Following a crushing 5-1 defeat in midweek at the hands of Bayern Munich, Arsenal FC take on fierce rivals Tottenham Hotspur in the North London derby at the Emirates on Sunday
When things are going well for Arsenal FC, there are few better sides to watch in the English Premier League. Slick, instinctive passing and movement, effortless arrogance in their one-touch football a the players’ joy apparent in every flick, feint and dummy. The question that has often been raised over recent years, however, is whether the Gunners have enough steel and mental strength to get results when things aren’t going quite as well.
Arsenal FC have been the enjoyable, slick version of themselves in the Premier League of late, but with the injury list once again growing larger, there is a familiar sense of trepidation among the Gunners’ fan-base going into the North London derby.
Stretch of fixtures till the new year the acid test for Arsenal FC
Although it might be counter-intuitive given that Arsenal FC play the Premier League big boys away from home in the second half of the season a in which they have a somewhat unfair reputation for crumbling a the stretch of fixtures until the new year will likely be the acid test for the Gunners in terms of determining the success of their season.
Starting with the North London derby on Sunday, ArsA?ne Wenger’s men will play 10 fixtures before 2016, including a meeting at the Emirates against title-favourites Manchester City. With the Gunners humbled in Munich on Wednesday night a losing 5-1 to Pep Guardiola’s side a the derby on Sunday will be a real test of character.
Not only because of the crushing defeat and the mounting injury-list which now includes right-back Hector Beller n, but also because of the current form of Tottenham Hotspur. Pochettino’s men are on a 10-game unbeaten run in the league stretching back to the opening day of the season, and will be looking to prove their Champions League credentials on Sunday against a wounded Arsenal FC.
As such, the way Wenger’s side respond to this test will be telling. Spurs are just about the worst side in the league to face when confidence is low — Pochettinho’s men are relentless in closing down opponents and spaces, and their high press is aimed to try and suffocate teams who attempt to play the ball out from the back.
In other words, Arsenal FC are the very definition of the side Spurs would love to face. To an extent, this was already seen in the 4-1 demolition of the possession-based Manchester City at White Hart Lane, where Pochettino’s men were relentless in closing down any City players on the ball, and counter-attacking ruthlessly every time the opportunity presented itself.
The Gunners have shown themselves to be susceptible to counter-attacks, particularly at the Emirates where Wenger is not likely to adapt his side’s tactics to negate the strengths of the opposition. In doing so against Spurs, however, Arsenal FC have to be careful of not playing right into their opponents’ hands.
In the 2013/2014 season, Wenger’s men were flying high in the first half of the season, sitting top of the Premier League table with some impressive victories. In the second half, however, they were unable to pick themselves up mentally from damaging defeats to the likes of Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC, while the injuries to first-team players also took their toll.
The 5-1 defeat to Bayern Munich is precisely the type of defeat that Arsenal FC have to now show they are capable of putting behind them. A positive result in the North London derby will hold them in good stead for crucial Champions League fixtures against Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiakos, as also the showdown against Manchester City in December.
Results in big games are often not decisive in terms of the title race, but they do have a huge impact mentally. Arsenal FC have already experienced the negative side of that, and must now aim to ride the wave of positivity that comes with beating direct title rivals.
Opportunity for Tottenham to make a statement
Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville, in his analysis of Tottenham Hotspur last season, claimed manager Mauricio Pochettino would have to change the ‘weak’ mentality of Spurs to make them a serious threat in the Premier League. Although it may be too early to make any conclusive judgements one way or another, the season so far has shown that the Argentine has begun doing just that.
Spurs are unbeaten in the league since the opening day loss to Manchester United, and have since been impressive in terms of their playing style as well as the development of young players. The most notable victory, of course, was the 4-1 mauling of Manchester City at White Hart Lane, and that is the standard they must now aspire to maintain.
Pochettino is the ideal manager for this squad, and that is no accident. With the arrivals of Eric Dier and Dele Alli among others in the summer, the North London outfit now have the youngest squad in the Premier League, with an average age of just 24.9. In part, that is what allows him to impose his philosophy — high energy, high intensity pressing in advanced areas of the pitch, possession based football, and a high defensive line to reduce the space available to the opposition, particularly in central areas.
In Eric Dier and Dele Alli, Pochettino has two young Englishmen who have the technical ability and the stamina to be able to do precisely this. In what the Argentine will consider a bonus, compatriot Erik Lamela has also shown he is capable of getting his hands dirty when necessary. The Belgian centre-back pairing of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld is ideal for playing the ball out from the back, while quick full-backs in Kyle Walker and Danny Rose (or Ben Davies) are able to provide width.
As such, what Spurs have is a team of young players and players in their peak who collectively have the unique blend of athleticism and technical ability to be able to cause problems against some of the top teams in the league.
An opportunity to prove that will present itself on Sunday at the Emirates, and facing a wounded Arsenal without the pace of Hector Bellerin at the back to compensate for right centre-back Per Mertesacker when necessary, Pochettino will fancy his team’s chances. Spurs are not near the level of Bayern Munich, but the observation Pep Guardiola made about centre-back pairing Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker was telling.
The duo will not enjoy being put under pressure, and will more than likely thump the ball forward to Giroud if denied the time to pick out a pass. An energetic Spurs side will likely zero in on this weakness, and try and pick up loose balls in midfield to break on the Gunners.
With Chelsea FC in freefall and Liverpool FC still adjusting to new manager JA?rgen Klopp, Tottenham Hotspur are unlikely to have a better opportunity to finish in the Champions League places. A win against Arsenal FC will go a long way towards silencing those that doubt it.
Sunday’s derby will not determine whether Arsenal FC win the title, or whether Spurs finish in the top four for that matter. However, it will be an excellent indicator of how either side is able to cope physically and mentally with a demanding schedule, and in the Gunners’ case, how they are able to bounce back from a scarring defeat.
North London derbies have never been dull affairs, and with plenty at stake on Sunday, that is unlikely to change.