On the face of it, tomorrow’s north London derby is a meeting between two of the Premier League’s form teams.
Arsenal and Tottenham are separated by just a point, with near identical records from seven games (they have both conceded seven, while Spurs have scored 18 to Arsenal’s 17), and the winner will finish the day top of the table.
Results do not tell the whole story, however, and in reality the rivals go into the lunchtime kick-off on the back of contrasting performances this season.
Spurs remain unbeaten, but Antonio Conte’s side are still yet to really get going, and have largely earned results without playing especially well. Their 6-2 thrashing of Leicester before the international break was notable for the spectacular return to form of Son Heung-min — offering a reminder that Spurs rarely need to play well when the South Korean and Harry Kane are firing — but was still characterised by disjointed and sloppy build-up play and some poor defending.
Grinding out results is an encouraging trait, typical of winners, and the pattern suggests Conte’s side may be developing the steel and mentality of a top team.
But aside from the 2-2 draw at Chelsea, when they benefited from refereeing decisions to snatch a stoppage-time draw, Spurs are yet to be really tested, having also faced each of the bottom four, 14th-placed Southampton and newly-promoted Fulham.
Their pattern of eking out results without being at their best does not feel sustainable long-term and, ahead of the derby, there is an uneasy sense that Spurs either need to improve their possession play or face a first domestic defeat, having already lost to Sporting in the Champions League.
Their hopes of establishing a slicker rhythm against Arsenal may be hindered by the absence of Dejan Kulusevski, who is expected to miss out with a hamstring strain.
In an acknowledgment that his side still have room for improvement, Conte said yesterday: “I listen sometimes to people speaking [positively] only because you had two or three good results, but it’s important to be honest, to know the reality and to be ready to fight, to work and to improve the situation.
“I know that we need to have time and a bit of patience to try to build a path to become seriously competitive with Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, also Manchester United I think and Arsenal.”
Conte’s Arsenal counterpart, Mikel Arteta, has been given plenty of time and patience, and the club’s faith in the manager appears increasingly justified. In contrast to their rivals, Arsenal’s results have generally been matched by impressively slick and inventive performances, characterised by the high pressing and possession football that are the cornerstones of Arteta’s philosophy.
Crucially, in Gabriel Jesus, the Gunners now have a forward capable of leading the press and finishing the chances created by their exciting support cast. Even in their only setback, the 3-1 defeat by United, Arteta’s side had more of the ball and were widely considered to have played well.
That said, that game was also held up as an example of a cannier side outsmarting Arsenal, which should offer encouragement to Spurs and suggests there is still an element of naivety to Arteta’s improving side. The possible absence of Thomas Partey through injury would add to the sense that a direct and aggressive Spurs could exploit Arsenal’s soft centre.
In simplistic terms, tomorrow’s game is a meeting between a finely-tuned, in-form side whose mentality remains in question, and a spluttering opponent who nonetheless have demonstrated the mental fortitude to eke out results.
The pattern of the game should be easy to predict, and will likely make uncomfortable viewing for the visiting supporters. While Arsenal like to be on the ball, Conte has been happy for his side to cede possession, and the Gunners can be expected to dominate between the boxes.
What happens at each end will ultimately be what counts, and here Spurs can still claim to be the stronger side, particularly after Son’s brilliant hat-trick and with Richarlison and Kane set to make up their attack.
The chance for quick transitions should also suit Spurs and it is possible that playing a better quality of opponent will actually help Conte’s players to raise their game.
Arsenal struggled to cope with their rivals’ fast, direct assaults in their 3-0 defeat in May, which ultimately earned Spurs a place in the Champions League at the Gunners’ expense, and Richarlison feels ready-made for what will be a charged occasion.
Arteta’s team were also the victims of indiscipline in the costly defeat last season, when they conceded a penalty and Rob Holding was sent off, and maintaining order could be crucial to a tight game. Both teams have excelled at set pieces and also boast an identical record at dead-ball situations, with five goals scored and one conceded.
This fixture rarely disappoints and tends to favour the home side, with Spurs’s last League win at Arsenal in 2010, when Luka Modric played and Younes Kaboul headed home the winner.
This is one of the elements that should make Arsenal narrow favourites, although much depends on whether the patterns of the season are maintained.