This Sunday sees Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal do battle once again in an increasingly important North London Derby. With both teams vying for a top four place and therefore a spot in next season’s Champions League, there is all to play for in what could prove to be one of the biggest derbies in recent history.
Each side has endured a turbulent season full of ups and downs, with Spurs looking the better of the two at the moment; in no small part thanks to the individual brilliance of one Gareth Bale. Despite hyperbolic claims that he is now officially better than sliced bread and has become a superior player to Cristiano Ronaldo (alongside the Welshman’s nauseating desperation to emulate everything about the Real Madrid maestro), there is no doubt he’s in irresistible form, as a record of eight goals in his last six games testifies.
Is he exactly that though? Or can Arsenal shackle him and nullify what seems to be, at this moment in time at least, their old rivals’ only genuine threat? That is of course easier said than done and not as simple as “sticking a couple of men” on him as some have fleetingly suggested.
Tactically, it will be an intriguing battle. One could normally argue that to prevent an opposition goal threat, you should suffocate and cut off the supply to the danger man. In that case, Arsene Wenger could instruct Mikel Arteta to shadow Mousa Dembele and ensure that he’s not given the freedom to orchestrate the play from deep. The same manner in which Oscar was tasked with disrupting the influence of Arteta himself in Chelsea’s victories against Arsenal; a role he performed to near perfection.
However, it is of course not as simple as that either, as Bale is currently enjoying roaming in something of a free role, in which he’s able to pick up the ball just about anywhere on the pitch. With his confidence sky-high, expect to see Bale running directly at players, and penetrating the space in between the lines. He will particularly target Gunners right-back Carl Jenkinson who, despite coming on leaps and bounds over the past 12 months, is still awfully raw, and liable to dive in recklessly.
Despite plenty of troubles in the cups of late, lest we forget the threats that Arsenal still pose. The front six is by no means set in stone, with the exception of the aforementioned Arteta as a holding player of sorts, and Jack Wilshere in the number ten role which he has very much made his own. For most of the season, the 20-year-old has played alongside Arteta in a double pivot, with Santi Cazorla operating behind the striker further up the pitch. This set-up occasionally worked a treat, ironically in the reverse fixture at the Emirates, in which Arsenal won 5-2, but more often than not looked dysfunctional, with Wilshere leaving too big a gap in midfield, such was his desire to join the attack.
But with the defensive shackles removed somewhat, Wilshere has more freedom to go on the offensive, where he has recently been joined by Cazorla from the flank in what has looked a far more balanced set-up. However, this then means that, as the likes of Abou Diaby and Aaron Ramsey have slotted in alongside Arteta to provide more solidity, one of Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski will have to miss out; all of whom have proved to be serious goal threats. The positive is that the Gunners have an option to bring off the bench should things go pear-shaped, but the fact is that their best football has occurred when Walcott, Giroud, Podolski and Cazorla play together.
They are clearly generating something of a rapport; such is the frequency in which they assist one another. Walcott’s record this year makes him just about un-droppable while Podolski, who has been in and out of the team in recent weeks, is, in his best attempt to fulfil national stereotypes, typically efficient and always likely to deliver something in the big games.
Giroud meanwhile has struggled for goals lately, but remains very much the focal point of the team in the way he holds the ball up and brings others into play. His movement off the ball is also exceptional, thus creating space for his teammates to run into; often Walcott and Podolski themselves, who, it has to be said, have proved to be significantly more clinical than their French colleague. Whether or not Giroud has packed his shooting boots may well prove to be the difference.
The current gap between the sides is four points; very little when considering Spurs were 10 ahead when the teams met in February last season, only to ultimately be overtaken by their neighbours. But it still carries a great deal of weight. From an Arsenal perspective, the game is perhaps ‘must not lose’ rather than necessarily ‘must win’. A seven point gap, particularly without Robin van Persie this time around, may be too great an ask of what appears to be a relatively fragile Gunners side.
In addition to back-to-back 5-2 Arsenal wins, we’ve also seen a 5-4, a 4-4, a 3-2 and a 3-3 in recent years, so if nothing else, you can be sure there’ll be goals and plenty of drama. Dare I say beneath the jovial banter, or in some cases, genuine hatred, there is a mutual respect for each other, at least in terms of their consistency for putting on a good show. For me at least, it’s the best fixture in the football calendar. Here’s to an inevitable goalless snoozefest.