The first North London Derby of the season kicks off this Sunday at White Hart Lane. For the first time in what seems like quite a while, and I can't be bothered to look it up, Arsenal will enter the game looking up at Tottenham Hotspur. Our North London neighbors have lost three of their first six games and have conceded an astounding 14 goals, second most in the league.
The Gunners have, thus far, taken points only from Newcastle United (with whom they drew on opening weekend), newly promoted Swansea City, and Bolton Wanderers who are currently dead last. We all, of course, remember the 8-2 drubbing Arsenal suffered at the hands of Manchester United and their loss two weeks ago to Blackburn Rovers that featured 2 own goals by Arsenal players.
All these things seem to point to crisis at the Emirates Stadium, but club officials and manager Arsene Wenger maintain that there is nothing to be worried about. To prove that, the club went out and demolished Bolton last weekend. Maybe that's not much of an accomplishment, but at times like this it is imperative for Arsenal to get back on their feet and moving in the right direction.
Now, Tottenham fans may be thinking that this is an excellent time to be facing Arsenal. The Gunners seem to be weaker than ever before and with the form Tottenham has displayed in its last three games it might be time for Spurs to hang a crooked number on Arsene Wenger's squad. Spurs should be wary though. This Arsenal side is as dangerous as ever.
Let's begin with Arsenal's perceived weakness, their defense. The injury, earlier this season, to Belgian centerback Thomas Vermaelen severely weakened the Arsenal back-line. Even the addition of German international Per Mertesacker has been unable to stabilize the defense. Assuming the Gunners run out a similar XI to the one that faced Bolton the back four will consist of Bakary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, Mertesacker, and Kieran Gibbs.
I don't really rate Gibbs. I think he's still got a long way to go as a defender, but Sagna is solid. Depending on who Tottenham play at right midfield Gibbs may not have much to do. Van der Vaart and Modric both like to cut inside, which would allow the Arsenal fullback plenty of space on the flank. Kyle Walker, or whoever Harry Redknapp chooses to start at right back, will have to be on their guard. Sagna is capable of doing a good job blunting the efforts of Gareth Bale on the opposite flank, but that doesn't mean he will actually be able to do it.
The central defensive pairing is where the weakness really lies. Per Mertesacker is new to the Premier League, but is a class defender. However, he is slow and seems to struggle with the pace of some strikers. Tottenham's strikers are not overly quick, but neither is Yakuba and he managed a brace against the Gunners defense. Should Jermaine Defoe manage to get in behind the defense Mertesacker will be unable to get back and cover. The German's partner, Laurent Koscielny, is inconsistent. He seems to have a propensity for giving away penalties and his judgement is questionable. That said, he has the physical tools and has it within him to be a very good defender on his day.
The midfield used to be a strength for Arsenal as well, but it's not anymore. If only because it's not as good as it once was. The departures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri would weaken any team; even if that team managed to replace those two with Mikel Arteta and Yossi Benayoun, two established Premier League footballers. The midfield that Arsene Wenger ran out against Bolton consisted of Arteta, Aaron Ramsey, and Alex Song and again, barring injuries, I would expect a very similar line-up for the derby on Sunday.
Song is obviously the strength of this group. The Cameroonian breaks up play well and makes strong challenges. He has an excellent work rate in the center of the park, but it is that same work rate that often gets him in trouble. Song sometimes winds up out of position leaving Arsenal vulnerable to the counterattack, which is not exactly a good thing if you have a shaky back line.
The more attacking duo of Arteta and Ramsey are both very good as creative midfielders. They are excellent passers and Arsenal's forwards feed off of the supply of Arteta and Ramsey. However, both are fairly small in stature and not particularly physically strong. Depending on Tottenham's midfield pairing (I would suggest Sandro and Parker) the Arsenal pair could be pressured and tackled out of the game. Given time and space they are capable of picking a defense apart.
