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Know Your Opponent: A chat with The Short Fuse ahead of the North London Derby

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The first NLD of the season should be a good one.

Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

The first of at least three matches involving Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal is on Sunday at the Emirates Stadium. The clubs will meet again just 17 days later in the quarterfinals of the English League Cup or whatever sponsor has the rights this year to change the name. Sunday’s match will be important for the league standings. A Spurs win will put some breathing room between them and their arch rivals while an Arsenal victory could drop Spurs out of the top 4 completely. Joining us after a one year hiatus from KYO is the managing editor for The Short Fuse, pdb. We talk about life after Arsene, if a 40 year old man can defend better than who they have now, and how their Europa campaign is going.

CFC: Arsenal are almost halfway through their first season in the post-Arsene Wenger era. Do you think Unai Emery has thoroughly filled the empty puffy coat left behind?

TSF: Not even remotely, but that would be a) impossible and b) by design. By Wenger’s last season in charge, he was literally IN CHARGE - everything Arsenal was his responsibility, from the training ground cafeteria menu to first team recruitment/planning/training etc. Just over a season ago, Ivan Gazidis started to install a management team - Raul Sanllehi as DoF and Sven Mislintat as head recruiter, among others - in an attempt to build a succession plan for Wenger’s departure, but Wenger essentially called the shots for most of his time at Arsenal. That, in 2018, is a fairly unsustainable model, so Arsenal have by necessity decentralized.

What that means, of course, is that the role Emery plays is by definition a lot smaller than the role Wenger played. And that’s OK - nobody expected, or wanted, another monolithic legend that would last for two decades. That’s not how the game works any more, and that’s fine.

All that said, Unai Emery has come in and done a pretty good job of treading water, which is the baseline for what was expected in anyone’s first post-Wenger season. He’s made some puzzling tactical decisions - he continues to play Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang out of position on the left, and he seems to have had a rather large falling out with Mesut Ozil, for instance - but as much as my baseball analyst brain resists this impulse, it’s hard to argue with the results. After an entirely expected loss to Manchester City to open the season and a loss to Chelsea that, while not great, was also not hugely surprising, Arsenal have not yet lost. 17 straight unbeaten since August 25 speaks to a certain level of success, even if the numbers underlying that success suggest that a regression is looming somewhere in the future.

Have they looked great in all of those games? No they have not! They were winless in three, drawing at least two games they should have won, before beating Bournemouth last weekend. But at the end of the day, results and point accumulations matter, and we’re not giving any points back because of unfavorable aesthetics.

CFC: Alexandre Lacazette is back in training. He’s got six goals so far in all competitions this season and, maybe it’s just me, but he seems to be making far more of an impact in Emery’s system than he did under Wenger. Am I nuts or not?

TSF: I don’t think you are, no. While it’s hard to sit here at a distance and pinpoint specifically why certain players are better and certain players aren’t under Emery, it is true that Emery is much more...positionally disciplined than Wenger was. Wenger famously let players play where they felt they’d be their best - he was content to set up a lineup and let the players figure stuff out as they went, even if that is oversimplifying it a bit. Emery is much more drilled in his team building - he has an idea of where he wants players to play, and for the most part that’s what they do, for better or worse. It’s working out pretty well for Lacazette so far - he’s never going to be a Golden Boot winner, I don’t think, but the alchemy of his and Aubameyang’s partnership has been fun to watch.

CFC: Who would you rather have as a CB pairing? Sokratis and Holding or a 40-year-old Sol Campbell and a cardboard cutout of Per Mertesacker?

TSF: Is there a third option? Please? Anyone?

CFC: Kidding aside, how has the defense really been for Arsenal this year so far?

TSF: Better than last year, but that’s a fairly low bar. Arsenal gave up 51 goals last season, which is ridiculous for a team aspiring to be a Top Four Trophy winner (fourth place Liverpool gave up 38). They’re on pace to give up 48 this year, so...yay? What I will say is that their penchant for giving up headslapping goals is, if not gone, at least diminished - they’re still nowhere near as solid as they need to be, but they’re heading in the right direction and they look lost a lot less frequently (although it still happens) than they did last season or the season before.

CFC: I saw this weird stat on TV the other day that said Arsenal hadn’t led a single match going into halftime in the Premier League this season. I thought it was crazy, but sure enough that’s the case! Does Emery think the first half is warm up or something?

TSF: If I could answer the “why don’t first halves matter to Unai Emery’s Arsenal” question, I would probably get very rich selling my secrets. I have no idea what’s going on there - it’s not like Emery is making wholesale changes every half time and trying completely different things in the second half. All I can say is that this year, unlike the past few seasons, when Arsenal fall behind, they tend to snap into shape and at least make a fight out of a game, where in previous season they may have just folded and called it a day.

I don’t mean that to sound like a damning indictment of Arsene Wenger, but the fact is this team seems - and this is where I veer into those dumb intangibles that my aforementioned baseball brain normally hates - to have more resilience and fight in them than other recent vintage Arsenal teams. Why they can’t apply that resilience and fight from the opening whistle, though, I have no idea. It doesn’t make logical sense, it’s not really a repeatable skill, and at some point their tendency to start slow will absolutely start to bite them in the ass, but for now, whatever they’re doing is working OK.

CFC: Europa League seems to be going off without a hitch. As of right now, some heavy hitters will be dropping from UCL to UEL. Some of those teams could be Inter, Spurs, Napoli, PSG, Liverpool, Benfica and Valencia. Given the possibilities, and knowing how much of a slog Europa can be, do you think Arsenal can take it down come May?

TSF: Last year was supposedly one of the strongest Europa League fields in recent memory, and Arsenal made it to the semifinal and lost to the eventual winner. I see no reason this year can’t be the same story, even with those big hitters joining the party. Like most teams in their position, Arsenal see the EL as their best route back to the platinum-lined swimming pool full of liquid gold that is the Champions League, so it is a big priority for them this season. Unai Emery was brought in in no small part due to his success in this competition, so I would expect Arsenal to take the Europa League almost more seriously than the Premier League the further they go.

CFC: What’s your expected starting XI on Sunday for Arsenal? What do you think will be the game plan for Emery?

TSF: (NOTE: I’m writing this on Wednesday, prior to the Europa League game, so no clues about the weekend have been given so far)

Emery took a squad of reserves, kids, and Aaron Ramsey to the Ukraine for the Europa League, so I would expect a pretty full-strength lineup on Sunday. What does that look like? Probably something along the lines of:

Leno

Holding-Mustafi-Kolasinac-Bellerin

Xhaka-Torreira

Aubameyang-Ozil-Iwobi

Lacazette

(Author’s note: Arsenal defeated Vorskla 3-0 on Thursday to win their group. They started the following lineup: Cech; Lichtsteiner, Jenkinson, Holding, Maitland-Niles; Guendouzi, Elneny; Willock, Ramsey, Smith-Rowe; Nketiah. That lineup is probably correct.)

CFC: How about a prediction?

TSF: Honestly? I have no earthly idea. I’m normally really bad at these at the best of times, but this year especially so with all the changes and shifts of position. If I had to guess, I’d go for the 1-1 draw because Arsenal will want to defend well at home.

As always, we want to thank pdb for stopping by and chatting with us. I did the same for them over on The Short Fuse, so if you get a chance, hop over and check out what I said about Spurs’ stadium situation, Pochettino being linked to every job ever, and tactics about Sunday’s match. Their piece won’t run until about 11:00 AM ET.