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Know Your Opponent: Arsenal

Let’s get a sense of how the opposition are feeling ahead of this season’s first North London Derby

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

It’s almost time for the first real litmus test of Ange Postecoglou’s Spurs: a North London Derby match away at the Emirates. Both sides sit on 13 points with five matches played, and like most Spurs fans, I’m anticipating this match with mixed feelings: hope, from the positivity we’ve seen from Tottenham Hotspur thus far this season; and dread, from our awful record at the Emirates and the fact we’re playing probably our first decent opponent.

Joining us for Know Your Opponent is our usual guest from The Short Fuse, managing editor Aaron Lerner. We talked about the transfer window, their struggles so far this season, and whether they have any hope for a Premier League title.

CFC: With the transfer window having come to a close less than a month ago, a number of failed transfers from Chelsea to Arsenal of days gone by come to mind: Willian, David Luiz, & Lassana Diarra. Is Kai Havertz the worst of these?

TSF: Geez, just getting right into it, are we? First off, I’d take issue with your describing David Luiz as a “failed” Chelsea to Arsenal transfer. Luiz was mostly fine for Arsenal. The perception of his time at the club is unfairly colored by a few too many standout terrible moments. He was a sufficient stopgap that bridged the gap between whatever it was Unai Emery was trying to do at Arsenal and Mikel Arteta putting his system in place.

But that’s besides the point. The very fact that you’re asking the question about Kai Havertz shows that the media and pundit class are controlling the narrative. And it’s a lazy one that betrays a lack of watching Arsenal with a critical eye. Havertz has been fine. He had one mediocre to poor match, a handful of fine to good ones, and was excellent against Manchester City in the Community Shield and PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League.

It’s all a matter of perspective. Kai Havertz was meant to be the replacement for Granit Xhaka. He’s been significantly better than Xhaka was, and I think that Xhaka’s surprising attacking contribution last season has put a rose-tinted gloss on his performances for Arsenal. Havertz has already exceeded Xhaka’s contributions in everything save goal involvement. Of course, that’s important for an attacking player, but it’s an imperfect and overemphasized measuring stick.

The goals and assists will come, especially once Havertz’s teammates start picking out his runs. His movement is excellent, but thus far, Arsenal have struggled to find him, even when he’s been available to receive a killer pass. He’s excellent in the air, which is something that Arsenal desperately lacked last season on attack, and it provides an important outlet / target for when the team needs to go Route 1 up the pitch. He’s a physical presence in the midfield, strong in tackles, and not afraid to bang bodies, all of which helps Arsenal win the ball back in the attacking and middle third.

CFC: Speaking of transfers, David Raya was one player linked with Tottenham who ended up wearing red. He’s now started the last two matches over Aaron Ramsdale, and many media outlets are blowing up the idea that the Englishman is perhaps disgruntled by his treatment. Is there trouble in paradise, or is this just standard squad rotation?

TSF: I don’t think it’s either, actually. The suspicion is that David Raya is now the number one keeper at Arsenal. Who starts on Sunday will shed more light on whether Raya has taken Aaron Ramsdale’s place or if Mikel Arteta is rotating his 1A and 1B options. Arteta has consistently said he wants competition at every position in his squad. He’s got that at goalkeeper now, too.

There were rumors before and during the international break that Raya was set to get an extended look in goal for Arsenal, so this could also be that. Mikel Arteta recently said that one of his regrets was not having the confidence to change keepers in matches as a tactical / motivational ploy. So honestly, who knows what he’s doing.

Last season, Raya was better than Ramsdale. The statistics bear that out pretty clearly. Raya saved almost six more goals than expected. Ramsdale conceded one more than expected. Raya is slightly better at claiming balls in the air and significantly better at distributing the ball.

As for Ramsdale’s attitude in all this, your guess is as good as mine. I tend to stay away from trying to read body language because that always leads to imposing our own biases and seeing things that aren’t necessarily there but match whatever our predetermined narrative might be. Ramsdale has always had a fantastic, positive attitude. Until I get concrete evidence otherwise, I’m going to assume he’s bringing that same attitude to the current goalkeeper situation at Arsenal.

