There’s never a good time to play Arsenal, and this probably isn’t one either. Despite all the talk in the past couple of years that Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal have flipped positions in the English football hierarchy, the truth is that these two teams are very close to each other and probably always will be. Last season Tottenham went to the Emirates in early December behind a head of steam and got spanked 4-2. They went on to win at the Emirates in the League Cup and earned a tetchy draw at Wembley.
There was a real sense of gloom and despair hovering over the Emirates in the offseason, with numerous reports suggesting a transfer budget of around £40m and a whole host of problems to fix. To their credit, Arsenal had a pretty good summer, bringing in David Luiz to shore up their porous defense, adding Nicolas Pepe to add to what was already a potent attack alongside Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, signed a long-term left back in Kieran Tierney, and securing one-time Spurs target Dani Ceballos from Barcelona on a one-year loan.
Like Spurs it hasn’t been perfect. Arsenal opened with wins over Newcastle and Burnley, but fell somewhat catastrophically against Liverpool last week, so there’s a sense that this season’s Gunners are still a work in progress. The defense is still pretty bad, with the worst xGA of any team in the top six (though Spurs aren’t that far ahead of them). That said, considering the turmoil swirling around Spurs after their loss at home to Toon last weekend, most are giving Arsenal the upper hand in the first NLD of the season.
It’s a bit of a mystery how Unai Emery will set up his team on Sunday. Hector Bellerin, Tierney, and Rob Holding are out, and Meszut Ozil is questionable after missing the Liverpool match with the flu. There’s a question around Lacazette too as he’s apparently still nursing an ankle injury that kept him out last week. Emery’s tactical approach will dictate his lineup, and he knows this is a big match against a quality opponent.
The one thing we can say about Arsenal is that they are unlikely to play like Newcastle or Aston Villa and park a bus against Spurs at home. Expect Arsenal to go straight at them, targeting their perceived areas of weakness (Spurs’ right flank, Davinson Sanchez). And that might actually be a good thing for Tottenham. There’s no need to pick a lock if the bars are wide enough that you can squeeze through the gate.
How will Tottenham line up against Arsenal?
Let’s start with the team news. Tottenham released their injured/recovering player statuses on social media today, and if you’re a Spurs fan it’s not good reading. Kyle Walker-Peters, Tanguy Ndombele, Juan Foyth, and Ryan Sessegnon were all declared unavailable for Sunday’s match, and Eric Dier was listed as “being assessed” after feeling some discomfort in his hip. That presents a real pickle for people like me tasked with predicting a cogent lineup against Spurs’ biggest rivals at their place, because there are so many moving pieces.
One of the biggest questions is who the heck will start at right back, and if we assume Dier is unavailable it comes down to either Moussa Sissoko or Serge Aurier. Aurier is at least a recognized right back, but he reportedly wants out of Tottenham and Pochettino hasn’t shown an inclination to play him at all so far this season. So that leaves Sissoko playing out of position.
But that also leaves a question in midfield — perhaps a welcome one, considering the efficacy of the Winks-Sissoko pivot the past couple of weeks. In short, if you are starting with the assumption that there’s a back four, there aren’t a whole lot of good midfield options.
And then there’s this:
#thfc Poch keeping cards close to his chest on whether Alli will start vs Arsenal. Says Lo Celso will be involved but is still not ready to start – staunchly defended Sanchez from criticism.— Dan Kilpatrick (@Dan_KP) August 30, 2019
So let’s blow everything up! In conversation with my masthead colleagues, we now wonder if Pochettino will opt to bring Jan Vertonghen into the fold and play a back three. Doing so would make sense, especially against an Arsenal side that is likely to play with two forwards — Aubameyang and Pepe. If Vertonghen still isn’t deemed fit, Ben Davies can play (and has played) CB and would likely slot in, with Danny Rose and Sissoko as wingbacks. Davies could also come in for Rose.
The status of Christian Eriksen in the lineup will likely tell us whether or not he will be sold before Monday. If he plays or starts on the bench, odds are better that he stays at Spurs this season. But there’s a non-zero chance he’s left out of the match day 18 entirely, which is also a pretty strong tell. My guess? He starts.
There are a lot of ways that Pochettino could structure his midfield — Lo Celso making his first start in central midfield alongside Winks and Dele (though Pochettino has hinted against GLC starting), Eriksen could feature either in a deeper role or at the 10, Lamela or Lucas could start for Eriksen with Dele dropping deeper into central midfield — it’s all very tenuous and I don’t know what’s in Pochettino’s mind. So I’m going with this lineup, expecting it to be wrong in some way.
This is my prediction for Tottenham Hotspur’s starting lineup against Arsenal. What’s yours?