Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur are set to renew their long-standing rivalry at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, but that specific game hasn’t been a major competition in recent years. Spurs have not won a Premier League game at home to their closest opponents since November 2010, when manager Harry Redknapp staged a comeback from 2-0 to a 3-2 win, prompting colleague Arsene Wenger to throw a bottle of water in goal to slam the ground in disbelief.
It was such an iconic moment for Tottenham that it appeared in a video montage ahead of every home game at the old White Hart Lane. However, it’s also a moment without much competition lately, unrelated to league games at Arsenal, where they have since lost seven of their 11 games, conceding 27 goals.
There are undoubtedly questions Arsenal need to answer – more on that later – but that record points to a fragile Tottenham mentality that Antonio Conte is keen to change.
Since the start of the 2010/11 season, Spurs have won just nine of 61 away games in the league at Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea. They were beaten 37 times. Conte secured a notable win at City last season but this season their only visit to a traditional Big Six side came against Chelsea in August and they were lucky enough to defeat Stamford Bridge in a 2-2 draw to escape when Harry Kane equalized deep in stoppage time.
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The best thing about the third-placed Spurs right now is their points tally: 17 out of a possible 21. It is difficult to single out an achievement in which they have been instrumental throughout; Even with a six against Leicester City just before the international break, they needed a hat-trick from Son Heung-Min in the final 17 minutes to secure the points against a side rooted at the bottom of the table.
However, they’ve found a way to stay in games and mostly win – signs of a trend attributed to Conte’s increased demands and a deeper squad. They can make a real statement of growth in this area on Saturday by finding a way to beat an in-form Arsenal side who are top of the table by 18 points and it bodes well for Spurs that Son are showing further signs of a has shown personal revival – goals in both of South Korea’s games during the international break against Costa Rica and Cameroon – given the likely pattern of play.
Spurs have averaged 49.4% possession in their seven Premier League games to date, well below Arsenal’s 57.2%. At Chelsea in August, perhaps the closest test to Arsenal, Spurs had just 36.5% possession and a counterattack is very likely this weekend.
Before the teams met at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in May, Gunners boss Mikel Arteta relayed what he believed to be the key component of their tactical plan, as revealed in the Amazon documentary All or Nothing.
“We have to counter-press and put pressure on the ball as quickly as possible,” Arteta told his players during a training session. “They don’t handle the ball well with two passes, we can kill them because we’re 20 meters from goal. And that’s the game we have to play. It’s clear.”
It may have been clear but Arsenal subsequently went 3-0 and lost all momentum in the race for Champions League qualification, which Spurs won on the final day. It wasn’t counterattack moments, but Son’s direct style, so important for transitions, did the damage. Cedric Soares fouled Son as he charged into the box to fight for a header, allowing Kane to open the scoring. Then Rob Holding was sent off for two fouls committed while trying to contain Son. The second blocked his run as the forward attempted to connect with Eric Dier’s raking pass (not being pressed by Arsenal’s attacking players).
Holding was caught by the Amazon cameras lamenting the situation as he returned to the Arsenal dressing room, saying: “Never should have been one on one at all… one on one all the time.”
As Arsenal have signed more players in line with their philosophy, Arteta has sought greater control in games and the fact that Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli were not selected for Brazil and have therefore stayed at London Colney for the last 10 days, could be a significant benefit. Both players are key for the press and counter-press, Arteta describes, but they need to be more balanced than against Manchester United, who clinched a 3-1 win in Arsenal’s only defeat of the season earlier this month.
However, even at Old Trafford the Gunners controlled the game and could easily have gone on with the score at 1-1 before Marcus Rashford gave United the lead with a blitz counterattack. Arteta further unbalanced the team with the introduction of Emile Smith Rowe, Fabio Vieira and Eddie Nketiah looking for an equaliser, but it only created more space for United to attack and Rashford added a third.
Whether Spurs can be as efficient as United were that day is a key question for their big game mentality. Kane certainly has it, especially against this opponent: the England captain has scored 13 goals in 17 games against Arsenal. He has only scored against Leicester (20 goals in 19 games) and Everton (14 in 15.)
Conte might be tempted to adjust his 3-4-3 system to add an extra midfielder, not only given Arsenal’s numerical advantage but also lingering memories of the way Spurs played in that game last season in central areas were disemboweled. Nuno Espirito Santo – do you remember him? – sent Spurs wide with a central midfield from Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg behind Dele Alli and Tanguy Ndombele. Hojbjerg pulled back, Alli and Ndombele pressed on and the combination left a chasm in the middle of north London that Arsenal exploited ruthlessly. Spurs conceded three goals in the first 34 minutes and lost 3-1.
Given last season’s defeat, Arsenal are likely to be similarly aggressive this time around. However, Conte is likely to have more faith in Hojbjerg and Rodrigo Bentancur, with Kane dropping deeper if necessary to feed Son and Dejan Kulusevski. Richarlison’s recent form also makes him an interesting alternative, especially as Kulusevski is doubtful for the game with a hamstring problem.
North London derbies have been increasingly influenced by home advantage. The last away win in the league for both sides came when Tomas Rosicky gave Arsenal a 1-0 win in March 2014, although Spurs triumphed in an EFL Cup draw at the Emirates Stadium in December 2018. Both started well, but each side needs a statement win to bolster their credentials for the challenges ahead.
Such has been City and Liverpool’s dominance of late that games between Arsenal and Spurs have existed in the shadow of title challenges elsewhere. A comfortable win here would offer hope that one of those sides could soon come to light.
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