Arsene Wenger cannot afford to play it safe at Tottenham with Arsenal facing the end of an era


Would Arsene Wenger consider playing for a draw at White Hart Lane on Sunday?

It's highly unlikely, even though there might be a long-term lesson about grit, stubbornness and practicality in it for Arsenal's hopes of serious success in the future.

And even though such a result would at least spare their fans the bitter experience of witnessing the conclusive end of the 'Mind the Gap' years on Tottenham's home turf.

Wenger's team have finally re-discovered some of those mundane but necessary qualities in their recent victories against Middlesbrough, Manchester City and Leicester, with a dash of new-found tactical flexibility thrown in.

They will be put to the test again in one of the most significant and uniquely historic north London derbies of all time.

If Arsenal get nothing else out of this perplexing season, the re-introduction of some hard-headedness and some acknowledgement of the tougher codes of the English game might yet be the best dividend they can take forward into the final two years of Wenger's time in charge.

What happens in deep midfield on Sunday will provide a good litmus test of this. The starting point of this match will surely be all about how good a job Arsenal's central pairing deliver when screening their new back-three formation. If they don't do it, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen will get behind them and pick them apart. Wenger's first task is to ensure this doesn't happen and if he pulls it off, it will show that his side really have learned something in recent weeks.

Those Mind the Gap years are definitely coming to an end, though, even if Spurs don't confirm it by winning on Sunday.

At some stage very soon, their fans are going to be partying like its 1995, which was when their team last finished above the Gunners.

Teddy Sheringham steers the ball home against Norwich City on April 17, 1995, to give Spurs a 1-0 victory and ensure Gerry Francis’ team finished the season ahead of north London rivals Arsenal, then managed by Stewart Houston Photo: Arnold Slater

Even if Arsenal win in the last north London derby in the current stadium, it would leave them with a potential final points total of 78 and Tottenham with a maximum target of 86.

Mauricio Pochettino's side are not going to lose every game from now until the end of the season.

In fact, they could afford to win just one and draw two more and still end up above Wenger for the first time in his 21 years.

Yes, yes, I acknowledge I have predicted the great power shift before and come unstuck.

Arsenal's fans have had their fun with that and it's been fair enough. But it really is Close the Gap time now.

Will that hurt Wenger inside? Well, there have been far too many claims in this torrid campaign that he lacks passion and true commitment to bringing major success to the Emirates.

However, there's always been an impression that he has had bigger fish to fry than the great north London rivalry.

For most of his time in charge that has been the position, to be fair.

Spurs have been tying themselves in knots for most of that period, even if things look different now.

It's always seemed, however, that Wenger didn't quite feel the turf war as rampantly as, say, Sir Alex Ferguson famously saw his mission at Manchester United being wrapped up in the aim of knocking Liverpool "off their perch".

Of course, Wenger has always been just as stubborn as Ferguson which is why the idea of Arsenal playing for a draw on Sunday goes against the unwavering nature of his character.

He has steadfastly maintained his beliefs about how football should be played through a torrent of criticism in recent seasons.

More to the immediate point, Wenger has confessed that his side have to win every remaining game now to have a chance of maintaining his record of never having finished outside the top four.

Surely, he never intended that his teams should have gone "soft" as they have in recent times.

He has been criticised for buying too many players without steel. But in fact, there are far fewer around in the game anymore like those extra-ordinary characters who made the first decade of Wenger's reign such a compelling, on-going battle with Manchester United.

Arsenal have no Patrick Vieira. But United have no Roy Keane. Who does?

If the current Gunners players were shirking the requirement to front up and plant their flag in the sand, it appears that finally they have taken a good look at themselves.

They owed that to their boss who has received so much flak on their behalf. By the same token, however, he deserved that flak for allowing it to happen. These must be the major lessons for Arsenal from this season of doubt.

​Tottenham, meanwhile, now have a collective mental fortitude which they illustrated by recovering instantly from their FA Cup semi-final defeat by Chelsea and winning at Crystal Palace on Wednesday.

They are a young team. But they appear to have learned from the disappointments of last season.

They will show this again on Sunday in pursuit of Chelsea at the top of the table. And if you want to identify the root of this mental strength, well, their manager was a full-back and he is from Argentina.

He was sent off 13 times in 272 games for Espanyol in Spain.

Enough said?