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Know Your Opponent: Arsenal and the North London Derby

Ahead of the most consequential NLD in a decade or more, we sit down with our friends at The Short Fuse.

Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur Premier League Photo by Tom Jenkins/Getty Images

The North London Derby is coming tomorrow, and it’s terrifying. Arsenal visits Tottenham Hotspur in a true six pointer with massive implications for who finishes top four and qualifies for the Champions League this season. This was a match that was supposed to happen in January, but was postponed due to Mikel Arteta having one COVID positive test and an outbreak of Players On Loan.

So it’s happening now, at the end of the season at a time that maximizes drama and has me already huffing into a paper bag. Arsenal are currently four points ahead of Spurs, so this is not only a must-win for Tottenham, but they must win out and hope the Gunners drop points before the end of the year. It’s big, folks. Real big.

We hate Arsenal, but we quite like our friends at The Short Fuse. It’s hard to dislike people that let you take over their blog (twice!) on a charity bet. So it made sense, ahead of what is shaping up to be one of the most important North London Derbies in a very long time, to have a chat with the people down the virtual hallway at SB Nation.

Aaron Lerner is Managing Editor for The Short Fuse and we agreed to ask each other questions ahead of the match tomorrow. So I did. I got what looked like an academic treatise in return. Clearly, Aaron had some thoughts about this match. And I did the same for him over at the Arsenal blog, which you can read here.

Quick reminder — please don’t head to The Short Fuse to troll. Be respectful in any interactions you have over there. TSF and Carty Free have a reciprocal discipline policy — any ban over there will carry over to your posting privileges here.

This is probably the most consequential NLD we’ve had in decades, between two bitter rivals that are both desperate to get back into the Champions League. So… how are you feeling?

I’m of two minds - the rational, logical one and the irrational, supporter one. That first one feels great. The more level-headed among us Gooners knew that this was going to be a rebuilding year for Arsenal. If you look back at most pre-season predictions, we expected this squad to finish somewhere from 6th-8th. Even the most optimistic of us probably thought 5th was the ceiling. So having a magic number of 6 points with three matches to play and a shot to clinch a Champions League spot tomorrow is gravy as far as preseason expectations are concerned.

The second one, the supporter brain, is feeling all the things you’d expect. It’s the most consequential NLD we’ve had in years and a Champions League place is riding on it. And the first St. Totteringham’s Day in 5 years. And a chance to get one over on our rivals in their new ground. So there are plenty of nerves. Although if I’m being honest, I don’t have The Fear™ like I usually do ahead of a big match.

That said and even though Arsenal have far exceeded our expectations this season, with how the season has played out, missing the Champions League in the last three matches of the season would feel pretty terrible given the inside track they will have squandered.

We at Carty Free Towers thought Arsenal was as good as dead a few weeks ago after the Soton and Brighton results, and then y’all went and ripped off four straight, including wins vs. Chelsea, United, and West Ham. What has kept this Arsenal side together with the loss of Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney?

In a word (well, two words): Granit Xhaka. He has stepped up in a massive way since Thomas Partey went out. In particular, he has picked up the defensive side of his game, making key interventions in high pressure moments. He and Mohamed Elneny have formed a strong partnership playing as a midfield two (with Partey in the lineup, Arsenal were using him as a single pivot with Xhaka playing a more advanced, left-side #8 role).

That brings us to Elneny, who is playing the best football of his Arsenal career. He’s always been a high floor, low ceiling player. You know what you’re getting from him, but it wasn’t going to be spectacular or flashy. He’s added more ball progression to that overall solid game, which has really helped. Thomas Partey is an excellent ball progresser, and Mo Elneny shifting from being a guy who was mocked for being a backward-pass merchant into a more forward-thinking player has helped mitigate that loss.

More generally, Martin Ødegaard has become the attack-driving, creative force that the admirers of his skillset thought he could become. He’s an interesting player because he’ll do some eye-catching, fancy things, but his greater importance to Arsenal comes from the little things he does well (and you might not even notice that he’s doing). He finds space to receive the ball and relieve pressure. He gets it to the dangerous wide players in good positions. He presses well out of possession. Eddie Nketiah starting in place of Alexandre Lacazette has helped, too. That mainly boils down to a 22-year old being able to cover more ground and do more running than a 30-year old.

I don’t think Arsenal has coped all that well with the loss of Kieran Tierney. Nuno Tavares, who was signed in the summer to be a backup left back, has been inconsistent (at best), which has led to some weaker performances from Gabriel Magalhaes at LCB. Arsenal have adjusted tactically to have Granit Xhaka helping out on the left, at times falling into a pseudo left back role depending on where the ball is. Takehiro Tomiyasu’s return from injury also helps things, and I’ll get to that in my next answer.

By now you’re familiar with how Spurs play under Conte and their ability to hit fast on the counter. How do you neutralize the threats of Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min on Thursday?

