Sunday’s fixture is destined to be a firecracker, and not only because of the football.
In some ways, it will be a game of ‘Arsenal past’ against ‘Arsenal present’.
I should be absolutely clear. Obviously Tottenham are not, and never will be, anything close to Arsenal in ability, quality, history, success or class. Or, frankly, anything other than geography. However, there is undeniably an interesting side plot where Spurs find themselves in a similar – albeit inferior – position to Arsenal of ten years ago.
A new stadium move is looming on the horizon for our neighbours, and it will bring them many of the same challenges we faced in the run up to and aftermath of our move to the Emirates, as well as more besides. After all, we never had to play games in Milton Keynes or an echoing Wembley.
But as they look to build a new home the financial burden, even reduced as it is by subsidisation from the local borough council, remains just that – a burden. So they have looked to the only club to successfully moved home in recent years to provide a blueprint for success through a period of extended austerity: us.
They’ve hired a manager with a track record of bringing through youth players, they’ve signed a bunch of players in their teens and early twenties, and they’ve gambled on a squad which is decent enough through the first eleven but looks a bit threadbare once you look a bit deeper. Sounds familiar.
As an aside, it’s curious that they need a new stadium when Monday night’s game against Aston Villa wasn’t even a sell-out after tickets went on general sale, and swathes of empty seats for the Europa League fixture against Anderlecht were visible when the camera panned out.
That’s not really my problem though.
Let’s put a few of their issues into context.
The 2015-16 Tottenham squad has the youngest average age of the league at 24.1 years, which is the youngest in the league and makes our current squad average of 27.0 years look positively ancient in comparison.
However, in our last year at Highbury the squad average was down at an inexperienced 23.3 years. Fast forward to the first season at the Emirates, and it dipped down to just 22.7 years old, even with three senior goalkeepers approaching or over 30: Manuel Almunia (29), Mart Poom (34) and Jens Lehmann (36)!
A young age doesn’t have to preclude a successful season – after all our 2007-08 squad came in even lower than the 2005-06 vintage, yet could easily have won the league without Eduardo’s assault – but it does affect the players’ ability to respond to challenging circumstances, and makes them very dependent on the senior figures within the team to lift and guide those younger players.
Of course that links into the point around squad depth. As we saw all too clearly at Hillsborough last week, young players without those senior players around them flounder, and when your squad is a little on the thin side, you are more vulnerable to the loss of that experience.
Should Alderweireld or Vertonghen pick up an injury, Spurs have the choice between dropping Dier back to the disruption of their midfield or drafting in the dramatically unimpressive figures of Fazio or Wimmer.
Dier himself only has one like-for-like replacement in Bentaleb, and there’s a reason the Algerian has fallen out of favour*. Meanwhile, an injury to Christian Eriksen would rob Tottenham of their only real creative threat unless you count the mercurial Lamela of Rabona fame and Adebayor-esque levels of inconsistency.
But none of these are their biggest issue.
We’ve heard a lot this summer and beyond about how Arsene Wenger’s failure to strengthen our forward line is something akin to criminal behaviour for which he should be arrested, hung, drawn, quartered and thrown into a alley in deepest darkest Tottenham to be set upon by the wild animals that live there.
However, a quick glance up the Seven Sisters Road confirms that Pochettino has indeed commenced the season with one solitary genuine striker – Harry Kane – and even that one looks out on his feet after playing for the England U21s this summer despite being a regular in senior squads.
Whatever you think of Bendtner and van Persie, we had both of them in our squad each season from before moving to the Emirates right through well into the 2010s, and usually with further depth in the shape of Adebayor, Eduardo, Aliadiere and of course a certain Thierry Henry for the first season.
Something to work on then, Pochettino.
Spurs are lucky that so far their injuries have been all but non-existent, since the lack of depth in their squad is startling. Almost Mourinho levels of negligence and luck in equal measure, you might say. (Starting last season with six senior defenders says he has made a deal with the devil!)
Tottenham come into the second North London Derby of the season in good form, with Kane finally back in the goals and a defence which has conceded just 9 goals all season (bettered by a negative United team and of course ourselves).
That unusually solid defence has been founded on a settled central core of Lloris, Vertonghen, Alderweireld and Dier which has been unbroken by any injuries and disrupted but briefly by the suspension of Dier following the overly prompt collection of five yellow cards (even Coquelin only has three). Rose and Walker have also able assisted albeit both have been somewhat less present with their own injury ins and outs.
Arsenal meanwhile are bereft of too many senior players to count, at both ends of the pitch, and will almost certainly be shorn of at least half our first choice defence on Sunday. And of course there’s the small matter of coming into the game off the back of a less than satisfactory Champions League performance midweek.
Spurs have also developed a rather irritating habit of scoring late on – as they did against Anderlecht on Thursday – where in years gone by they’d typically attempt to out-Arsenal us by contriving to concede a comical equaliser, or indeed a winner, in the death throes of a game.
Yet context so rarely matters when it comes to North London Derbies; form and fitness tend to go out the window as passion and purpose win the day instead.
Arsenal have the ability to beat this Tottenham side even with our current limitations, but it is certainly not a game we can sleepwalk into.
My Lilywhite fiancé never has high expectations for the league game at the Emirates, where the crowd are baying for blood and the players feel at home. I’d like to keep it that way. So come Sunday our players need to be fired up and ready to prove a point before they go off on their international travels.
We have enough problems at the moment without turning up unprepared. Good job we should know the opposition better than anyone then; after all, we were in the same position ten years ago.
Let’s hope Arsenal present have enough in their locker to prove they are better than Arsenal past.
(All stats courtesy of transfermarkt.co.uk)