Arsenal-Spurs Preview

SOCCER Arsenal 12

Will Spurs be partying like its 1999?

This weekend at 8:30am on ESPN the north London derby will be front and center – and this year it certainly feels different. The shit talking has already started, with Keane, saying Spurs squad is deeper than Arsenal’s (unfortunately for Spurs they will see if he is right since Modric, Defoe, and Lennon are all out). This quickly led British commentators to predict a Spurs drubbing this weekend, after all Tottenham have not beat Arsenal in the league in a decade and away from home in 16 years! Sure every year Spurs fans approach the first Arsenal game with dreams of top 4, but too often Spurs have already stumbled out of the gates and sit well back of the top and of Arsenal. This year Spurs and Arsenal both have 19 points and Spurs ambitions doesn’t seem quite as fanciful.

What’s on the line:

While I argued that the Man U and Chelsea games were not as important to Spurs’ top 4 ambitions as was made out to be – for Tottenham it is about getting results against the bottom half of the table something they failed to do in previous years – this game is different. Realistically, for Spurs to break through into the top four it will need either Arsenal or Liverpool to fall off. Therefore, getting points from both those teams – Spurs already beat Liverpool – is critical. But it is also important psychologically. A Spurs win at Arsenal would raise Tottenham’s confidence and belief to perhaps an inappropriate level. Having not beat Arsenal in the league in a decade, a victory would certainly get the proverbial monkey off their backs.

For Arsenal, they have at times looked like title contending world beaters, but have also looked woobly at others (see Fulham and West Ham games). A win would not just further confirm their dominance in north London, it would also go some ways to discrediting the view that this Arsenal team is weaker and thinner than ones in the past. However, a loss would certainly raise more questions about Arsenal’s sturdiness, renew criticism of Wenger’s limited transfer policy and could increase the din of rumors surrounding Fabregas.

Tactical approaches:

The central conundrum for any Arsenal opponent is do you go after them with high pressure up the field or do you sit back and cede possession. If you sit back against them they will eventually break you down. Arsenal usually kill teams by wearing them down by controlling possession throughout the game, forcing the opponents to chase, which lead to a lot of late goals as their opponents tire. However, Arsenal have looked more vulnerable when teams actually attempt to pressure them up the field – see the Fulham game – this of course allows them to counter with Arshavin and Van Persie, but it is probably better than the alternative. Expect Spurs to get forward and to pressure in the midfield.

Despite the good start to the season, this game is not coming at a great time for Spurs. Their three best attacking players are all out – Modric still recovering from a leg fracture, Jermaine Defoe sitting out as a result of a stupid red card against Pompey, and Aaron Lennon hurt his ankle against Stoke. (On the bright side, the injury crisis at center back is no more, with Woodgate, Dawson, Bassong, and King (relatively) healthy. It should be interesting who starts.) Spurs’ “plan A” this year has been to start Keane and Defoe upfront, relying on possession and short passing to unlock defenses. If that proved unsuccessful or the team lacked the rhythm that particular day, “plan B” has been to bring on Peter Crouch and go aerial. Fortunately, for Tottenham, Harry Rednapp has built a deep squad and plan B is not exactly a bad plan. However, when Crouch has been in Spurs have been a bit too one-dimensional and it will be imperative for them not to simply hoof up long balls against Arsenal, but to attempt to control possession as well. In the midfield, I would expect Jenas to start instead of Huddlestone, merely because Jenas has a bit more pace to counter Arsenal, and he will be needed to get forward through the center of the field. Also without Lennon, Huddlestone’s ability to spray passes around the field is a little less useful.

For Arsenal, I would expect to see Arsenal’s fullbacks, Sagna and Gibbs to push forward. However, I would imagine that part of Wenger’s plan to deal with Crouch is to focus on shutting down his service from the wings, so expect Kranjcar and Bentley to be under constant pressure. Going forward, Arsenal will try to do what they do, possess and exploit the weak spots on the backline. I think Wenger will to attempt to isolate Arshavin on Corluka, who lacks the pace to really deal with the Russian.

Some key matchups:

Peter Crouch vs. Gallas and Vermaelen. Crouch could have had a hat trick against Stoke, but failed to score. He has played well this year and while he was not effective at all in the air with Liverpool, he has become a real aerial force, but he has missed quite a few chances this year. While Gallas is formidable in the air, Crouch will tower over Vermaelen and this should be a real chance for Crouch to truly announce his arrival at White Hart Lane.

David Bentley vs. Kieran Gibbs. This is a crucial game in David Bentley’s career. He has barely featured this year and now with the Lennon injury will likely have a chance to prove his worth. Bentley impressed against Everton in the Carling Cup, giving a man of the match performance. However, he will be up against Gibbs, who is starting to emerge and has been tapped for the England World Cup squad as a replacement for Ashley Cole. For Crouch to be dangerous he is going to need Bentley to put in some good crosses. I have been very skeptical about Bentley, as he has seemed to struggle against pacey fullbacks, so my money would be on Gibbs to effectively lock down the right side.

Wilson Palacios vs. Cesc Fabregas. Who wins out in midfield: Beauty or the Beast. Palacios has played well this year, but at times has a tendency to dive in, he will need to avoid getting carded to be effective. If Fabregas is able to find time and space on the ball it will be a very long 90 minutes for Spurs. Shutting down the Cesc Machine is a must for Spurs.

Arshavin vs. Corluka. This should scare Spurs fans. Arshavin has the pace and technique to torch Corluka, who at times can look a bit dawdling. However, Corluka has been pretty sturdy throughout his time at Tottenham, but Bentley will definitely need to track back.

Gomes vs. Whoever plays goal for Arsenal.
I think Gomes may be the difference maker in this game. Despite many bumbles early last season and shakiness on set pieces, Gomes has emerged as one of the best shot stoppers in the league. At 6’7 he is huge and could very well be needed to make quite a few saves. For the Gunners, there is a question of who Wenger will start. Rookie keeper Mannone was man of the match against Fulham but his mistake against West Ham was costly. I would expect Almunia, but he has not exactly set the world alight.

In the final analysis:
Spurs are playing without their best attacking players, but they have enough to cause Arsenal real problems, especially with Crouch in the air. That said they lack the pace without Lennon to launch quick counterattacks and I expect Gibbs to be able to shackle Bentley. I think there will be goals, but this is a very solid Spurs side defensively and while it is hard to bet against Arsenal at home I think a draw is the most likely result. Arsenal will control possession, but Spurs will rue some missed chances.

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