I think Mikel Arteta will do two things. Or I’m at least pretty sure he’ll do one of them and have a feeling he’ll do both. The first is having Mohamed Elneny mark Harry Kane when the ball turns over. Elneny is likely to be the deeper of the two central midfielders, and I think Mikel will task him with finding Kane and getting tight to him as soon as Arsenal lose possession. Depending on where the ball and Kane are, that task could fall to Granit Xhaka on some transitions as well. But I think Arsenal will try to have one of the two holding midfielders limit Kane’s time and space.

It’s important that the task falls to a midfielder. Part of what makes Spurs’ signature transition move effective is that often one of the opposing centerbacks will come charging out (or get dragged out) of position, which opens up space for Son Heung-Min to run into. If the centerbacks are able to drop back, it doesn’t give as much space to play a ball into or run into, and there is another defender to muck things up.

Whether players have the discipline to stick to that plan is another question. The answer is: who knows. There is a reason that Spurs still score that goal even though everybody knows it’s coming. It’s like Arjen Robben cutting onto his left foot from the right side and scoring that way time and again — Kane and Son are really, really good at it. When the ball turns over and Spurs (or any team, really) counter quickly, it’s chaotic defensively. Guys are out of position, guys feel pressured to make a play when they’d be better off dropping back, and y’all’s attacking pair consistently make the most out of those unbalanced situations by finishing chances at a well-above average rate. Not to get too far into xG and nitty gritty numbers, but at this point, I think we can safely say that Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min are good finishers. If you give them two chances in a match, they’re probably scoring both of them. And that’ll win you a lot of matches!

The other thing Arsenal might do is play Takehiro Tomiyasu on the left side specifically to counter Son Heung-Min. Tomiyasu is a right back but is two-footed enough to play on the left. We didn’t know that until last week against Leeds United, when Mikel Arteta played Tomi on the left, seemingly to counter Raphina’s threat (and perhaps as a test run for the NLD). If there was an award given in the Premier League for under the radar signing of the year, Tomiyasu would be a frontrunner. He’s been that good (when not missing an extended period of time with a pesky calf injury). I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say he’s one of the most defensively sound fullbacks I’ve ever watched. He hardly ever gets beat, he’s almost never out of position, and he wins most of his duels. I’m currently knocking on every piece of wood within reach to ensure that I didn’t just jinx him.

How do you set up the team to beat Spurs?

I don’t think Arsenal are going to change things all that much, honestly. Spurs defense has improved dramatically under Antonio Conte because the change in shape has put them in positions to succeed and has limited how frequently they’re in difficult defensive situations. Put differently, I still fancy Bukayo Saka’s chances, and to a lesser extent, Gabriel Martinelli’s, against Spurs’ wide players, especially on the handful of occasions they get 1 v 1’s. As I said, Conte’s system does well to limit those, but they’re still going to happen from time to time in a match. Arsenal need to capitalize on those chances.

You’re finishing up year three under Arteta, and I think it’s safe to say it hasn’t always been rosy. What’s the current feeling among Gunners fans — is Mikel still the guy to get Arsenal back to the top of the Premier League?

Yes. Personally, I’ve been consistent in my belief that Mikel is the guy. I think most of the fanbase has come around to that view. And if Arsenal qualify for the Champions League this season, I think everyone but the real idiots will be on board. And don’t forget, regardless of where Arsenal finish, they will have managed it with the youngest average starting lineup in the Premier League. They’re trending in the right direction.

When Arsene Wenger was pushed out in 2018, my predecessor at TSF said that it was going to get worse at Arsenal before it got better. He was right. The roster was a mess. Unai Emery’s short tenure (and the concurrent front office power struggle) did little to fix that and probably made it worse.

It was always going to take a multi-year rebuild to fix things. The moves during the COVID summer were concerning and that more than anything shook my confidence in Mikel, but I’m going to chalk that up to the weirdness of the window. The moves last summer were fantastic. Arsenal brought in four guys who have become regular starters — Ramsdale, White, Tomiyasu, and Ødegaard, a promising young talent in Sambi Lokonga who could be the long-term replacement for Thomas Partey, and Nuno Tavares. The jury is still out on Tavares, he may end up a “flop” but 5 out of 6 ain’t a bad window. And for what it’s worth, Arsenal needed a backup left back, and they got one in Tavares. Even if he isn’t the right guy, there is a little something to be said about recognizing the needs and trying to fill them. Just ask any Manchester United fan about their club’s decision not to sign any central midfielders last summer.

Looking ahead, what areas does Arsenal need to improve on heading into next season? Is there a concern that Kroenke won’t put the funds up to continue Arsenal’s refresh even if you make the Champions League?

Arsenal need goals. That is by far the biggest need. Both Alexandre Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah are on expiring contracts. Lacazette hasn’t scored an open play goal since December 11th and will almost certainly leave the club in the summer. It looked as if Nketiah would be leaving as well, but there seems to be a late push to keep him at the club. Whether he wants to stay as a backup / fight with a new signing (or two) for the main role is an open question. I think he’s still likely to leave, but I’m less certain of that than I was a month ago.

