The biggest north London derby in a decade will decide Arsenal and Tottenham’s future

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·6-min read
The biggest north London derby in a decade will decide Arsenal and Tottenham’s future
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In the build-up to Thursday, Antonio Conte has been “super animated”, seeking to ensure his players are ready to rampage into this one. He has used a few little techniques for motivation, and the suspension of this game in January has been mentioned, as has the home support.

This is what Conte is best at. Tottenham’s performance in big games has been the most positive aspect of his brief time in charge so far, and is one major reason he has them in contention for the top four. Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal have improved in big games themselves, but their season has mostly been about winning the games they should – which is why they don’t absolutely have to win this one.

That is Spurs’ necessity, but it’s a difficult balance to strike. “Balance” is itself a word that has returned to the discussion around the north London derby, as both clubs face up to the fixture’s biggest game in around a decade.

That period constantly saw discussion over the “balance of power”, and whether it was “shifting”. The reality was that individual fixtures probably never went so far to have that effect, with the fates of the clubs naturally down to greater forces. One was the rise of Mauricio Pochettino, another the decline of Arsene Wenger.

Mixed decisions since the departures of both coaches have now led to this, and a game of exacting clarity.

It will almost certainly decide the Premier League season’s fourth Champions League qualifier, and consequently the medium-term future of the clubs.

Rarely has reaching Europe’s premier competition meant so much to both of the clubs going for the final place. That feeling is all the more acute for a few reasons.

There’s first of all the similarly rare opportunity allowed by Manchester United’s disastrous campaign.

There is little to separate Arsenal and Spurs – but Champions League qualification could change that (Getty)
There is little to separate Arsenal and Spurs – but Champions League qualification could change that (Getty)

“To take a place in the Champions League in England is very, very difficult and this season [Manchester] United missed qualification," Conte made a point of saying. "Otherwise, in my mind, you start with the four teams at the top. At the start, the race for the Champions League seems close, four teams – City, Liverpool, United and Chelsea.”

There’s then the status of the two clubs involved. Arsenal would consider a Champions League “ahead of schedule”, but are aware how much qualification could super-charge them. It would make signing an elite number nine, which they want along with Gabriel Jesus, so much easier. Both clubs are in for Leicester City’s Youri Tielemans.

Champions League qualification could decide that, as well as the future of Harry Kane, and maybe even Conte himself. There has actually been a shift as regards the Italian, and it is now seen as likelier that he stays at Spurs next season. Kane has certainly been captivated by the manager in a way like none since Pochettino. Conte has rescued this season, and resuscitated the club as a top-six force. Spurs, in short, are a team to be taken seriously again.

This is another edge to the game.

In normal circumstances, both clubs could be reasonably happy with progress even if they didn’t qualify for the Champions League – or if they were fifth behind United. The outlooks look much more promising, and secure. They’re both in relatively good shape.

The fact it is their closest rivals who could suddenly surge ahead of them, when there is such an opening, would make any failure so much more agonising though.

It isn’t so much about a shift in the balance of the power, but the setting of new scales.

It all feeds into what is likely to be a ferocious encounter.

Antonio Conte has transformed Tottenham’s season and thrives on these ocassions (Tottenham Hotspur FC/Getty)
Antonio Conte has transformed Tottenham’s season and thrives on these ocassions (Tottenham Hotspur FC/Getty)

That certainly feels the case from the way the managers have been talking to their squads. Arteta, who saw his side come through big games against Chelsea and United in the last few weeks, was on Wednesday almost giddy with anticipation.

“When you have the opportunity to achieve one of your objectives in the season, you just cannot wait to play the game because this is a job, and the work you have done throughout the season to try to earn it,” the Arsenal manager said. “It’s different because the history of north London, we all know about it, and what it means to our fans.

“After that it’s a football pitch with a lot of noise and a crowd that will be excited to support their team, and we’ll have our fans as well for sure one hundred per cent behind the team.”

This is something that shouldn’t be forgotten in the build-up, but will be impossible to overlook once it starts.

For all the talk of the past and the future, there’s enough in the now.

It’s a meeting between two flawed but improving teams, both seeing themselves on upward curves.

In that, for all of the understandable frustration at Spurs, it is set to be a much better game than the one in January would have been. Arsenal are in better shape than then, admittedly, but so are Tottenham – and arguably in a deeper way.

The squad now have a much better grasp of Conte’s methods.

"I think now we are a team with more organisation in the tactical and physical aspect," the Spurs manager said on Tuesday. “Now for sure this team has more football knowledge and at that time, I arrived in November and in only one month we tried to give a lot of information to the players. We had time to improve and to be a team stronger now than the past."

Arsenal are meanwhile more confident in themselves, much more assured. The attacking flatness of Arteta’s early days are gone. There’s more verve to their play, the forwards are more capable of attacking at angles.

Mikel Arteta’s young side are ahead of schedule but have a huge opportunity this season (AFP/Getty)
Mikel Arteta’s young side are ahead of schedule but have a huge opportunity this season (AFP/Getty)

Martin Odegaard and Bukayo Saka illustrate much of this. Arteta announced the latter is a doubt for Thursday, but this is typically seen as mind games within the Spurs training ground. They fully expect Saka to start.

It’s all part of the push and pull of this fixture, one of those enticingly rare meetings that is genuinely 50-50 and will hinge on the little details.

For all that Conte has roused Spurs for the big games, they also suit Arsenal because it means more space to run into. Conte is far too calculated to grant them that, however, and Spurs are certain to set up like a “coiled spring”: very tight, and withdrawn, but ready to burst.

There’s then the extra edge from the crowd.

Just over three years since the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium opened, Thursday will see it host the club’s biggest match in front of a full stadium for the first time.

The home support have prepared a special tifo for the occasion, willing their players to “dare” and “do”.

It is a rare moment of truth in the Premier League, a game almost certain to actually settle something.

Both teams have been made fully aware of that.

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