The north London derby could be a significant step in the race for a top-four finish
The different transfer plans sum up the different moods in north London ahead of Sunday’s derby. Where Tottenham Hotspur are tentative and looking to see what they can do, Arsenal are feeling a bit bullish again.
Antonio Conte knows that he has to sell to buy, so Spurs are investigating what is actually possible. Daniel Levy thinks there is little value in January. Arsenal are meanwhile still hopeful that a deal can be struck for Fiorentina’s Dusan Vlahovic.
It’s funny how quickly things turn in football. Arsenal have gone from an aimless club undergoing an identity crisis, who couldn’t hope to attract anyone in the top three tiers of players, to one where there is excitement again. All it took was a bit of faith in the manager, a bit of homegrown talent on the pitch – and, of course, a fair bit of coaching and hard work.
The justified optimism around Conte’s appointment has meanwhile dissipated at Spurs, almost replaced by increasing fears – not least among the squad – that he may walk if this team isn’t invested in.
That isn’t a realistic proposition right now, but it does point to the contrast between the sides that may yet condition this race for the top four. The bottom line is that Arsenal supporters feel a lot more optimistic than Tottenham’s right now.
Given such turns, Sunday looks like yet another juncture game in the recent history of this fixture, after a decade that has apparently been full of such matches.
The truth is that individual games are very rarely so influential. It’s just over a year since Jose Mourinho’s Spurs claimed what seemed a decisive victory over Arteta’s Arsenal, and the Portuguese was crowing about it.
But they instead tend to be smaller steps among wider shifts. Arsenal, to their credit, and particularly after many setbacks, have been heading in this direction for some time now.
It was summer 2020 when The Independent reported that one of the plans was to become something akin to “the Borussia Dortmund of England”, where they would look to get ahead of a game with promising young talent. At the time, it sounded somewhat fanciful. It is now much closer to reality. The faith in youth has fostered excitement as well as optimism.
Everything looks more hopeful for Arsenal. It has meant players like Vlahovic are now willing to listen to them in the way they weren’t six months ago. That alone is telling.
A signing like Vlahovic wouldn’t exactly be a bargain or insightful recruitment but his age, at just 21, would fit the general philosophy. His goals would meanwhile be the closest thing to a sure thing you can get in football. That is one thing Arsenal currently lack – that assurance.
As promising as they are, and even as durable as they were against Liverpool in the League Cup, there is still a remaining fragility. That has been in some big games, such as the 4-0 defeat at Anfield in the league. You still wouldn’t completely bank on them in the race for the top four, especially against Manchester United’s playing quality, and the stature of Conte.
This shouldn’t be a surprise or a cause for concern. It is inevitable when you have a team so young. The only players in their thirties are Alexandre Lacazette, Cedric Soares and the exiled Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The average age of the squad as a whole is a mere 25 years of age. This is a huge positive, but there is a caveat: Arsenal don’t really have anything by way of experience.
That actually marks them apart from some of the most famous young teams in history. Alan Hansen wasn’t completely wrong, after all. It’s not that you don’t win anything with kids, it’s that you don’t win anything with kids alone.
Even Manchester United’s 1995-96 team had the leadership of Steve Bruce, Eric Cantona, Gary Pallister and Peter Schmeichel, not to mention a 24-year-old Roy Keane, who could probably never have been described as a “kid”. Before them, Ajax 1994-95 had Frank Rijkaard and Danny Blind.
There are moments, such as with so many wild red cards this season, where it seems like Arsenal could just do with more composure. That is especially true at the base of midfield, which is why Arthur may prove an inspired loan signing from Juventus if they can pull it off.
That could be all the more important since it currently feels like there is no one on the pitch with the experience to “transmit” Arteta’s idea onto the pitch. It may well be one explanation for these recurring moments of madness, beyond just Granit Xhaka.
Spurs by contrast mostly have senior professionals now. They also have the sheer force of Conte.
It is highly possible that Arteta grows into a great manager but for the moment the Italian is just on a different level. He is one of the elite class of coaches.
Spurs are lucky to have him, especially given the ongoing uncertainty over recruitment. The squad is badly lacking right now. It could even be argued the first XI is lacking. It has fed into many unconvincing recent performances, but that is still mostly in the cups.
In the Premier League, Conte has at least ensured a certain momentum. Spurs are still unbeaten in the competition since Nuno Espirito Santo’s last game. They have won five of the last seven. Conte will want to keep that going one way. He is arguing new signings will greatly help.
This match may not end up as the juncture the fixture is often billed as. But, as with September’s game, it could be a significant step.