Few matches get the footy-related humors all out of balance quite like the North London Derby. In Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal this season you have two teams that are legitimately close to each other in terms of actual ability on the football pitch and seem to really match up well. Oh, and they hate each other, that always makes for a good rivalry. Also considering that Spurs have an outside chance of finishing ahead of Arsenal in the table for the first time in FOR-FREAKING-EVER, this adds an extra bit of spice to the proceedings.
Whatever you think of sports-related tribalism, human decency, and the color red, everybody needs a good pantomime villain, and that lot down the road fits the bill pretty damn nicely, thanks. That said, while I bemoan their bad life choices when it comes to choosing a footy club, I quite enjoy interacting with the folks at The Short Fuse, SB Nation's Arsenal blog.
Since TSF manager Thomas Wachtel and I live kinda-sorta-somewhat near each other, we had decided we were meet up for this match and watch the game at a pub somewhere and then collaborate on a long-form article – human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria – but those plans dissolved in a fit of inertia and ennui. So we hope you enjoy this reciprocal interview instead. My answers to his questions will be found over at the virtual Emirates.
DGM: So, is it weird finally having three healthy central defenders?
TW: It is, and we even have a fourth! With the addition of Gabriel, and Young Calum Chambers, it's almost like we have some depth in the defense. Not since the days of...uh, well probably the mid-2000s have we had such bounty. Frankly, I'm very pleased.
DGM: The last time these two clubs met was ludicrously early in the season and ended in a 1-1 draw. Spurs started Younes Kaboul, Etienne Capoue, and Emmanuel Adebayor, while Harry Kane was not yet a thing and Christian Eriksen was out of form. Arsenal had a healthy Özil, Ramsey, and Wilshere, a shiny new Alexis, and an injured Giroud. Looking at these two teams now, how confident are you that you can nick a result at White Hart Lane?
TW: I'd say I'm reasonably confident, but not overly so. We're a better team now than we were then, partially because of Giroud's return, partially because Aaron Ramsey's actually healthy (we only had him for the first half of that game in September, after all), partially because we've sorted out our defense a little, and partially just because form changes throughout a season. I'd say the same about Tottenham probably (partially because of the guys you mentioned), though I'll defer to you on that. So I don't foresee either of us beating the hell out of the other. I think either team could win, though I understand that's a little bit of a cop-out.
DGM: What do you expect from Gabriel Paulista? Related: Why does Gabriel Paulista's jaw look like the bottom of Darth Vader's mask?
TW: For the moment, he's a backup. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny are a fine first-choice pairing, and I don't really see a reason to replace either one presently. But both are getting "old," so adding in a 24-year-old who could theoretically start in the future is a plus. We'll see how he does before I get too far ahead of myself on that, though. I am also really upset that you've now put that image of Darth Gabriel in my head.
DGM: So. Mesut Özil. What happened?
TW: Well, he's finally back from a long injury, which is nice. Since returning he's put in a couple of goals and assists and stuff, which has gotten some of the more...unsubtle members of the Arsenal fanbase off his back for a bit. He's gotten some criticism, some of which has been deserved and most of which hasn't. He's still one of the best players in the team, so I'm very excited to see him back on the field.
DGM: Harry Kane has really exploded onto the scene this year, becoming not only one of the best young players in England but also one of the best strikers in Europe. So how optimistic are you feeling about Yaya Sanogo's loan to Crystal Palace?
TW: I think there's a non-zero chance that Sanogo will end up to be a useful player, and he definitely wasn't going to do it sitting on our bench. But I also wouldn't be surprised if he ends up playing for two or three Championship clubs in the near future. Or the distant future. It all comes down to whether he can quit looking so much like a baby horse when he tries to do things.
DGM: Serious Tactical Question™: Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane are clearly Tottenham's two best players. You're Arsene Wenger: how do you set up the team to neutralize their impact and beat Tottenham at their stadium?
TW: I can't believe I'm saying this, but I actually think that Francis Coquelin will help? He's been mostly garbage for a few years but after Mikel Arteta got hurt, we recalled him from a loan and he's actually been useful. Aaron Ramsey being around will help as well, in shoring up the midfield. Basically, I don't know I'd change a lot, it's worked lately and if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I'm mostly hoping Harry Kane doesn't score because that will mean a closeup of his face, which I would like to avoid if possible.
DGM: How will Arsenal supporters fill the empty void in their lives when there's no St. Totteringham's Day this season? European board games? Meditation? Walking around north London in a daze while huffing into a paper bag?
TW: [looks at table] Oh damn, you guys aren't that far behind us. Well, considering the last time that happened I was in elementary school, the only answer I can come up with is "play coach-pitch baseball" and "learn to swim." I'm not sure if that will apply to most Arsenal fans, though. I'd probably drink a lot, but I do that anyway. Beware the post hoc fallacy, kids.
DGM: You'd be crazy not to be looking ahead, at least a little, to Life After Arsene™. Let's say he drops the mic, flips Stan Kroenke the bird, and rides off into the sunset tomorrow. Who do you replace him with that will hold to the ideals of "Arsenal football?"
TW: Yeah, we've actually spent some effort on answering that question over the past few months, just because we got bored. The short answer is that we want someone who can continue on the path that we've set out on the past twenty years or so. Consistent Champions League qualification. Challenging for trophies on a regular basis. Winning a few here and there. Things like that. I personally would prefer to stick to the sustainability path rather than dropping £100 million every year whether we have it or not. I'd like to win a little more, but so would a lot of fan bases. I try to be realistic about it.
I'd probably be happy with Frank de Boer, but honestly, this is one of those things I don't personally think about that often. Five years ago a not-insignificant faction of Arsenal fans would have said Owen Coyle; not too long after, many would have been happy with Andre Villas-Boas. Life comes at you fast. I'll deal with that when it happens.
DGM: Say something nice about Tottenham. Anything.
TW: Easy. You're not Chelsea.
DGM: Awww, that's sweet, neither are you. Finally, let's have a score prediction. Everybody loves score predictions, right?
TW: I'll say 2-1 to the Arsenal, but it'll probably actually be a draw. I'm bad at predictions.
Thanks to Thomas Wachtel over at The Short Fuse for taking the time out of his day to answer my questions, which were 60% honest and 40% #banter. The Short Fuse is SB Nation's source for all things Arsenal. Give Thomas a follow at @Brohan_Cruyff and/or @theshortfuse.