How bright the immediate future felt for Unai Emery’s fledgling Arsenal in the immediate aftermath of that win at the Emirates earlier this season. Tottenham had in fact led at half-time, only for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to lead a thrilling fightback on a wild and raucous afternoon in north London, when this Arsenal team visibly grew in front of our eyes and, suddenly, anything seemed possible.
It was a victory that mattered so much because it was precisely the kind that most had sadly conceded was beyond Arsène Wenger’s ability, at least at the bitter end of his troubled reign. A breathtakingly brave, blood-and-thunder performance: one inspired by Emery’s gloriously reckless double substitution at half-time. By the end, Arsenal hadn’t just outperformed Tottenham but out battled them, too, fighting and scratching and clawing their way to their first truly statement victory under the Spaniard’s stewardship.
It all ended in ignominy exactly two weeks later, of course. There had always been a slightly mirage like quality to that 22-match unbeaten run, with a series of late winners disguising some truly abject defensive mishaps, the illusion of strength thoroughly shattered on the south coast when Southampton took advantage of Arsenal’s frailties and creaking limbs to score a thoroughly deserved 85th-minute winner. Arsenal remained fifth in the table.
Their form has fluctuated ever since. And yet this week’s deconstruction of Bournemouth marked the first time since mid-October that Arsenal have won three matches in a row in the Premier League. Perhaps that torpid performance in Belarus against a wide-eyed and slightly disbelieving BATE Borisov came at just the right time, because Arsenal have responded brilliantly, their performance on Wednesday evening arguably their finest since December’s derby victory.
It could hardly have been a better night at the Emirates. Arsenal in scintillating attacking form, their fifth scored by Alexandre Lacazette just moments after news of Chelsea’s opening goal against Spurs had started to rumble around the stadium. The Emirates could barely contain itself: “Tottenham Hotspur, we’re coming for you,” echoed the chant, as thoughts began to turn to tomorrow’s derby. It really could not be more tantalisingly poised.
Let’s not get too bogged down with the persistently mindless ‘mind the gap’ chatter. Tottenham – title contenders or otherwise – are a better, more balanced team than Arsenal. Emery even admits as much. “At the moment they are better than us in the table and we know that it will be very difficult to win there,” he conceded late on Wednesday night. “But it is a great opportunity for us. A great test. A positive test.”
It is a test that could not have come at a better time for Arsenal, who are not only in form, but also confirmed today that both Laurent Koscielny and Stephan Lichtsteiner are fit and in contention to play. Meanwhile Spurs are floundering, entering the fixture off the back of demoralising back-to-back defeats by Burnley and Chelsea. It is hard to judge which performance was more alarming.
Their campaign is in danger of disintegrating at an alarming rate. Only two weeks ago, the night before Arsenal lost to the mighty BATE, Spurs were celebrating their unexpected but not undeserved 3-0 victory over Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund, without both Harry Kane and Dele Alli. It was a win that Mauricio Pochettino believed demonstrated how Spurs had graduated to one of Europe’s genuinely elite sides.
But while they will still be expected to now ease their way into the Champions League quarter-finals for just the second time in their history, defeat at Wembley on Saturday will leave them just one point above Arsenal, in real danger of not making it into the tournament next season. And with the club’s well-documented financial constraints, exacerbated by a shiny new stadium to pay for, that would be a truly significant blow.
There is absolutely no doubt that Pochettino has transformed Tottenham. “In my first season when I arrived here, [big games] were a problem,” he bristled this week. “But we are at a level now that we believe we can beat any team.” Yet a consistent level of performance in the very biggest matches continues to elude them. And, yes, that is a rather long-winded attempt to avoid using the word ‘bottle’.
Can a Tottenham team that has lost three successive Premier League matches for the first time ever under Pochettino – and the first time since November 2012 at the very beginning of the ill-fated André Villas-Boas era – still be backed to rediscover their form and retain their spot in the top four? That is part of the reason why this north London derby is so finely poised. And part of the reason it will be so fiercely fought. To lose would be something close to a disaster for both of these teams.
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