When it comes to the Premier League every game is important and every point is crucial, but there are some games which just mean more than others. The North London derby is one of those. A good result feels like more than three points, a bad one leaves you disheartened beyond the points you’ve dropped.
Today, Arsenal have the chance to go above Sp*rs with a win. They’re three points ahead of us but with goal difference the same a victory would push them down a place in the table. So not only is the target three points, the reward has a little bit extra too.
It’s Unai Emery’s first experience of this game, but he understands the weight of it, saying:
Each match for me is very special. The derby is perhaps more special because my responsibility is bigger because of the supporters. I know from living in Spain and France, different matches like this, and I want to feel this match here with our supporters at the Emirates.
He spoke of a performance with energy and at the very least that’s what we can expect from a manager who demands a high work-rate from his players. Against a Sp*rs side that will be as well organised and disciplined as Mauricio Pochettino’s usually are, anything less will make life more difficult than it already is. Remember, they’re coming into this one buoyed by victories over Chelsea and Inter Milan, so there’ll be no lack of confidence on their part.
What Emery does with his team today will be interesting. He’s a very difficult man to predict when it comes to his team selection and formation. I wasn’t expecting a back three against Bournemouth last weekend, but that’s what we got. Was it simply a way for him to set-up against them based on the specific threats he perceived Eddie Howe’s side to have? Was it because he feels Sead Kolasinac is more vulnerable as left-back than a left wing-back? Was it perhaps preparation for today’s game when the centre of our defence will be tasked with shackling one of the Premier League’s most consistent goalscorers of the last few years?
I wish I knew, and today I can’t really do anything other than guess. My suspicion is that he’ll stick with the back three, but the fact he took Rob Holding to Kyiv in midweek gives me a little bit of doubt. Maybe he had no choice and trusted the fitness and durability of his youngest centre-half to cope with the schedule better than the other two he’s got fit and available right now.
He might also feel we need the extra man in midfield to give us more control there, and if he uses a back four it’s the obvious way of recalling Mesut Ozil who was benched for Bournemouth. It’s now three weeks since the German played a game, obviously part of that was the Interlull, so he’ll be nice and fresh – as will the majority of his senior players who have now had a week off since they last played. A three man midfield with Matteo Guendouzi wouldn’t surprise me either, even if meant the German didn’t start. As I’ve said, you just can’t second guess Emery right now.
With Alexandre Lacazette coming back from injury, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him on the bench today. He was due to have a fitness test over the weekend, and with Man United on Wednesday there may well be the need to exercise some caution rather than throw him straight back into action in a game like this. That means a start up front for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who, if he scores the winner today, can wear a mask, a suit of armour or any other costume he likes, while Lacazette gives us a quality, experienced option from the bench should we need it.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that Alex Iwobi will start on the left, and what he does to fill that role on the other side is one that gives me pause for thought anyway. If it’s a back three then he might use Ozil nominally in that position but with a licence to drift. With a back four Henrikh Mkhitaryan is the obvious choice but he was extremely poor with the ball last weekend, and that kind of profligacy today would be seriously detrimental. He does link up well with Hector Bellerin at times in the opposition half, but I think there are serious question marks over his form going into this one.
For me there’s a good case to think about using Aaron Ramsey in that position today. He’s played there before plenty of times, we know it’s not his favourite position but he has been very effective in the past – I’m thinking in particular of that 4-1 win over Liverpool a few seasons ago. If Emery can insist on real positional discipline from him, then he’s worth consideration. For games like this you need players who really understand the intensity, and after 10 years at the club and countless derbies, the Welshman certainly does. Not to mention he’s scored a couple against them down the years, but obviously it remains to be seen how Emery views his situation. If he is the arch-pragmatist people say, in that he’ll pick a team specifically to win the next game, then Ramsey’s contractual situation shouldn’t matter.
One of the things we’ve seen from Arsenal this season under Emery is a significant increase in our physical stats. We’re running further, making more sprints, working harder and we’ll need to show that again today. You wonder, of course, how that increased physical effort is working to offset some of the other deficiencies we have, but make no mistake Sp*rs today will be as a big a test of physicality as football.
For this game, the old cliché about the form-book going out the window is so true. Regardless of the perceived quality of each team they’re usually very tight encounters and I expect that to be true again this afternoon. I don’t think we can afford to give them the same chances we’ve given most other teams this season, because they have a finisher who will relish them, but there are plenty of goals in our team – we’ve scored more than any other team apart from Man City this season.
Our attack remains our strength as Emery continues to work towards more defensive solidity, but if he can find the right combination between the two today then we’ve got every chance of taking all three points. We’ve played three times against the ‘big’ teams in the league this season, and we’re yet to win one. Today would be a very timely way for the new head coach to show that we’re making real progress.
Catch you later for the game and come on you reds.