The Champions League action on Tuesday and Wednesday night taught us quite a bit about both north London clubs in the build up to their derby on Sunday. And crucially, both clubs will have learned something from their rival’s game in midweek.
Arsenal may have learned the most, given Tottenham’s defeat at home (well, sort of) to Bayer Leverkusen. That defeat means that Spurs haven’t won a game of football in six attempts since they shocked the league with their performance a rampant victory over Manchester on October 2nd. It wasn’t so much beating City, it was the manner of their victory.
What Arsenal will have learned from midweek, then, is also something they probably already knew because of that particular game: that pressing intensely yields fruit.
More specifically, in midweek, Leverkusen were smart in their pressing and their approach to the game. In other words, they’d done their homework. Roger Schmidt instructed his side to close off passing lanes and harry the man in possession, but allowing a very specific out-ball – a pass to Kyle Walker, whom Schmidt had clearly identified as a weak link. Pressing isn’t about running around aimlessly, you have to be smart about it and you have to think carefully about what you’re doing.
That leaves Arsene Wenger with the tantalising possibility of loading his attacking lines with pace. He can start Alexis Sanchez in the striker’s role and play a similar sort of dynamic pressing game to Leverkusen on Wednesday night. They may be a team built for keeping possession, but they have to exploit Tottenham’s weaknesses, and those weaknesses were exposed horrifically by an off-form Leverkusen who sit 10th in the Bundesliga.
Given Tottenham’s dip in form of late, Arsenal will start as favourites. They can go top of the league after Manchester City’s slip up at home to Middlesbrough, and home advantage will probably give them the edge in the favourites stakes.
But are Arsenal really in the great shape everyone seems to think? Much has been written about whether or not the Gunners can keep up their form. Is this finally a season where Arsenal can exorcise their demons and finally compete genuinely at the top of the Premier League table? Or is this just what happens every year, where Arsenal have two good runs on either side of a terrible one that rules them out of contention?
The truth is that Arsene Wenger’s signings have been astute this summer, offering him more in the midfield than he had before, and giving him a natural leader in the centre of his defence. But it’s the defence that has been Arsenal’s problem over the past few games. It hasn’t looked as solid as it did at the start of the season, opening day excepted. Against Ludogorets the first time, they stumbled their way into the game before settling and finally winning 6-0. On Tuesday night they were given a huge scare before rallying back and finally winning the game.
That shows a character that Arsenal have been missing over the years, but it also shows a similar problem that they’ve had for the last few years – they’ve just managed to scrape over the line this time. Against Middlesbrough, it was their ability to defend a counter attack that led to defeat. Against Sunderland, although they were worthy winners, a lapse in concentration that led to a Jermain Defoe penalty may had also led to a marked change in the dynamic of the game against better opposition.
So what do Spurs do in order to exploit those weaknesses? Without Harry Kane and Erik Lamela, the movement of the former and the pace and directness of the latter will be missed. Indeed, that may even be a bigger loss than Toby Alderweireld, given that exploiting Arsenal’s defensive weaknesses might just be key to keeping them quiet. Even if Kane does get a game from the bench, you’d wonder how sharp he’ll be.
In that case, perhaps Tottenham will be relying on their spirit and work rate to close down the space for Arsenal’s classy creators to operate in, and this could become yet another battle of attrition, an exercise in tactical pressing rather than creation at the other end.
But that’s how the Premier League is at the top these days. The teams are so well-drilled, the coaches so good and so sure of their ideals, and it’s fun to watch.
This could be a great north London derby not just because of the players on show and the strengths of both teams, but also because of their weaknesses. Whether or not Mauricio Pochettino and Arsene Wenger can exploit them will be key to the game.