The North London Derby has never had the feel of a real rivalry to me. I understand, logically, that it’s a rivalry but I’m not talking logic, I’m talking feelings.
Chelsea have always felt more like a rival. They poached our players, kicked us around, and beat us indiscriminately. Tottenham have always felt like that little brother who wants to hang out with you but who you ditch to go play with your cool friends in the Champions League.
And of course, I understand that this lack of feeling I had is because I don’t live in London and don’t have to worry about some thugs in white trying to kick my skull in week in and week out. Nor do I have to deal with brothers, cousins, friends, co-workers, cabbies, or any of the other countless wankers that your average London-based Gooner encounters every day. I almost never see a Spurs fan and have never been threatened by one or had one do the adult equivalent of “neener neener” when they win. Chelsea fans, on the other hand, are everywhere and they are the human equivalent of a boil on the ass of sports.
But the last few years this match has had a different feel to it and it’s starting to feel more like a rivalry for me. Maybe it was the trip to Liverpool in a van full of away boys that helped to grow this feeling. They did sing “two-nil and you fucked it up” about a million times along with every other anti-Spurs chant. All of them. Yes, that one too. And so while the seeds of rivalry were planted when Danny Rose scored his wonder goal a few years back, they were watered liberally with chants of winning the League at White Hart Lane.
I will never forget the Wetherspoon’s in Liverpool town center and the woman at the other table who took all of us Arsenal supporters on with some solo chant about Spurs. I don’t even know what her chant was because before she could finish the first stanza the roar back from the gathered Gooners was deafening. We serenaded her for the better part of an hour.
Seeing what the rivalry meant to those Arsenal fans converted me on the spot. I get it. It will always be a rivalry, even long after they are relegated. So, I’m going into tomorrow’s game with a strong feeling of contempt for our noisy little brothers from down the Lane. Contempt mixed with hope that this match can paper over some of the cracks that threaten to become chasms.
Arsenal are wounded club at the moment. Fractured by all this talk of firing Arsene Wenger. Divided by the incessant battering of “the board”. With fans hammering away at players like Abou Diaby as if he’s ever really counted in any calculations. Ticket prices, season tickets in the clock-end, on and on the list of demands goes.
They want their Arsenal back? Well I want my Arsenal back. The one where 60,000 voices sing in unison “Number one was Perry Groves…” the one where I’m not afraid to voice a dissenting opinion from another Arsenal fan. The one which embraces Arsenal supporters from all over the world. The one where we all laugh, cry, and enjoy the games. You know, the reason we all joined the club in the first place? The games?
And we can get that Arsenal back because it’s only ever and always will only ever be about winning. Start winning games and all of this dissent and anger fades back into background.
I can think of no better time to start that than tomorrow against the old enemy.
What do we think of Tottenham?
Theo Walcott v. Jan Vertonghen – You probably don’t know this but Theo Walcott has more Arsenal “caps” than any other player currently in the squad. He has been with Arsenal for 8 years and has 234 appearances in all competitions. Sagna is the second most experienced Arsenal player with 209 apps for the club. It’s kind of incredible when you think about it; Walcott is just 23 years old. I don’t know this for a fact but I feel that no other club in world football would hand a 23 year old 234 appearances.
Walcott played in both North London Derby’s last season, the 2-1 loss at Shite Hart Lane and the 5-2 win at the Grove. In the loss, he was terrible. In the win, he was terrible for the first half and scored a brace in the second. This is a theme with Theo over the last few years, that he can start games cold and warm up to them. Tomorrow, against Spurs, he needs to put in a complete performance.
After I realized that Theo is Arsenal’s most capped player I had a bit of an existential crisis: which player at Arsenal is instilling the love for the club into the hearts of new boys Poldi, Giroud, and Cazorla? Walcott? I suppose he could be that guy in his own way, he does stay the longest after matches and applaud the fans, but he just doesn’t strike me as the type of player who would take Poldi aside and do what Adams did to Lee Dixon before his first derby:
This was my first north London derby and I actually remember the build-up more than the contest itself. I’d been at Highbury nine months but I was taken aback when, in the dressing room, the local boys – Tony Adams, Paul Davis, David Rocastle and Michael Thomas – practically pinned me up against the wall and said: “Now listen here, you outsider from Stoke. Tonight is what being an Arsenal player is all about… ” Crikey, it was terrifying and, although we conceded a couple, it had the desired affect and we pulled off a famous victory at White Hart Lane.
I can’t see anyone at the club right now doing that to anyone else.