I think that effectively details Arsenal's "weaknesses" but what about the strengths of the club? Goalkeeping has often been an issue for Arsenal, but Wojciech Szczesny seems to be a damn good keeper. It's not his fault that his defense is completely awful. The Polish stopper is big, catches confidently, and has excellent reflexes. Szczesny is capabe of keeping the Gunners in any game, but even the best keeper, when put behind a shaky defense, will concede goals.
The real strength of Arsenal lies in their forwards. First and foremost among them is Robin van Persie. The oft-injured Dutch striker has been in remarkable form this calendar year. Last season Van Persie scored 22 goals in all competitions and already has five to start this season, including his 100th goal for Arsenal. Van Persie always seems to score against Spurs and now that Fabregas is gone the Dutchman is sure to draw most of Spurs fans' ire. I don't know what the odds are on RVP to score, but I wouldn't hesitate to lay down a few quid.
The wide forwards in Arsenal's 4-3-3 formation are Gervinho and Theo Walcott. Theo Walcott is basically an Aaron Lennon clone. Both have a final product that is lacking, both tend to run right at their opponents and rely solely on their pace as a means of winning battles. Last season though Walcott seemed to put it together and managed 13 goals in all competitions (so much for that Lennon clone reference). I am of the belief that savvy left backs can minimize Walcott's impact on the game and Tottenham have a very savvy defender in Benoit Assou-Ekotto. However, BAE does suffer from the occasional mental lapse and Walcott has the ability to make him pay for that.
On the opposite flank is new signing Gervinho. The Ivorian joined for £10.5 million from French champions Lille. In his first ever Premier League match against Newcastle United (in which he was eventually sent off) Gervinho looked bright and very skillful on the ball. Despite a lengthy suspension, he's picked up where he left off and has continued to display excellent dribbling and tremendous skill. He has very good pace and could pose a problem for Kyle Walker, much like Ashley Young did earlier in the season. Gervinho is, like quite a few Arsenal players, not terribly physically strong and has always had a knock on him that he struggles away from home. Still, against an relatively inexperienced defender like Walker the Ivorian could pose a big problem for Spurs.
So there you have it, that's my analysis of Arsenal. Given all that I would favor a line-up for Tottenham Hotspur that looks like this: Friedel; Kaboul, King, Gallas, Assou-Ekotto; Modric, Sandro, Parker, Bale; Adebayor, Defoe. Yes, I included Friedel and yes, I'm assuming that Gallas is fit. The three selections that important for this game, in my mind, are:
1. Younes Kaboul at right back
2. A central midfield pairing of Sandro and Scott Parker
3. Luka Modric in the right midfield position
Kaboul at right back provides the club with another big body to deal with Arsenal on set pieces as well as a more defensive minded full back who is capable of out-muscling Gervinho while also being able to keep up with him in terms of pace. Sandro and Parker in the midfield will help neutralize Ramsey and Arteta by putting them under constant pressure. Modric on the right is necessary for a couple of reasons. First, he has to be on the pitch. Second, his work rate is much higher than Rafael Van der Vaarts and while he likes to cut inside he is also aware enough positionally to hold the flank and make Kieran Gibbs stay home some of the time.
I know most Spurs fans will probably want us to run out a very attacking line-up and force Arsenal to deal with us. Fans can sense the blood in the water and will want badly to attack. However, we must be wary. You never know what will happen in these derby matches. Spurs are better of playing a high pressure counterattacking game. That plays to our strengths. We're very rarely able to out possess Arsenal and despite the Gunners' losses we still may not be able to.
All that said, I'm feeling very confident heading into this game which worries me. Granted I would have been much more worried had Arsenal lost to Bolton, which seems counter-intuitive, but the last thing I want to face is an Arsenal squad coming of back-to-back embarrassing losses. No matter what, Spurs have to respect Arsenal and shouldn't come into this game with the belief that things will be easy for them. This edition of the North London Derby is sure to be a battle.