Let’s cut right to the chase. The North London Derby is always a big match but this one is even bigger. Spurs are going to finish above Arsenal for the first time in over 20 years, and, if they can show they are truly superior to their neighbors in red with a win in this match, they will be able to legitimately continue their battle for the league title with Chelsea. Moreover, they will also put a massive dent in Arsenal’s hopes for another go round in the Champions League next season. Simply put, Spurs winning this match would leave no doubt which team in North London is on the up and which one is faltering.
On the other hand, if Arsenal could take all three points in the final derby at White Hart Lane, it would be a massive boost in our battle for the top-4 while likely ending Spurs title hopes. While the mathematics suggest we cannot catch them in the table, we would be poised to see this season as a mere blip in our long-standing dominance over our arch-rivals, with the promise of a return to regular service next season. After all, Spurs will be playing their home matches at Wembley while their new stadium is under construction. That, plus their Champion League burdens, will make life much harder for them next year. An Arsenal victory in this derby could–quite easily and very definitively–mark the high point of Spurs football and the beginning of their downward slide.
It’s easier said than done, of course. They say that form goes out the window in the derby. Let’s hope so. Spurs have won eight league matches on the trot, scoring 23 goals to their opponents’ four, while keeping five clean sheets along the way. We have to look all the way back to 11 February to find their most recent league loss, a 2-nil at Liverpool. A week ago, however, they also lost to their title rivals, Chelsea, in the semi-finals of the FA Cup at the stadium that will be their temporary home. The bigger teams may be more difficult for them, but we shouldn’t pretend that this Spurs team isn’t extremely well oiled and running on full power.
Arsenal won the other semi-final at Wembley over Manchester City even if it took extra time to do so. That was the 2nd match in which manager Arsene Wenger deployed his new 3-4-3 formation. It wasn’t a glorious Arsenal performance by any stretch of the imagination, but it yielded the correct result. The two league matches that also featured the new formation, at Middlesbrough and home to Leicester, found Arsenal similarly stodgy in attack but also able to eke out the wins.
In my view, the added emphasis on defending has likely come with this match circled on the fixture list. Keeping Spurs’ attack under wraps has to be job one, but it is closely followed by refusing to concede at set pieces and avoiding getting caught out on the counterattack. In the three matches played with the new formation, Arsenal have conceded a pair of goals, both scored when we’ve pushed the ball well forward, turned it over and then failed to defend adequately as the other team broke on the counter. It’s a trap we cannot afford to fall into at White Hart Lane.
As such, I picture a relatively cagey match despite the intensity of the derby atmosphere. I also believe that Wenger will put out the same 11 he used at Boro and Wembley, having rested a few key players in the midweek home win over Leicester. My predicted first 11 looks like this:
Substitutes: Martinez, Gibbs, Bellerin, Coquelin, Iwobi, Walcott, Welbeck
Of course, there could be some tweaking of the line-up. Danny Welbeck offers less of a target for high balls but more movement up front than Olivier Giroud. Theo Walcott started instead of Giroud in midweek and forced a save from Leicester’s keeper, one of the very few shots we put on target. Might he go again?
Hector Bellerin, Kieran Gibbs and Francis Coquelin also started on Wednesday night. Of the three, I thought Bellerin looked the most effective and the young Spaniard might have to go again if Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain isn’t recovered from the knock that saw him leave Wembley on crutches just a week ago. Laurent Koscielny, after he hyper-extended his knee late on vs Leicester, is also an injury doubt. Wenger suggested that Lolo had a 60-40 chance to play. My hunch is that he will be there to anchor the rearguard.
There’s also the chance that Wenger will jettison the new formation completely, perhaps to spring a surprise on Tottenham. Spurs Manager Mauricio Pochettino has also been switching between three and four at the back and there could be an element of one manager trying to out-guess the other. I don’t see it happening, but other observers may have different ideas. What do you think?
Regardless of the playing personnel and the formation in which they’re set out, Arsenal will need to master the cauldron-like atmosphere that this final derby at White Hart Lane promises. Spurs and their supporters will believe that this is their chance to make a definitive statement against their rivals from the other end of the Seven Sisters Road. The Gunners–and Gooners–need to believe the obverse and make it happen. The opportunity is there, and, as Wenger says, “We have one advantage, the advantage of clarity.” Clearly we need a result from this one and getting one against our arch rivals in the final derby at White Hart Lane would be all the sweeter.
Go on then…