Arsenal’s visit to Tottenham Hotspur at 12.45pm on Saturday has been billed as the most significant North London derby of all time. We’re used to excessive hyperbole in the Premier League but this weekend’s installment of the classic rivalry feels particularly poignant, with more on the line than ever before.
Indeed, Spurs find themselves in the unusual position of being above their bitter rivals by one position and three points in the Premier League table, amid an unexpected title bid.
The Gunners, meanwhile, enter the fixture on a run of three straight defeats and another will almost certainly end their best chance of lifting the English crown for over a decade, so the potential ramifications are enormous for under-fire manager Arsene Wenger.
Arsenal tend to come out on top in this fixture, claiming three wins and two draws from their last six encounters with the Lilywhites. But Mauricio Pochettino’s side are above them in the table and boast the home advantage, whilst both teams enter Saturday’s game on the back of disappointing defeats.
So who’ll come out on top in this one? Perhaps a look at the key individual battles will shed some light on the likeliest result.
Arsenal have utilised three different centre-back partnerships during their last three fixtures and all three have failed to perform, conceding a combined seven goals against Barcelona, Manchester United and Swansea City.
Laurent Koscielny’s absence through injury is a huge blow in this regard. Whilst he was present during defeats to Barca and United, the Frenchman remains the only member of Arsenal’s backline who can make a genuine claim for belonging in the world-class bracket.
Per Mertesacker’s lack of pace continues to cause problems and Gabriel just isn’t at the same level – completely lost as rookie Marcus Rashford netted twice in almost as many minutes at Old Trafford last weekend.
The duo simply fell asleep for Swansea City’s goals on Wednesday night and they’ll have to find a considerably higher level of performance against Tottenham Hotspur. Star front-man Harry Kane has emerged as one of the most consistent goalscorers in the Premier League since becoming a regular last season, amassing 37 strikes in his last 60 league outings.
Kane hasn’t found the net in almost a calendar month, so he’ll be determined to take advantage of Arsenal’s uncertainty at the back – further amplified by the absence of experienced goalkeeper Petr Cech.
Alexis Sanchez may not be firing on all cylinders at the moment – in fact, he’s hit the onion bag just once in his last ten appearances across all competitions – but the Chile international remains Arsenal’s most potent attacking outlet, especially with Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud amid lengthy goal droughts.
We all know how talented the former Barcelona star is and the intensity of the north London derby should really appeal to the more tenacious side of his game. Injuries have limited Sanchez to just one start against Spurs thus far in his Arsenal career, so he’ll be desperate to make an impact on Saturday.
That being said, a defensive shift could well be in store for Arsenal’s most noteworthy attacker. Advanced full-backs are a fundamental aspect of the Mauricio Pochettino philosophy (which we’ll come onto later) and Kyle Walker possesses pace and the threat on the overlap to keep Sanchez pinned back.
But Arsene Wenger will be desperate to get Sanchez as far forward as possible, so the 27-year-old must look to counter any space the Tottenham defender leaves behind.
Two dynamic midfielders who pride themselves on bursting through from the middle of the park to produce a consistent supply of goals and assists. The only difference, however, is that one’s living up to his billing in that regard and the other isn’t.
Indeed, whilst Aaron Ramsey seems a shadow of the player who bagged 16 goals in 34 appearances during the 2013/14 season, producing just four goals and three assists in the Premier League so far this term, Dele Alli has emerged from the relative anonymity of League One to become one of the top flight’s stand-out talents, claiming seven goals and five assists in 21 league starts.
The England international has come off the boil somewhat recently, failing to produce any output in his last four appearances partly due to him playing in a slightly deeper midfield role in the absence of Moussa Dembele.
But he’s produced moments of individual brilliance this season and is the kind of character who’ll enjoy a derby – the 19-year-old’s lust for petulance has been put under the media spotlight in recent weeks.
Ramsey’s recent performances, meanwhile, have ranged from absent to aimless and he needs to put in a more convincing shift on Saturday.
Tottenham Hotspur’s impressive defensive record this term, conceding the fewest goals of any Premier League side, just 22, is in no small part due to the physicality and protection Eric Dier offers in front of the back four.
The England international operates almost as a third centre-back, offering added height, physicality and natural defensive awareness, and often ends up sitting in between the centre-halves when the Lilywhites are in possession.
He’s a subtle yet pivotal influence and has been up there with the best play-breakers in the Premier League this term, averaging 2 tackles, 2.4 interceptions and 2.4 successful aerial duels per match. Likewise, he’s been dribbled past on just 16 occasions.
Yet, Arsenal No.10 Mesut Ozil represents one of the toughest tests in world football for any midfield enforcer. Despite a reputation for going missing in big games, the German international bagged a goal and an assist against Manchester United, making him probably the Gunners’ best performer amid their three-game losing streak.
He also boasts a rather incredible 18 set-ups this term whilst averaging a division-best 4.5 created chances per match. So Dier really has his work cut out if he’s to stop the World Cup winning playmaker impacting the scoreline.
They say full-back is arguably the most important position on the pitch in the modern game and epitomising that trend perfectly is this key battle between Tottenham Hotspur’s Danny Rose and Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin.
As aforementioned, flying full-backs are an integral part of the Mauricio Pochettino philosophy and the Spurs No.3 has performed particularly well in that role this season, averaging just under one created chance per match and constantly offering width down the left-hand side – allowing Christian Eriksen, Nacer Chadli or Son Heung-Min to take up more central positions.
But Bellerin has likewise made his overlapping runs a definitive feature of Arsenal’s, utilising his penetrative pace and technical quality to great effect down the right flank. He’s claimed two assists this term, whilst averaging 1.5 successful dribbles per match.
So with both occupying the same wing on Saturday, the result could well hinge on which full-back puts their attacking assets to best use without compromising their team defensively in an incredible delicate balancing act.