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Know Your Opponent, North London Derby Edition: Arsenal

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Luckily for us at SBNation, the guy who runs the Arsenal blog is one of few gooners who isn't totally obnoxious. I had a chat with Ted Harwood of The Short Fuse ahead of the North London Derby about Arsenal, and I think he stays pretty objective and is informative.

Kevin McCauley: So Ted, why is there all this hate surrounding the North London Derby? Can't we all just be friends? Sure, I think your manager is a d-bag and I think it's funny that your stadium is a morgue, but I don't hate you.

Ted Harwood: I don't hate you, either, even though we are natural sporting enemies (Wisconsin vs. Minnesota, Spurs vs. Arsenal).  The North London derby hate is surely arbitrary for me, but that being said, Arsenal/Spurs is the one rivalry I have in sports where I have felt assured of joy for the past decade.    

KM: Will the English Premier League's best player when he's healthy (Cesc Fabregas) actually play 30 games in the league this year?

TH: [Touches wood] Yes.  One thing that has helped is the emergence of Jack Wilshere, who, although he is a different type of player, has given Wenger another option to rotate in.  Tomas Rosicky's return to health has helped a great deal, too, especially as he is the closest thing to Fabregas' passing that we have in the squad.  As long as they take it easy with Cesc's hamstring and rest him from time to time, I see no reason he can't play forty matches, even. (Editor's note: There are only 38 league matches.)

KM: How impressed have you been with Chamakh so far? Will he retain his place in the unlikely event that RVP is ever 100% fit?

TH: Chamakh has been great for us so far, especially considering that we paid nothing for him.  His heading ability was never in doubt, but what has been more impressive is his ability to make runs that free up space for Cesc, Samir Nasri, Andrei Arshavin, Theo Walcott, and others to move into.  His passing has been quite good as well.  When van Persie is finally 100% again, Wenger will have a bit of a decision to make.  Some writers have suggested switching to a 4-4-2 and using them both, or maybe putting van Persie on the wing, but Arsenal have about fifty wingers right now, too.  van Persie's passing and technical skill are a notch above Chamakh's still, but he has proven to be more than just a good header of the ball, for sure.

KM: How good is Samir Nasri? What's his ceiling like? Would you rather see him on the wing or in the middle when everyone is healthy? I've been very impressed with him.

TH: Nasri has been outstanding this year.  He was barely 21 when he joined Arsenal and had to battle through some injuries for the first two years he was here, but now that (touch wood again) he's had a good run of games and is emerging into his peak years, he's blossoming into one of the most potent creative threats in England.  He's the most dangerous player we have with the ball at his feet (see his goal against Porto last year in the Champions League), and he's got a deceptively quick and powerful shot with both his right and his left.  He's probably still got some room to improve in a couple of areas: his passing isn't as incisive as it could be at times, for instance.  When everyone is healthy, I think I'd prefer a middle of Song, Fabregas, and Rosicky, with Nasri on the wing.  This is only because Rosicky's attacking passes tend to be a little sharper.  Nasri has said he prefers to play in the middle, and he has the potential to be great there, but right now, I think he serves us better on the wing.  Since our wingers tend to come inside, it's probably less of an issue than it might be for teams with a more rigid attacking force.

KM: The center of your defense is a bit of an issue. Getting rid of Gallas and Toure wasn't necessarily the wrong move, but you haven't really replaced them. Are Arsenal fans screaming for a new center back or are you in total "Cult of Wenger" mode?

TH: Actually, I think Wenger's done a good job replacing them.  Squillaci was always intended to be experienced cover, I think, and the pairing this year was supposed to be Thomas Vermaelen (who has been battling some kind of mystery injury with his Achilles) and Laurent Koscielny.  Two errors aside, Koscielny's been terrific in the tackle and good in the air.  Johan Djourou has been very good in the air so far this year, too.  Vermaelen and Koscielny are both 25 and Djourou's 23, so they are not at their peaks yet by defender standards.  Wenger would prefer to have the same pairing play almost all the matches together, in the Premier League at least, and I think if we had had Vermaelen and Koscielny together this whole time, we'd be doing really well.  Even with injuries, I like the look of our defense this year more than I did last year, so I guess I am in "The Cult", yeah.

KM: Speaking of the "Cult of Wenger," how many consecutive years do you have to go without winning a trophy before it disbands?

TH: Honestly, I could see him managing Arsenal until he himself wants to stop.  I think it would take quite a bit for the axe, given the Arsenal administration's love of prudence and aesthetically pleasing stuff.

KM: When FIFA's fair play rules go into effect, do Arsenal become the kings of England overnight? Are you all just sitting around, looking at your balanced checkbook and your bricks and mortar, snickering?

TH: I don't know if they become kings, but I think it's hard to argue that Arsenal have done the best job setting up a sustainable financial strategy for a club their size.  We do snicker quite a bit, it's true, but it is highly reassuring knowing that debt problems and instability are simply not things we have to think about, whereas there might be a painful adjustment period for other clubs our size.

KM: What are the chances that Arsenal starts pumping artificial crowd noise into the Emirates Stadium like the Indianapolis Colts used to do at the RCA Dome?

TH: You know, I don't know why the club just doesn't take the away supporters and stuff them all in the North Bank behind the goal.  Alan Davies suggested that in his podcast a couple of weeks ago.  Our away fans are consistently loud and creative.

KM: Where do you expect Arsenal to finish this season in the league and in Champions League?


TH: I expect a top-two finish in the League, with the race with Chelsea being close until the end.  I think we're just more composed than we were last year, and I think Manchester United is lacking right now, while Tottenham and Manchester City lurk around the third or fourth position as well.  In the Champions League, I expect the team to reach the semi-finals, at least; the match at Shakhtar aside, I think we're performing even better than we did last year in Europe, and I think some of the stronger teams from last year look a little less so now (especially when Gareth Bale is scorching their right side over and over, for instance).

I think we have a great chance of winning the Carling Cup this year, too.

KM: Finally, a prediction for the NLD?

TH: Since your defense is beat up: Arsenal 3 - 1 Tottenham, in a wide open match.

A big thanks to Ted for participating, preview going up later.