WHEN Arsenal take on their arch-rivals Spurs this weekend, they could be forgiven for finding common ground with their old foe.
Both Arsenal and Tottenham inhabit the four-team bubble between third and sixth in the Premier League. Though Spurs escaped from the Etihad with a point last weekend, there was enough evidence to suggest they have done little to close the gap to champions Manchester City.
Arsenal, meanwhile, went to Anfield and can’t have left with the impression that the 27-point chasm between the sides last season represents anything other than a fair reflection of the gulf in quality between the top two and the rest. August is not over and, to nobody’s surprise, Arsenal and Tottenham’s ambitions for the season have been crystalized- try to finish third or fourth.
2016-17: Liverpool 3-1 Arsenal
2017-18: Liverpool 4-0 Arsenal
2018-19: Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal
2019-20: Liverpool 3-1 Arsenal
— B/R Football (@brfootball) August 24, 2019
Neither side has enormously impressed in their opening three games as they negotiate transitional phases. Arsenal played three new signings and Joe Willock – who made his first ever Premier League start on the final day of last season – at Anfield and it showed, despite the fact that Ceballos and Pepe have shown some impressive flashes so far in this campaign.
Set against a Liverpool side that knows itself so well that it could play blindfolded, the contrast was stark. Along with the three new signings and two academy products at Anfield, Bernd Leno, Sokratis, Matteo Guendouzi and goal scorer Lucas Torreira were signed just twelve months ago. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and second-half substitute Henrikh Mkhitaryan were relative mainstays of the Arsenal team, having joined the club in January 2018.
Famously, Tottenham didn’t sign anyone in the summer of 2018, but this summer has proved a little more unsettling for Pochettino’s side. At time of writing, the Christian Eriksen situation casts a shadow over the manager’s plans. He’s not quite ‘in’ enough to start Tottenham’s games at the moment, but Spurs are still too dependent upon him to banish him entirely.
Jan Vertonghen, who could also be a free agent next summer, peers on lugubriously from the sidelines for punitive reasons. Giovani Lo Celso is a very exciting signing who will eventually allow Tottenham to move on from the spectre of Christian Eriksen but, like Arsenal’s record summer signing Nicolas Pepe, Lo Celso had an eventful summer with his country and arrived late in the transfer window. Injuries to new signings Ryan Sessegnon and Tanguy Ndombele have hit the pause button on the Tottenham revolution.
A new week – and the countdown to the north London derby is on.
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) August 26, 2019
Both sides endured poor ends to the Premier League season last year, with Spurs and Arsenal seemingly trying their hardest not to finish in the top four while losing European finals to domestic counterparts. Arsenal’s failure to qualify for Europe’s premier competition was the midwife to a summer of action, but they too have players they want to sell on before Europe draws the blinds on the transfer market.
Yet Shkodran Mustafi and Mohamed Elneny are left to watch Arsenal games on their televisions, rather than with their glum faces buried into their tracksuits on the substitutes bench. With Spurs, there is greater cohesion because the team has been together a little longer (they started with no new signings against Newcastle this weekend), but a lingering sense that the squad could do with a spring clean.
Arsenal are into the second year of their squad refurbishment, but the feeling that the pieces do not quite fit together yet permeates. In the opening three games of the season, Unai Emery has picked different personnel and tweaked formations, as he is wont to do, but it’s difficult to see how Arsenal will ever settle down until they establish more of a routine. Tottenham are guilty of starting games slowly, while the Gunners tend to start games well enough, but struggle to respond when the temperature of a match starts to rise and opponents turn the screw.
North London derbies have been fun affairs for the neutral in recent seasons. This is in part because the teams are evenly matched in terms of quality and both sides take the game to one another. This Sunday, the North London neighbours go into the fixture in similar states of upheaval, searching for a chemistry that has evaded them of late. In lieu of this collective chemistry, Unai Emery and Mauricio Pochettino may have to rely on individual feats to steal the North London bragging rights.