With each passing day the contrast between Ange Postecoglou and his predecessor as Tottenham manager, Antonio Conte, becomes more striking. It’s there with the differences in style of football and certainly with the differences in message. Take, for instance, Postecoglou’s response to being asked about the challenge his players face against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday. “This is the type of experience I want the guys to have and for us to have as a group to help us grow,” he said. “You don’t grow by being in the shade; you need to stick your head up and see the sun.”
It’s impossible to imagine Conte saying similar, largely because all he appeared to see during his time in charge was darkness. It was a suffocatingly negative state of affairs and that Postecoglou has cleared so much of the Italian’s toxic gloom in such a short space of time is testament to his abilities not only as a coach but as a person. Spurs, quite clearly, are a happier club, on and off the pitch, but now comes the ultimate test of the Australian’s upswing – a north London derby. That both teams go into the game in great form and mood, not to mention on the same number of points (13 from five games), adds to the sense of anticipation. It should be a cracker.
Or will it? Because while Mikel Arteta is sure to send his players into battle with the instruction of dominating possession and territory in pursuit of victory, Postecoglou could be forgiven for abandoning his attacking principles just this once; get men behind the ball, restrict space, be cautious and play for the draw, one that would maintain his team’s unbeaten league record as well as positive momentum, not to mention keep them on the heels of their biggest rivals. That would no doubt have been Conte’s approach and for that very reason there is no chance of Postecoglou doing the same. As he put it clearly and emphatically: “We’re going to go out and play our football.”
“If you want to be a team that challenges, you have to play that [attacking] way, irrespective of the opponent,” he said. “There’s no point not using a game like Sunday as a measure to see where we’re at. If we shy away from it, don’t play our football, manage to get a draw, what have we really learned apart from surviving 90 minutes of football? Nothing.”
Expect Spurs, then, to line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with a collective emphasis on pressing high up the pitch and using possession in a fast, progressive manner. A largely fit squad – Ivan Perisic is the only new absentee after sustaining an anterior cruciate ligament injury in training that is likely to sideline the Croatia international for a lengthy spell and which Postecoglou has described as “disappointing” – also means the team largely picks itself.
The biggest selection dilemma for the head coach is whether to start Richarlison over Manor Solomon after the Brazilian’s stunning impact as an 80th-minute substitute against Sheffield United last Saturday, scoring one goal and setting up the other for Dejan Kulusevski as Spurs recovered from 1-0 down to win 2-1 in the most dramatic fashion. The odds are on Richarlison getting the nod, with Postecoglou describing the forward as “at ease with himself” after he recently opened up on his need for “psychological help”.
As upbeat as Spurs fans are right now, the majority are sure to go into Sunday’s game with a level of trepidation given how imperious Arsenal have looked this season, no more so than during Wednesday’s 4-0 victory over PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League, and their team’s record at the Emirates; one win since November 2010 and that in the Carabao Cup. They also no longer have Harry Kane, the all-time top scorer in north London derbies with 14 goals in 19 appearances.
But the message from Postecoglou is simple: believe. Also: be excited. After all, this is a type of contest to be relished, which he clearly does if his memories of managing Celtic in 11 Old Firm fixtures are anything to go by. “We played Rangers in my first year and only had 700 supporters there and we won,” Postecoglou said. “That was unbelievable; I never knew until then that 700 people could silence thousands.”
“The great derbies are usually based on something significant and they have an added edge when they’re geographical because you want to be kings of your neighbourhood,” he added. “I’ve experienced that in Australia, in Japan, in Glasgow. It’s great, I love it. I love being part of it.”