Match Preview: Tottenham v Arsenal; The Vermaelen Moment?
Since the trip to Liverpool in mid-January, our match previews have been exhorting Arsenal to stand and deliver. To stake a claim to the Premier League title.
It’s no revelation that they haven’t done so. Eight points from seven matches is the proof.
Now, the Gunners’ visit to the most threatening Tottenham side in half a century carries some major implications. Those include losing a third consecutive league match for only the fourth time in manager Arsène Wenger’s 20-year tenure, falling nine points behind leaders Leicester City with only nine matches to play, casting serious doubt on another St. Totteringham’s Day due to a six-point deficit, and raising the risk of finishing below the Champions League positions.
Given these massive stakes and the toothless performances produced by the team recently, the question arises—Does Wenger see this as another Vermaelen moment? A point in the season that necessitates a radical move?
You’ll recall that after a 2-1 defeat in the March 2013 North London Derby left Arsenal 10 points adrift of the rivals, Wenger benched club captain Thomas Vermaelan and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and rode the new central defensive partnership of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker to eight wins and two draws in the season’s final 10 matches. That run, during which the Gunners gave up just five goals, allowed them to pip Spurs for third place and that season’s last Champions League spot.
A similar shakeup seems needed to push this team to a strong finish. Even that might not be enough to grab the league title, but it could aid Arsenal’s efforts to win a third straight FA Cup and to quell a supporter revolt.
Wenger can consider several options. As was the case when midfielders Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin were injured in the fall, the manager could change the formation and work different personnel into the mix.
Because the midfield hasn’t seemed coherent in Cazorla’s absence and because Tottenham may be the best English team at exploiting that particular weakness, Wenger could switch to a 4-3-3 with Coquelin, Aaron Ramsey, and Mohammed Elneny offering physicality, energy, and better flow in the midfield. An even more extreme solution, explored by Dave Seagar in “The New Formation to Best Use Our Fit Players, Re-energize Alexis, and Beat Spurs,” would be a 4-3-1-2 with the midfield just described and the striker pairing of Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez.
That such overhauls seem like reasonable responses shows the extent of Arsenal’s struggles.
There’s also the option of adjusting the personnel within the current framework. This is the choice Wenger made after the Coquelin and Cazorla injuries, an approach that proved neither optimal nor fatal through November and December.
With the players available now, a similar lineup adjustment seems less problematic. Elneny could come into the midfield beside Coquelin in the 4-2-3-1, helping to break pressure with his canny movement and clean passing. Ramsey could move forward and right, whence he served the midfield and attack well in the fall. Indeed, that deployment, with Olivier Giroud or Danny Welbeck as the lone striker, looks closest to the one that appeared so strong in October.
It would be a bit harsh for Joel Campbell, who was Arsenal’s brightest player in the midweek loss to Swansea, but he’ll see action either Saturday or Tuesday in the FA Cup replay at Hull City.
Whichever selections Wenger makes, his charges will face a stern test. Tottenham are energetic, physical, and well-drilled. They too lost on Wednesday, but that was a dip in an otherwise impressive run of results. They might be susceptible to being pressed themselves and have shown some weakness defending set pieces—cue Mesut Özil and Danny Welbeck on the latter. Otherwise, they seem designed to overwhelm Arsenal in its current state.
And yet, these matches aren’t played in theory, on keyboards, or on lifelike video games. As long as that’s the case, possibilities abound until the final whistle blows.
Francis Coquelin against Delli Alli. As Adrian Clarke observed on the club’s weekly podcast, the confrontation of the teams’ energetic youngsters may determine the shape of the match. Alli is the trigger of the Spurs press whose quickness forces opposition midfielders into hasty decisions. He latches onto turnovers and launches Tottenham’s attack.
Coquelin will certainly need technical assistance breaking that Alli-led line of pressure, but he should have no problem in the physical battle. The Frenchman gives as good as he gets and has shown signs of strengthening form against Manchester United and Swansea.
Where to Worry
Honestly, the signs from Arsenal’s recent performances are not encouraging. Goals have been lacking, the midfield has been disjointed going forward and retreating, experienced defenders have made poor decisions. The savior, goalkeeper Petr Cech, has come up lame, so David Ospina will have to keep Spurs out.
Spurs apply an uncomfortable amount of pressure for 70 minutes and hope that pays off in a lead that they can ride the final 20 minutes. Arsenal go back to basics, show some professional pride, and produce a disciplined performance. The match turns on a set piece or the referee’s decision.
Players to Watch
Arsenal. Danny Welbeck. He starts on the right or leads the line. His speed, physicality, desire to make up for lost time, and growing confidence in front of goal could make the day extremely difficult for Tottenham’s defenders, who, though organized, can’t match Welbeck’s athleticism.
Manchester United. Christian Eriksen. The Dane creates from the flanks for Spurs and is a crafty deliverer of set pieces. Arsenal’s midfielders need to track his movements, and defenders can’t give away silly free kicks to him.
Injuries and Suspensions
Arsenal: Cech (calf), Arteta (calf), Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee), Wilshere (leg), Cazorla (knee), Rosicky (thigh), Koscielny (Achilles)
Tottenham: Vertonghen (knee), N’Jie (knee)
Referee: Michael Oliver (17M, 61Y, 3R)
Assistant referees: M Mullarkey, S Child
Fourth official: R East
UK: BT Sport, 1245 GMT
US: NBCSN and NBC Live Extra, 7:45 AM EST
Tottenham 1-1 Arsenal
The Manager’s Take (Courtesy Arsenal.com)
It is a big game and an important one. We prepare for every single game with the same intensity, the same focus and there are not a lot of special things to do. Maybe the impact and consequences on the table [are more significant] but the preparation is the same.
I had a few [very competitive derbies] and it is very difficult to predict what will happen on Saturday. Maybe it is one of the few where the title race is at stake, maybe the only one since I have been here.
We now have to do 98 per cent of things right and then add the two per cent of things that are down. Then we can rediscover our collective qualities and put even more effort in.
The fans will be behind us, I don’t worry about that. The fans away from home are always behind us and it is down to us to give them more belief and get more vocal by playing a quality game.
Match Facts (Courtesy FourFourTwo)
- Harry Kane has scored three goals in two Barclays Premier League appearances against Arsenal.
- Tottenham have lost just one of their last seven Premier League games against the Gunners at White Hart Lane (W4 D2 L1).
- Arsenal have scored exactly one goal in each of their last six Premier League games against Spurs and each of the last four trips to White Hart Lane.
- The Arsenal v Spurs fixture is the most common in Premier League history to see the team scoring first not going on to win (14 draws and eight comeback wins).
- Arsenal have taken the most points from the head to heads between this season’s top four (10), while Spurs have eight.
- Arsenal haven’t won twice at White Hart Lane in the same season (all comps) since 1986-87 (three wins there).
- Arsenal have scored in 41 of their last 42 meetings with Tottenham Hotspur in all competitions.
- Tottenham striker Harry Kane has scored 13 goals in 17 Premier League London derbies.
- Arsenal have won just two of their last eight Premier league away games (W2 D3 L3).
- Arsenal haven’t lost four successive games in all competitions since October 2002.