhouses have competed for the title in the last few years. Last season, even, Arsenal were outsiders for much of the race. Previously, Spurs have been clinging onto the entrails of the top four and Arsenal have been dining a couple of tables away from the title competing teams, too. This year, such is the openness of the competition at the top, both teams have as good as an equal chance of winning it. Other than Manchester City’s understandable tag as favourites, the following teams are about just as likely as one another to lift the Premier League title come May 2017.
We may never get a north London derby played before Christmas with so much significance ever again. Nothing can be lost at this stage, but defeat for Tottenham will raise serious questions about their credentials this season, while a poor Arsenal performance will leave everyone wondering whether they have really changed at all.