The stakes are usually high for every North London Derby, and tomorrow’s match at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium fits the bill. Spurs go into the match two points out of a Champions League position while Arsenal have a golden opportunity to put a strangle hold on the top of the table thanks to Manchester City’s 2-1 defeat at the hands of their cross-city rivals Manchester United.
Joining us for Know Your Opponent is our usual guest from The Short Fuse, managing editor Aaron Lerner. We talked about Arsenal’s improbable run in the first half of the season, where they want to strengthen the squad in January, and ultimately whether or not he believes Arsenal will lift the trophy at the end of the season.
CFC: The obvious one to start: In your wildest dreams did you think Arsenal could potentially be top of the table midway through the season and look as good as they have at times?
TSF: Absolutely not. Anyone who tries to tell you they saw Arsenal’s performance this season coming is lying. I was confident they would be back among the T4 contenders this season, and the supporter in me believed that when all was said and done, they’d be back in the Champions League next year. Being top of the table right now aside, the best part about it is as you said - they’ve often looked really good this year.
They’ve had a handful of fortunate results, beating Leeds comes to mind, but for the most part, they’re winning matches because they should be winning. Arsenal are often the better team. The defense is really good, and the attack is doing enough. The Gunners are slightly outperforming their xG, so a small regression might be coming there. But the attack is still light years better than it was last season.
CFC: While it’s always a team effort, there’s that one player who is simply undroppable and is the most vital cog in the machine. Who is that for Arsenal so far?
TSF: Right now, that player is unquestionably Martin Ødegaard. He’s in a fantastic run of form. He makes Arsenal tick, along with Thomas Partey to a lesser extent. The two of them control the flow of the game, set the tempo, get the ball up the pitch, and spread it around. In 16 matches this season, Ødegaard has already matched his goal total from last year (7) and exceeded his assist total (4 last year, 5 now).
The understanding he’s formed with Bukayo Saka down the right side is fun to watch and cannot be fun to defend. Sidenote: imagine when Arsenal get someone like Ødegaard on the left side in the space currently occupied by Granit Xhaka to do the same thing with Gabriel Martinelli. Xhaka has been impressive this season and added attacking flair to his play, but he plays the left-side #8 because he’s best fit on the roster not because he’s an Ødegaard analog.
CFC: Joao Felix made his move to Chelsea (and promptly got sent off in his debut) after some flirtation on Arsenal’s end, though that could have been standard rumor mongering. With plenty of time in the January window, what do the Gunners need and do you think there’s any chance the club purchases someone?
TSF: Arsenal need at least one more attacking option and defensive midfield cover. It looks as if Arsenal are closing in on a big-money deal for 21-year old Ukrainian winger Mykhaylo Mudryk to address the former. Arsenal recently submitted a ~£62M offer to Shakhtar Donetsk, their third of the window. I think the Gunners will get that deal across the line before the close of the window.
I’m much less confident they’ll bring in defensive midfield cover, which is concerning given Thomas Partey’s lack of durability since moving to the Emirates. There is nobody on the Arsenal roster who can come close to replicating the things that he does. And let’s be clear, there aren’t many of those players in the world, period. Arsenal certainly aren’t going to bring in perfect cover for him, but it would be nice to have somebody else on the roster who can offer some kind of ball progression from that spot, because Mohamed Elneny, who I love as a squad player, doesn’t bring that at all.
A note on Arsenal’s transfers, generally: I don’t think Edu and MIkel Arteta are going to make any moves that deviate too far from the long-term plan they established when they took the reins at the club and have been diligently working towards over several windows now. I think the plan was always to buy Mudryk or somebody like him to add a wide attacking option. Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli cannot play every match, especially if Arsenal are in the Champions League. At most, the Gunners opting for that attacking reinforcement now as opposed to in the summer is them moving up an already planned transfer. It’s a recognition that with the injury to Gabriel Jesus and the title challenge, they need to do something to bolster the roster.
CFC: Switching to European competition, Arsenal are enjoying that “bye” week thanks to the new format of the Europa League. Besides the winner of Barcelona/Manchester United, who is the club you do not want to face in the Round of 16?
TSF: Questions like this always make me leery of jinxing things. Knockout football is a fickle beast. There are plenty of teams in the Europa League, probably all of them, who could get ‘ya if you have an off night. Arsenal are not deep. The quality drops off quickly once you get beyond the 13th or 14th guy on the roster, so midweek fixtures are tricky.
You can’t play the same lineup Sunday-Thursday-Sunday without risking fatigue and injury, so guys like Spurs cult hero Rob Holding, he of the magnificently, improbably restored hairline (Google the before and after, please) are going to play. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Gunners stumble to a shocking early exit from the Europa League. But if you’re going to force me to pick a club, I’ll go with Juventus. They beat the Gunners in a behind-closed-doors friendly a month ago and have plenty of quality.
CFC: There’s a ton of football left, but answer me this: Do you think Arsenal win the league?
TSF: No. Apologies for repeating myself, but the Arsenal roster is thin. At some point, that’s going to take a toll. There will be an injury to a key player (and pretty much every spot in the starting XI is a key player) and / or fatigue will lead to a drop in quality. We may also see a bit of a regression in scoring, which will turn one-goal wins into draws and draws into losses. When Manchester City is chasing you down and still has two matches against you, you essentially have zero margin for error. The slightest stumble / dip in form is all it takes.
538 has City at 51% to win the league, Arsenal at 41%. I guess that feels right. If Arsenal do manage to win the title, it will be as much because Pep Guardiola’s side can’t seem to shake out of the funk that they’re in right now and continue to be not quite the dominant side they’ve been in past seasons as anything else. The Gunners have been incredible this season. I don’t think they’ll keep it up all the way through May. So it’s going to take a commensurate wobble from Manchester City for Arsenal to do ‘da ‘ting.
CFC: How about a prediction for Sunday’s match?
TSF: I think Arsenal will win 2-1. The Gunners haven’t done the league double over Spurs since 2013, but Mikel Arteta’s side has surprised and exceeded expectations at nearly every turn this season. We keep waiting for the carriage to turn back into a pumpkin, and so far it hasn’t. It’s gotten to a point where it feels foolish to bet against them continuing to do what they’ve done all season, which is play well and win games.
I’m knocking on every piece of wood around me to be safe, but this Arsenal team is really good. If it seems as if I’m still trying to convince myself of that — I am. We’ve had so many false dawns with this club that I think I’ll always harbor a bit of trepidation that the bottom could fall out at any minute. I can hardly believe they’re having the season they are, and I don’t want it to end.
Y’all will get and convert a penalty though. I’d be surprised if I could get even odds from a book on that one. It always happens. If I had to pick a second most likely result, I’d go with 1-1 draw. There have been goals in the North London Derby of late, but those recent results are probably the exception not the norm.
We want to thank Aaron for stopping by as always. I sat down for a Q&A over on The Short Fuse to talk everything Spurs. Be sure to stop by and give it a read! We’ve always had a great relationship with TSF and we have no reason not to continue it.