‘Different’ will the word of my choice, I think.
The North London Derby between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspurs is due this weekend, and the Gunners fans will be experiencing a different feeling going into this one. After a long time, it seems they can no longer signal the impending doomsday of Spurs that was St. Totteringham’s day.
This fixture at White Hart Lane has always been special for both sets of fans but the hosts’ arena has more or less been the place where Arsenal fans had the better memories to recall from. Be it winning the League at the Lane or a recent Rosicky winner, this fixture has brought more to look forward to than not.
However, this time things will be different. It will be Tottenham in the race for the title and a very tightly contested one at that. Further, there is no real feasible way which can result in Arsenal topping their noisy neighbors this season. No matter their expertise in choking, even the most pessimistic Spurs fan won’t expect his team to do a, well, Spurs.
Another thing different this time will be the formation in which Arsène Wenger’s side lineup at the Lane come Sunday. The back three has been in chatter for much of last week, with the Frenchman finally choosing to address his team’s defensive issues. Rob Holding, Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel have been his first choice for the same and one would be hard pressed to say it has not worked.
But as it is with anything Arsenal do, the hurdle of injuries is already hampering the new system. Koscielny is a 60/40 for derby day and that will mean a lot more responsibility going into the hands of young Holding and the erratic Gabriel. Nacho Monreal has been used already in the position but managing Ulloa and Okazaki is not exactly a big audition for the incoming Eriksen and Alli.
Addressing the defence may also need the presence of a proper pair of midfield shields in front of them, and it seems that the Xhaka-Ramsey pivot is really starting to click. Francis Coquelin’s absence from the first XI is something I highly recommend at this point, given how ineffective in pretty much anything he is these days.
To be fair, Ramsey has not exactly been a shining light of inspiration in the centre of the park, but his energy and ability to pop up in dangerous areas still counts for more than the fish flapping defending Coquelin provides.
Speaking of providing things, if Wenger really wants to get any points out of this game he has to start his main provider, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain. A big difference in his three-at-the-back formation is the ability for Wenger to deploy his best offensive midfielder in a position where he can do most damage, and that is wing back.
Hector Bellerin of 2016 may have had a good reason to be offended here, but his current version is just not up to the standards of penetration that the Ox warrants. Chamberlain has the pace and body to burn through opposition defenders and pour in delightful crosses, as he did for Monreal against Manchester City in the FA Cup semi final.
Not only does that makes the team more dangerous, but it gives Olivier Giroud a vital reason to start ahead the likes of Walcott or even Welbeck. Neither is really a target man and it is imperative Wenger uses one against Spurs as it allows the likes of Ozil and Alexis to play off him and create more chances. It remains to be seen how many he wastes through before scoring one.
If the boss gets all of these calls correctly this may not turn out to be he trouncing Paul Merson currently thinks Arsenal will be getting. Maybe even in that scenario though, there will be something that is different from things were supposed to be.