Arsene Wenger could not have planned north London Derby week any better. Arsenal’s confidence is sky high, they are cruising towards qualification for the Champions League knockout round and the Frenchman has a chance to land a hammer blow on Tottenham Hotspur’s title hopes.
It is in sharp contrast to the mood at White Hart Lane, where Tottenham are suffering a crisis of confidence. They remain unbeaten in the Premier League but have slipped out of the top four because they have drawn half of their 10 games.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side have also made heavy work of their Champions League group and need a good result against Bayer Leverkusen at Wembley. Defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates (Sunday, 7 a.m. ET / 12 p.m. GMT) would have a huge psychological impact on a young team, who had hopes of changing the balance of power in north London.
That now looks an increasingly uphill task for Spurs. For more than a decade Wenger’s teams have been less than the sum of their parts but, in the opening weeks of this campaign, he has found a shape and balance that suits his squad.
Using Alexis Sanchez as a central striker has proved a masterstroke. The Chilean is a one-man high press and his movement and intelligence create space and chances for his teammates. Behind Sanchez, Mesut Ozil’s deployment in a more advanced role has increased the German’s effectiveness in danger areas.
Arsenal have a real spine down the centre of the pitch. Behind Sanchez and Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Granit Xhaka form a solid duo in the middle of the park, while Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny are further options.
Further back, Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi have developed the sort of centre-back pairing that Gunners fans have craved for years. Petr Cech remains one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League.
With Alex Iwobi and Theo Walcott playing with energy and verve and full-backs providing width and thrust, Arsenal look like the real thing. They will go into the derby relaxed and Wenger can afford to rest some of his front-line players against Ludogorets on Tuesday, slotting squad members into his template.
Spurs, by contrast, do not have the same luxury. Slipping up against Leverkusen would cast doubt over their ability to qualify for the Round of 16 but defeat by Arsenal would be even worse. Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea all have winnable home games at the weekend. If things do not go Tottenham’s way, Pochettino’s team could be five points off the top-four pace.
Whereas Arsenal have flair and structure, their neighbours are superbly organized but a little predictable in the opposition half, especially since the loss of Harry Kane to an ankle injury, which has made a huge difference to Tottenham’s threat.
The 23-year-old gives his side a different dimension in front of goal with his work rate, instinct and incisiveness. Without Kane, the Spurs front line looks like a blunt instrument. They have been easily foiled by teams that sit deep and use holding midfielders to shield the back four.
Kane is the difference between Tottenham picking up one point or three; their unbeaten run would have contained more wins and fewer draws had he remained healthy. The striker is likely to be back for the derby but Wenger will console himself that, even if Kane gets a run out against Leverkusen, he will lack match fitness.
On the plus side for Spurs is that Arsenal — like Manchester City, who they beat 2-0 recently — play a more open game than teams like Leicester, Bournemouth and West Brom, all of whom have held Pochettino’s men to draws in recent weeks. There will be more space for Dele Alli to run into at the Emirates, although Arsenal are stronger and more defensively-minded in central areas than they have been for a long time.
It feels from a Tottenham perspective that the derby has arrived at the wrong moment. Even a draw, which would be a sixth in 11 league games, would not be a great result. In other circumstances, taking a point at your biggest rivals’ ground would be a good day’s work but, given likely results elsewhere, Tottenham would probably be cast further adrift. They need to close the gap — or at least ensure it doesn’t increase — if they are to maintain title ambitions.
And so the pressure is all on Spurs who, once again, are playing catch up with Arsenal. That is the way Wenger likes it and he will take particular satisfaction in this being the case now because there was widespread preseason belief that Tottenham would be north London’s main title challengers.
Wenger can lay down a further marker in the title race on Sunday. There has never been a better time and place to do that than in a north London derby. Tottenham beware.
Ranieri’s champions show signs of improvement
It’s fair to say that Leicester City took their eye off the ball in the league matches before their first three Champions League fixtures, in which they warmed up for their European adventures by losing three times, conceding 11 goals and scoring just two.
On Saturday, it was a different Leicester — focused, determined – that earned a point against Tottenham at White Hart Lane. Some put the performance down to lingering ill feeling from last season’s title race but there is more to it than that.
The bad news for the rest of the Premier League is that Claudio Ranieri’s side look like last season’s battlers again. Three straight wins has given them confidence they can perform in continental competition and it is no longer a distraction.
Expect the defending champions to climb the Premier League table… at least until the knockout round comes around in the Spring when they may get preoccupied by Europe again.
Klopp won’t implode the way Keegan did
After Liverpool’s spectacular attacking performance and comedic defending in the 4-2 victory over Crystal Palace comparisons were drawn with Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United, who were dubbed “the entertainers” 20 years ago.
Newcastle finished second to Manchester United in 1995-96, a season in which Keegan went into a famous televised meltdown after Sir Alex Ferguson suggested that opponents tried harder against the Red Devils than against the St. James’ Park side.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp will wince at suggestions his team defends like that Newcastle team. And although the German is an emotional manager, you can be sure he will never fall apart on live TV the way Keegan did so memorably.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.