Prepare thy pants

Tim Stillman 2012-13

It’s difficult to imagine that there’s been a more keenly awaited North London derby since April 2004. From the neutral perspective, the ingredients for a spellbinding game froth tantalisingly in the cauldron. These are two teams that couldn’t do cagey if they were in a cage fight with Nicholas Cage. For the average Arsenal or Spurs fan, the whole 90 minutes is going to be like a bread knife twisting in the guts.

This is a derby that goes beyond the rolling green hills (ahem) of Haringey and Islington; it’s a top 4 turf war. Generally speaking I’m a placid sort. I consider myself a bit long in the tooth to feel tense about most games and I try – often in vain – to maintain perspective even inside the ground when emotions are high. But playing Spurs at White Hart Lane brings out the worst in me as a fan.

I don’t mean in a punchy, skull splitting kind of way. (There are more than enough wide eyed Neanderthals that await Arsenal fans on the Park Lane looking to indulge that dark art). But emotionally, I become very negative. Because the occasion is so highly charged and the thought of defeat is so unpalatable, I do lose perspective. Every misplaced pass feels like I’ve bet my mortgage and lost. I always think we’re playing terribly and that every Arsenal player is ripe for half time substitution.

Being inside White Hart Lane as an Arsenal fan is an experience like no other. Shoe horned into the Southwest corner of the ground; you feel 33,000 sets of hating eyes staring at you. They are able to focus their ire on a small penned in corner of Gooners and one can almost see a blue fug in the air tumbling towards you. It’s at once exhilarating and nauseating all at the same time.

Out of self-preservation – both psychological and physical – I’d nearly always take a draw at White Hart Lane. I go to so much football simply because I enjoy it. Spurs away is the one game I enjoy almost nothing about in any true sense of the word. Trying to observe a facial expression at total odds with the result on the Seven Sisters Road after the game offers one of the more interesting challenges of the season too. Another reason that the draw tends to work for security reasons.

The players won’t quite have to face down a red carpet of snarling, spitting, lumpen headed goons on the lookout for a bit of the old ultra-violence when they egress Middlesex on Sunday evening. But they too will need a survival strategy if they are to escape unscathed. Gareth Bale is plundering into a rich vein of form that makes him one of England’s most revered attackers. It’s pant filling stuff given Arsenal’s devil may care approach to protecting their back four.

Such is the level of trepidation is such that many Arsenal fans have discussed the prospect of man marking him. I wouldn’t go that far myself. For a start, Villas Boas has deployed a very fluid front 4, with Holtby, Lennon and Bale drifting around behind Adebayor. To man mark Bale would make our setup too askew and ripe for exploitation by other players in the Spurs attack that have license to roam.

However, this isn’t the Arsenal of 2004. We no longer have the quality to roll up at every away ground and simply swot opponents to one side with the quality of our own game. How Arsenal line-up will be fascinating. On one hand, Wenger has opted for a lopsided formation in tougher games since the turn of the year. With Cazorla and Walcott starting from wide but drifting in field to cause havoc.

That system has defensive advantages because it effectively gives us four central midfielders to monopolise possession. It also means Arteta, “the sitter” has defensive reinforcement alongside him, with either Diaby or Ramsey deployed as “the harrier.” This would help counter Tottenham’s triangle of attackers. It also has an offensive use. Teams have used their number 10’s to man mark Arteta this season because he is the instigator of so much of our play, our umbilical cord if you will.

Aston Villa deployed Charles N’Zogbia to ‘sit’ on Arteta and cut off his forward options. This is why Mertesacker to Arteta has been such a dizzyingly regular passing combination of late. It’s not conservatism on Arteta’s part as some have suggested. Teams are wise to his role as the catalyst of our attacks and consciously cut off his options. You’ll notice very few centre forwards harry Arsenal’s centre backs in possession; all of their preventative work is channelled into Arteta.  Having Ramsey a touch closer to him as an ally might be an idea.

Gary Neville wrote recently that Cristiano Ronaldo’s great strength was to identify the weak link in any defence and fasten himself to it. Bale does much the same. The issue with playing the lopsided four man midfield is that it’s very narrow and potentially allows Bale to isolate himself against Carl Jenkinson, who wouldn’t have a dedicated wide player for assistance. There’s a real balancing act for the manager to negotiate between nullifying Spurs and accentuating our own attacking game.

He will not want to instil fear into his team by making an obsession of Tottenham’s strengths. But there again, prior to our first meeting with Stoke City in the Premier League era, Wenger urged much the same caution with regards to Rory Delap’s long throws. We all know how well that worked out.

Spurs are a team that are ideally set up for the counter attack. In fact, earlier in the season they suffered at White Hart Lane and flourished away from home. Yet Arsenal aren’t going to set up in the obstinate fashion that West Brom, Norwich and Wigan did with success at Spurs earlier in the campaign. The ease with which a team as poor as Aston Villa were able to create chances on the counter against us last weekend will simply have to be addressed by Arsene Wenger.

My confidence in Wojciech Szczesny as Arsenal’s number 1 is still steadfast. But Spurs have players that are hardly shy from long range. Bale is an obvious threat here, but Holtby, Dembele and Sigurdsson can let fly too. We had an interesting discussion on Szczesny’s weakness from range on Vital Arsenal this week. A very perceptive point was made about his footwork. Szcz has a tendency to dive forwards towards the ball, rather than shifting his feet along his line when low shots come in from range.

Kyle Walker’s winner at White Hart Lane last season, Tiote’s equaliser in the 4-4 with Newcastle and Andreas Weimann’s strike last week all expose that weakness and Spurs have the players to exploit it. Yet we’ll give them plenty to think about as well. Villas Boas has had his fingers burned against Arsenal trying to play with a high defensive line. With one of Gallas or Dawson likely to play, there’s plenty for Theo Walcott to get his teeth into. Kyle Walker hasn’t realised his form of last season and I always think there’s a rick in Assou Ekotto.

Without Sandro protecting the back four, I fancy Wilshere and Cazorla will target Scott Parker. Even at the age of 32, Parker was rash enough to concede a penalty with a foolish challenge at the Boleyn on Monday night. He was sent off in last February’s encounter at the Emirates because he couldn’t cope with the kinesis of Tomas Rosicky. With the correct approach, I think we can ruffle his side parting into submission.

Wenger has an intricate conundrum between respecting their strengths and imposing ourselves on Spurs and Villas Boas has much the same riddle. It’s delicately balanced on a knife edge. Frankly, I’m already shitting my pants. Both about the game and about my nose still being positioned relatively centrally on my face come Sunday evening. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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