CFC: Though points seem to have flowed reasonably freely for Arsenal this season, to this “anti-fan’s” eye their play thus far appears to have been marred by a lack of fluidity; are fans concerned, and does the 4-0 thumping of PSV Eindhoven in midweek signal that any such concerns are misplaced?

TSF: There has definitely been concern about Arsenal’s play among segments of the support to start the season. You’re right, it has lacked the fluidity it had last season. It hasn’t looked or felt quite right to me. Arsenal haven’t been the dominant side they were before the World Cup break.

That “before the World Cup break” portion is important. To start last season, Arsenal had a fully fit and in form Gabriel Jesus. He transforms the attack. Whether it’s dropping deep to link up the play, drifting wide to overload fullbacks with combination passing, or his mazy, slashing dribbling into the box, the Gunners are a different side with him leading the line.

He wasn’t right when he came back down the stretch last season, and you could tell. They didn’t have him to start the season, and it showed. He’s back. And his presence is a big reason that Arsenal looked so dominant against PSV Eindhoven. We’ll circle back to dismantling PSV in a minute.

CFC: Spurs have had a number of players surprise the fans by really stepping up so far this season. Which player on the Arsenal squad has perhaps taken an unexpected leap and caught the eye?

TSF: Declan Rice has stood out. It’s not so much of an unexpected leap because he wasn’t with the club last season so we’ve not got much of a basis for comparison. It’s more that I’m not sure any of us realized how good he truly is. Everyone sorta knew that he’s really good - the media acclaim and the price tag says as much.

He’s an incredible footballer, the complete package. And he’s getting better right before our eyes. He’s already added the vertical, line-breaking entry pass to Martin Ødegaard to his repertoire. I expect him to get even better on the ball as he gets more comfortable in Arsenal’s setup and Mikel Arteta asks him to do more.

Fabio Vieira seems to have taken a significant step forward and should play a much larger role this season. Last year was a bit of a lost one for him. A foot injury on international duty at the start of the summer forced him to miss the entirety of preseason, which put him behind the eight ball for the first half of the season, disrupted his preparation for the campaign, and slowed his transition into the side. He showed flashes of tremendous skill but his performances were inconsistent. He struggled with the pace and physicality of the Premier League. He looks to have sped up his decision-making and has gained confidence. He’s a creative passer, a skilled dribbler, and an excellent ball-striker. That should translate into more Premier League goal contributions this season.

Leandro Trossard has picked up where he left off last season - banging in goals and adding assists. He’s second choice behind Gabriel Martinelli but the Brazilian picked up a hamstring injury against Everton and will miss some time. The Gunners shouldn’t miss a beat with Trossard filling in. The Belgian isn’t a pace merchant in the same way as Martinelli, but he’s better with the ball at his feet in tight spaces.

CFC: If you had to take one current Spurs player and put them in your starting XI, who would it be, and why?

TSF: I’m going to take the easy way out and say Son Heung-Min. It’s a particularly obvious answer with Martinelli currently injured. Son is a world-class talent, and it seems that his offseason surgery remedied whatever muscle problems slowed him down last year.

CFC: If Spurs are to come away with points at the Emirates this weekend, what has to happen for that to occur? Where are the weak points and the areas in which Arsenal might struggle?

TSF: For Spurs to come away with points in the North London Derby, they’re going to have to change the way they’ve been playing this season. From what I’ve watched, Spurs have played an open, attacking style of football that would be enjoyable to watch were I capable of enjoying anything positive your club does.

That will get them spanked at the Emirates. PSV tried to play their usual, possession based, attacking style of football in midweek, and the Gunners smashed them. If Spurs try to go toe-to-toe with Arsenal, it will be a shootout and Arsenal are the more likely to win. The Gunners have a better goalkeeper, a better defense (on goals against last season and on expected goals against this season), a better midfield, and about as good of an attack, especially with Gabriel Jesus back. Of course some of that goes out the window in a derby, crazy things can happen. But Arsenal are the home side and are quite good at the Emirates.