The Gunners have been linked with pretty much everybody — Gabriel Jesus, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Ollie Watkins, Darwin Nunez, Alexander Isak, Jonathan David — and that list will only get longer once the season ends. It’s a question of who, not if, Arsenal sign to lead the line. And they may sign two attackers with different profiles, i.e. a target player like DCL and a guy like Gabriel Jesus (so that we can have the market cornered on Brazilians named Gabriel).

I expect Arsenal to bring in another right back this summer and potentially a proven 1B option (as opposed to a backup) for Kieran Tierney because he cannot seem to stay healthy. The Gunners have also been linked with a bunch of holding midfielder types, either to play alongside Thomas Partey in a double pivot, to play that advanced #8 role as an upgrade on Xhaka in that spot, or as a rotational option for Partey, who has also had fitness issues. Arsenal have already agreed to a contract with USMNT keeper Matt Turner, to be made official in the summer.

I’m not concerned about the Kroenkes. It feels really weird to write that. Everything that Mikel Arteta and Edu have said about the summer plans indicate that Arsenal are prepared and have the funds to spend again. It seems like Stan and Josh (although it’s more Josh running things from the Kroenke’s side) have bought into the rebuild and are committed to backing it financially. And I think they’re going to spend even if Arsenal don’t make the Champions League, too. It may end up being a smaller net spend, but I think that would come down to the difference in prize money between the two European competitions rather than anything on the ownership side.

If Spurs win on Thursday, are we still friends?

Of course we are! I’m all about friendly rivalries. I think we’ve talked about this before, whether publicly or privately, I’m not sure: I don’t feel the same level of vitriol for Spurs as Arsenal fans in England do. And I certainly don’t feel that way towards Carty Free. Maybe it’s an American thing or maybe it’s me, personally.

I want Arsenal to beat the pants off Spurs every time we play. I enjoy when Spurs struggle. Clinching a Champions League spot and celebrating St. Totteringham’s Day in one fell swoop at your ground would be fantastic (and a wonderful early birthday present for me). But part of the enjoyment comes from Spurs having had the upper hand the last five years. It lessens the rivalry when Arsenal finish above Spurs for more than two decades straight.

At the end of the day, sports are supposed to be fun, especially for the fans. We choose to spend our precious free time away from the hellscape of *gestures around* cheering on our teams. If it’s not fun, why keep doing it? And some of that fun comes from friendly rivalry.

Plus (depending on where you look), Arsenal still have a 55% chance to finish 4th even if Spurs win. We’d need to beat Newcastle away (no easy task) and an Everton side on the final day that might need a result to stay in the Premier League. But a loss doesn’t seal Arsenal’s fate.

How about a score prediction?

I’m going with my heart and my gut: 2-1 to Arsenal.

I’ve said all season that there’s something special about this Arsenal bunch. The way the team has come together in the locker room, the bond they’ve started rebuilding with the supporters after some particularly toxic years, the young core that doesn’t know enough to be nervous or to do the Arsenal choke-job that those of us who’ve been around longer almost expect at this point. I really believe they’re going to do it.

It should be a fascinating match, and I think it may end up looking like a series of mini-matches with significant shifts in how the teams are playing. Everybody knows what’s at stake and the results needed, the teams and the players most of all. Spurs need to win. A draw suits Arsenal. And Spurs have to avoid a loss at all costs. It all comes down to who scores the opening goal.

I expect Spurs to come out hot for the opening 10-20 minutes with the home crowd to try to get an early goal and take control of the match. Arsenal do not play from behind well and are among the worst in the Premier League at rescuing results from losing positions. I’m sure your club have seen the numbers and know that. Plus a 1-0 lead lets Spurs set up how they want, that is, to sit back and look for chances to score that goal. If Spurs don’t score an early goal, I expect them to slowly shift towards their normal playing style and for Arsenal to be in the ascendency for the second portion of the first half as Spurs try to draw them out to open up space for the counter.

The longer it’s tied or Arsenal lead, the more desperate Spurs will become, which will give the Gunners opportunities on the break as the second half wears on. We’ve seen a similar plan from Mikel Arteta before against top teams — he basically plays to kill off the first 70 minutes of the match and then makes a substitution / tactical shift to win it late. Emile Smith Rowe has scored multiple goals from the bench, and Arteta will look to him to make a difference.

Goals change matches and derbies are often pure chaos. All that reasoned prognistaction could go out the window in an instant. I’m trying to head into tomorrow with the attitude that I’ve had for the last month or so, just along for the enjoyment and spectacle of the run-in ride. It’s been a while since Arsenal have been playing for anything this late in the season, and it’s been fun. I hope that fun continues. And Arsenal win.

Big thanks to Aaron for taking the time to write his dissertation on the North London Derby and allowing me permission to print it. You can read my responses to his questions at The Short Fuse, and you can follow him on Twitter at @AaronCLerner.