When the final whistle blows in Saturday’s North London Derby away to Tottenham (well, at Wembley), Arsenal could be just a point behind Spurs in the table. They could also fall seven points (read: three results) adrift. A win blows the race for third place wide open, a loss probably means Arsenal are fighting only for fourth. Last I checked, being one of four teams competing for two Champions League spots is much better than being one of three teams competing for one Champions League spot. As if the Gunners needed more reasons to want to pulverize Spurs.
Right now, Arsenal and Tottenham are teams headed in different directions. Arsenal have won their last three in the Premier League. Tottenham have lost their last two. Arsenal are coming off a 5-1 drubbing of an admittedly poor Bournemouth side. Tottenham are coming off a listless 2-0 defeat at Chelsea. From a form perspective, this is about as good of a time as Arsenal could have hoped for to catch Spurs.
Tottenham will be without Dele Alli, who has been sidelined since January with a hamstring injury and Eric Dier, who has tonsillitis. Jan Vertonghen may also miss out with a hip injury, although manager Mauricio Pochettino is hopeful he will be available. Arsenal seem to be out of the injury crisis woods - both Laurent Koscielny and Stephan Lichtsteiner, the only players carrying short-term injuries, were full participants in training.
But history is not on the Gunners’ side. Yes, Arsenal won 4-2 when the clubs met at the Emirates in December, but they have not beaten Tottenham twice in the same Premier League season since 2007. Arsenal haven’t beaten Spurs away since 2014. And Tottenham have that Harry Kane guy who has scored 8 times in just 13 matches against Arsenal.
For me, Arsenal’s most important task on Saturday will be limiting Spurs’ opportunities on the break. Heung-min Son, and to a lesser extent Harry Kane, gave the Gunners fits in transition earlier this season. But if you take those chances out of the equation, how much damage can a midfield of Victor Wanyama, Moussa Sissoko, and Christian Eriksen do? Without Dele Alli to drive at defenders and create imbalances, I like Arsenal’s chances to limit opportunities from slow build-up play. Yes, Eriksen is a great player to be sure, but Spurs will be overly reliant on his creativity in their attack, and the Gunners can take advantage of that.
Basically, I think Arsenal should say, “Alright, Eriksen isn’t going to beat us. We’re going to deny him the ball and mark him out of the match. Let’s see what the other guys can do, and if they beat us, so be it.”
The big question is who will start for the Gunners. Both Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan dazzled against Bournemouth, but Unai Emery has been hesitant to use the German in big matches. I would say Mkhitaryan was a lock to start, but Aaron Ramsey did not feature at all at the midweek, which suggests that he is likely to start on Saturday. Given that Emery will almost certainly pair Lucas Torreira with Granit Xhaka at the base of the Arsenal midfield, Ramsey will probably supplant the Armenian on the right side. Alex Iwobi is the probable starter on the left side, although Sead Kolasinac could be pushed into that more advanced role depending on the formation.
WHAT: Arsenal at Tottenham
WHEN: Saturday, March 2nd, 4:30 AM PT | 7:30 AM ET | 12:30 PM BT
US TV: NBC Sports. Stream here.
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