Like any proud parent, Thierry Henry can’t possibly choose a favorite from among the 228 goals he scored while playing for Arsenal. But I can. So two years ago, when I had the opportunity to interview the greatest player in Arsenal history, I asked him a question so leading that you can find it on Google Maps.
“Do you have a favorite goal against your fiercest rivals like, say, the one that’s been immortalized with a bronze statue outside the Emirates?”
I was referring, of course, to his 2002 golazo against Spurs in which he picked up the ball in Arsenal’s half and Maradona’d through four Tottenham defenders before curling a left-footed shot into the bottom corner.
“That was a good one,” Henry said in his typically understated way. “It’s probably in my top five.” Then he smiled impishly. “I still get great joy looking at the picture of my celebration.”
In the photo, Henry has just finished running the length of the pitch to slide on his knees directly in front of the away end at Highbury. With his fists balled up and his face a mask of triumph and defiance, he strikes an almost messianic pose, gazing up into the sea of faces contorted in anger, disappointment or just plain bewilderment at what they had just witnessed. I had that picture blown up to a 20-feet-by-24-feet to put above my bed.
“One of the things I’m proudest of is having never lost to Tottenham in my career,” Henry added, as I furtively wiped away a tear.
Fourteen years later, the memory still resonates as hostilities between the good (red) and bad (white) sides crank up ahead of this season’s first North London Derby at the Emirates on Sunday. Over the years, I’ve made countless sacrifices to witness this blood feud. In 2004, I missed my daughter’s school dance recital to risk my life attending the insane 5-4 thriller at White Hart Lane; four years ago, I cut short a family vacation in the Caribbean to revel in Arsenal’s 5-2 evisceration of Spurs at the Emirates. But I don’t know I’ve ever faced a test of devotion greater than I will this weekend.
You see, I recently relocated to the West Coast but arrived ahead of my TV, which had apparently been shipped by Pony Express. That means that in order to watch the match live, I need to drive to the only soccer bar open within a 30-mile radius. Did I mention that kickoff is at 4 a.m. local time? Then again, what’s a few hours of beauty sleep compared to a chance to luxuriate in a warm bath of Tottenham schadenfreude?
Of course, Arsenal first have to win, and that may not be as easy as it looks on paper. The Gunners are in daunting form, having not lost in 15 games in all competitions, including an inspired midweek Champions League fight back from two goals down to defeat Ludogorets 3-2 and qualify for the last 16.
At the same time, Spurs are a team in seeming decline. No wins and only three goals scored in their last six matches, a manager calling out his players “to look in the mirror” and their fans booing them off the Wembley pitch after a dismal Champions League performance against Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday which kept them mired in last place of their group. Oh yeah, and they’ve only won once at the Emirates: a Gareth Bale-fueled 3-2 victory back in November 2010.
It feels like the perfect lead-in to a North London derby thrashing. But then you look at the Premier League table and you see that Tottenham is unbeaten, only three points from the Arsenal flagged summit. And you remember that it was only a little more than a month ago when Spurs were the toast of English football after pressing Man City off the park in a display of such furious intensity that Pep Guardiola would be forgiven for wondering who had slipped the Real Madrid team into the Lane?
So which Spurs side will turn up on Sunday: the ponderous and predictable one that appears out of their depth in the Champions League or the swarming, in-your-face bunch that didn’t give up a single goal in the Premier League through 10 matches?
“We are in a bad moment, and we need to be critical and honest,” conceded Mauricio Pochettino after the 1-0 horror show against Leverkusen. “The problem is not the attitude; it was that we did not show our quality. We are much better than we played today.”
The last 55 years of history shows that Poch is horribly wrong, but you have to admire the Argentine’s unfounded optimism.
And that is what worries me. Form is basically irrelevant when it comes to the NLD. The matches tend to be taut, spiteful, strain-every-sinew affairs in which adrenaline often trumps skill.
“Derby games are either completely locked or completely crazy,” Arsene Wenger said after that 5-4 classic. “Today we got the crazy version.”
It is doubtful that we’ll get a game as ridiculously open on Sunday as that wild ride 12 years ago, but the scoreboard operator could be busy if either of the team’s goal machines is firing on all pistons. For Spurs, that means the long-awaited return of Harry Kane, the 23-year-old England striker whom Arsenal released as a youngster and who has come back to torment the Gunners with four goals in his last three NLD appearances.
Kane has been out for the past six weeks with an ankle injury, which pretty much explains why Spurs have gone from full-throttle attacking to looking toothless going forward. Wenger, however, offered one of his trademark Gallic shrugs when asked by the English press if the prospect of Kane’s return was a concern.
“I believe the mastery on our side will mean that no matter who they play, we are strong enough to win the game,” he said with the confidence of someone who has a rampaging Mesut Ozil on his side.
Arsenal’s creator-in-chief turned cold-eyed marksman this season outdid his Ozil-ish self against Ludogorets with a goal so outrageous you could almost hear the jaws of the Bulgarian club’s defenders thudding to the ground as the German coolly executed his piece of game-winning genius. How many players would have the composure and skill to delicately lift the ball over the head of the onrushing keeper and then toy with two desperately retreating defenders by by shaking and baking across the box until they went skidding to the floor, allowing him to stroke the ball into the empty net? You’d be hard pressed to name anyone beyond Lionel Messi.
Of course, Arsenal should never have been in a position where they needed a wonder goal to bail them out. As much as the Gunners have tightened up defensively with the addition of the German international Shkodran Mustafi, they are still given to lapses in concentration at the back.
The dilemma facing Wenger is one he hasn’t had for several years: who among his plethora of talented midfielders does he anoint to protect his defense against a relentlessly harrying Tottenham side that excels at squeezing space and time on the ball?
Wenger was hoping to have Santi Cazorla back for Spurs, but the pint-sized Spaniard, whose quicksilver ability to turn defense into attack is so critical to Arsenal’s fluidity, has been struggling with an Achilles problem. The most natural replacement would seem to be the Swiss hard man Granit Xhaka, who in addition to providing bite to the midfield, possesses a wide range of passing and is not shy about unleashing the occasional howitzer from distance. But the 24-year-old has also shown himself to be the latest red card incarnation of Emmanuel Frimpong — Xhaka has been dismissed eight times for club and country since April 2014 — and Arsenal can’t afford to lose a player like they did for the final 36 minutes of the most recent NLD after Francis Coquelin was sent off.
That game, which ended in a 2-2 draw, was notable for Spurs scoring twice on the 10-man Gunners in two mind-bending minutes with the second goal, a sick curler into the far corner from Kane, igniting the kind of euphoric scenes at the Lane that hadn’t been seen in a long time.
All things being equal, which they rarely are when these teams meet, I think I prefer Henry’s celebration 14 years ago.
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.