The Gunners have struggled when teams have played sufferball against them. Part of the reason Arsenal haven’t looked as fluid this year is they’ve consistently faced 10 and 11 men behind the ball, all defending within 30 to 35 yards of their goal. Breaking down a low block like that is difficult, even for the best sides. Can Tottenham play like that? Will Ange Postecoglou be pragmatic? You’d know better than I would. And even if they do set up like that, (I keep coming back to this) Gabriel Jesus is a difference-maker. He helps Arsenal break down low blocks in a way that Eddie Nketiah doesn’t.

Arsenal have been quite good this season at stymying opponents by dominating possession and stifling attacks in the middle third before they have a chance to get going. If Tottenham can find a way through the middle third (or skip it entirely by playing the ball long into the channel for their wingers to chase), they might find some joy. The way the Gunners squeeze forward often leaves the two centerbacks one-v-one and that puts pressure on them to win those battles.

The Gunners can also be their own undoing. Down the stretch last season and to start this year, although not as much against Manchester United and Everton, Arsenal have made simple mistakes that have gifted the opposing team chances - misplaced passes, players inexplicably stepping out of position and the like. If Spurs are patient, they may be able to take advantage of an Arsenal mistake.

CFC: Us Spurs fans are of course used to crushing disappointment; Arsenal fans got their first decent taste in some time when the Gunners fell away last season. In what new and exciting ways do you think the Arsenal squad will find a way to let you down this time around?

TSF: It’s all a matter of perspective and expectations, isn’t it? Arsenal didn’t let me down last season because I didn’t expect them to win the league. I certainly didn’t expect them to challenge for the title at the start of last season. Mikel Arteta said himself that the club were ahead of schedule. Last year was for Arsenal to get back into the Champions League. They did that.

The title challenge was found money. I enjoyed the ride even if the ending didn’t go our way. Even though I hoped Arsenal would find a way to hold off Manchester City, the realist in me recognized that it was unlikely to happen. The injuries to Gabriel Jesus, William Saliba, Oleksandr Zinchenko, and Thomas Partey were too much to overcome.

For Arsenal to let me down this year, they’d have to crash out of the Champions League early, finish outside the top four, and be out of the title race by, say, March. Statistically, none of those things are likely to happen.

Depending on where you look, Arsenal have a better chance of winning the CL than the PL. According to Opta, they’ve got the third best chance at winning the Champions League. I’d like to see them make a run to at least the semifinals and failing to make the quarterfinals would be a letdown.

Manchester City are Premier League (and Champions League) title favorites. They were last year, and they will be for the foreseeable future. The Premier League, in particular, is theirs to lose. The best Arsenal or Tottenham or anybody else can do is position themselves as best they can to take advantage in case City somehow slip. As Liverpool have discovered, you can have a historically good season and still come up short of the Manchester City juggernaut.

I expect Arsenal to take a half step back in the Premier League this season, actually. Midweek Champions League matches add minutes to the top players at the club that they didn’t have last season in the Europa League. While people make too much about the need to rotate and rest players (if you look at Manchester City and the other top clubs, their best players play 50-60 matches a season), it’s Arsenal’s first season having to do that. There will be a learning curve as their stars figure out how to give just enough effort to get the results they need while keeping energy in the tank.

CFC: Lastly, what’s your prediction on the scoreline this weekend?

TSF: 3-1 to Arsenal. Spurs have been strong this season, but I think they’ve caught Arsenal at a bad time. The Gunners seem to be finding their form, and the home crowd should help buoy them to the victory.

Thanks to Aaron for getting in touch to chat and putting up with my very pointed questions. I answered several of his questions about everything Spurs over at The Short Fuse as well, so be sure to check it out!