Tactically, though, Walcott and Sagna are going to be crucial tomorrow. Andre Villas-Boas has been playing Jan Vertonghen as left back in the last few games. Vertonghen is not very comfortable in the position and AVB is compounding the problem by playing a high pressing game allowing speedy runners space to operate behind the defense. Sound familiar?
I would be surprised if AVB pressed Arsenal tomorrow because the formula that works against Arsenal is to sit back and hit on the counter, or try to get a goal off a corner and free kicks. But if he does, this could be a big game for Theo Walcott.
On the other side of the coin, Vertonghen has a pretty deadly long throw and is impressive in the air when Spurs give him the chance. He could provide a set play threat.
Olivier Giroud v. Steven Caulker - Giroud is in a run of good form of late, getting himself into great positions and subsequently taking over the shooter’s duty from Cazorla. The result is 4 goals in the last 4 Arsenal matches. He’s also working very hard in other areas of the pitch, providing an outlet for Arsenal when they sit deep and need to hoof the ball out, playing defense on set plays, and providing a threat for Arsenal against teams who sit deep against the Gunners.
Giroud is also forming quite the partnership with Theo Walcott and when the Englishman plays wide the crosses come thick and fast. I’d like to see some of the other Arsenal midfielders start to play off Giroud more. If they could catch the knack for Giroud’s knockdowns that could be a key to opening up Spurs if they opt for the deeper formation.
Meanwhile, Caulker is coming off a tough game for England against Zlatan who basically manhandled him for 75 minutes and, if available, Giroud will give Caulker another physical game. The young Englishman is physically imposing and does win a lot of headers and so the aerial battles between those two will be particularly interesting.
On the other end of the field, I watched Caulker score on Man City and for England and he is a real threat from set plays. I have no doubt that regardless of the formation and tactics used during the run of play, on every dead ball situation Spurs will be trying to get the ball onto Caulker’s head.
Szczesny v. Adebayor - Emmanuel Adebayor only ever plays well against his former employers and since Arsenal are a former employer he will be up up up for this game. Andre Villas-Boas is already talking him up publicly but that’s the thing about Adebayor, you just never know what will work to motivate him and AVB’s quotes might just make him feel good enough that he’ll revert to being King of the Grifters.
When Adebayor’s on point he can be one of the best strikers in the League. He’s a threat from set plays, holds the ball up well, can drop deep and start the attack, has a great finish, and is deceptively quick on counter attacks. When he wants to be.
Szczesny has a late test but I suspect he’ll pass and be fit to play. That’s great news for Arsenal, not because Mannone was horrible but rather, because he has a bit of mojo on Adebayor. Last year before the away fixture, Szczesny publicly said that he knew how to handle Adebayor and that during practice he would routinely shut Adebayor down. Arsenal lost that match 2-1 but at one point Adebayor had a one-v-one with Szczesny and the Arsenal keeper actually faked Adebayor into making a move the way he wanted and collected the ball from him. It was the lone bright spot of that game.
Szczesny is also different from Manone in that he will add some aerial presence to the Gunners on set plays, which we have already covered will be a major mode of attack for Spurs.
Monkey v. Sagnamaelen - Gareth Bale is a one trick monkey, but he’s exceptionally good at that trick. Not the kick and rush, the dive. In fact, every player on Spurs are a bunch of diving cheats. Against Man City they spent more time collectively rolling around on the ground pretending to be injured than they did playing actual football.
When they do play football, Bale runs at people. AVB will probably give him the freedom to run on either side of the pitch and get crosses in to Adebayor. It will be interesting to see how forward Sagna will be able to get and whether Spurs use Bale to attack Sagna or Vermaelen. Conventional wisdom has Bale on the left but Villas-Boas was once a team scout so he will be fully aware of what tactics work best against Arsenal and right now teams are getting a lot of joy down Arsenal’s left.
Wilshere is peerless - Forget about formations, 4-3-3, 3-5-2, blah blah blah. The only thing I’m thinking about is the fact that Jack Wilshere has been a Gunner since he was nine years old. If there is anyone at Arsenal who knows what this rivalry means it’s him. And Arsenal need Jack in this game.
Arsenal need Jack to be there to support Arteta if Spurs try to man mark him out of the game. To support Cazorla if Spurs send wave after wave of midfield destroyers after him (Sandro in particular). To provide some drive to the midfield when the team start to look sluggish. To carry the ball past a defender and create some havoc in their lines.
This will be Jack’s toughest test in an Arsenal shirt for the last two years.
Referee tomorrow is Howard Melton Webb
I will be posting some numbers over at Arseblog News in a bit.