To the players, coaches and especially the supporters, the north London derby always matters. To the best teams in the league, though? Well, perhaps not. This is a match of unquestionable local significance but, over the last four seasons, it has not been a decisive fixture at the top end of the Premier League.
Since the summer of 2018, neither Arsenal or Spurs have finished higher than fourth in the league table. In that time, neither team has even ended the campaign within 20 points of the champions. They have instead been squabbling over the final Champions League place, as was the case last season, or scrapping for sixth or seventh.
This year, however, the derby has a different feel, as Arsenal and Spurs appear to be posing a different sort of threat to the rest of the so-called ‘big six’. The weekend starts with Arsenal in first place, on 18 points, and with Spurs in third on 17 points. It is the first time since 2007 that the two teams have met with one of them at the top of the table.
Performances this season
For Arsenal, their lofty position is a reflection of their impressive performances so far in this campaign. Mikel Arteta’s side have consistently played with more control and imagination than at any other point of his reign, to such an extent that most of their scorelines have actually flattered the opposition.
Arsenal have averaged a 58 per cent share of possession in their league matches this season, up from 53 per cent last season, and will expect to dominate the ball once again this weekend. With Gabriel Jesus, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli in attack, they will look to feed the ball to their forward players as much as possible, pinning Spurs back in their own half.
Antonio Conte’s side, on the other hand, have generally seen less of the ball but have been consistently ruthless in front of goal. Only Manchester City have scored more than Spurs in the opening seven games of this season and the finishing power of Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Richarlison will be the greatest concern for Arteta on Saturday.
But there are questions to be asked of both teams. For Arsenal, there can be no hiding from the fact that the fixture list has been kind. Manchester United are the only ‘big six’ side that they have faced so far, and that was a game they lost. For Spurs, there is a sense that their underlying performances have not been quite as impressive as their results. Their forwards are clinical, but is that sustainable across a full campaign?
It is a curious aspect of the north London rivalry that the fortunes of these sides have largely been intertwined over the past few years. When Arsenal have struggled for consistency, Spurs have done the same. When Spurs began to build momentum under Conte last season, Arsenal were also gathering steam under Arteta.
Over the past four full seasons, there has been an average of just 1.75 points between the two teams at the end of the campaign. Arsenal have won 274 points since the start of the 2018/19 season, the first of the post-Arsene Wenger era, while Spurs have won 280 points in that time. These are the finest of margins, and the derbies have subsequently had a significant impact on their positions in the final league table.
What seems certain is that Spurs will score. They have done so in each of their last 10 meetings with Arsenal, their longest scoring streak against their rivals since the 1960s. Arsenal, meanwhile, have not kept a clean sheet in any of their last eight home games in the Premier League.
Arsenal’s home record against Spurs is unquestionably impressive — their last defeat in a home league north London derby was in 2010 — but how mentally scarred are they by losing out to Spurs in the race for fourth place last season?
Battle of the Brazilians
Jesus and Richarlison are competing for a place in the Brazil national team and both players will hope to demonstrate their quality in their first north London derby at their new clubs. They certainly have the combative styles required for a match of this emotional magnitude and they will not shy away from heavy challenges.
“He has no fear,” said Conte of Richarlison, who joined from Everton for £60 million this summer. “He is a player that shows great commitment in every moment, even during the training sessions. He is not scared of anybody. Not the atmosphere, not the noise.”
Jesus, meanwhile, was left out of the most recent Brazil squad despite his impressive start to life at Arsenal, where he has scored four goals and registered three assists in eight matches following his £45m move from City. Saturday’s derby provides him with a chance to show why he should be on the plane to Qatar and why he should be regarded as a better attacking option than Richarlison.
“He is incredibly humble,” said Arteta of Jesus. “He accepted the decision and the way he trained was just ‘ok, I need to improve, I need to do more, I really want to be there [at the World Cup].’ I think we will see that on the pitch. He has ambition and we know that he plays with incredible commitment. On Saturday he will play that way.”