It's been a good week for Arsene Wenger and Arsenal as they followed up a convincing away win at Fulham last weekend by safely negotiating the second leg of their Champions League play-off against Fenerbahce in midweek. But the pressure doesn't stay off for long in the Premier League and Sunday's north London derby against Tottenham promises to tell us a lot more about the relative merits of these two sides.
As Wenger fends off questions about a lack of transfer activity, it's been player changes aplenty at White Hart Lane. Indeed, with the focus on Gareth Bale's move to Real Madrid dominating the start of the season - as well as much of the summer - it's been a quiet opening to the campaign on the field for Tottenham. Two Premier League games, two 1-0 wins and two Roberto Soldado penalties.
Six points speaks for itself and Spurs fans will be encouraged by the back-to-back clean sheets, even if the fluency has been lacking. It's been quite a contrast in that regard, with Arsenal scoring freely but looking wide open at times. An intriguing game ahead then, especially after a dramatic contest the last time these two teams met back in March. Spurs ran out 2-1 winners that day but the real story of the game was the high-line tactics of both sides. Could that be the key once again?
All the signs are that Tottenham will continue to operate with a high block this season, squeezing high up the field and playing with minimal gaps between the lines. These are classic Andre Villas-Boas tactics and were certainly in evidence at home to Swansea last weekend. Spurs condensed the centre of the pitch and the average position maps show just how tight the demarcation between defence, midfield and attack can be in a Villas-Boas team. As a result, their possession-winning line was 10 metres further forward than Swansea's.
Whether Arsenal engage a similar strategy to the one that saw them exposed by Aaron Lennon and Bale in similar fashion for each of the two goals they conceded six months ago could prove key to how the game pans out. A high line requires pressure on the ball and this is not something Arsenal's midfield has proven particularly successful at providing in recent times.
Midfield protection, in general, has been an issue. Aaron Ramsey has received much praise for his early season form but he does not provide a natural pivot in midfield. Perhaps this was part of the reason why Per Mertesacker could be seen screaming at the Welshman in their win at Craven Cottage - when the centre-backs split to receive the ball from Wojciech Szczesny, Ramsey seldom dropped in to provide cover (as shown by the average position diagram from the game, below).
The suspicion remains that Arsenal's midfield do not have the variety of skillsets to succeed in all circumstances. A fit Mikel Arteta, or perhaps a Luiz Gustavo, would give the Gunners defenders more confidence that breakaways would be cut out. Mousa Dembele, Etienne Capoue and Paulinho can fulfil that role for Spurs, with the latter two having made seven tackles each so far this season. No Arsenal midfielder has made six. In fact, Arsenal rank 19th in the Premier League for tackles after two games of the campaign.
|Tackes & Interceptions - PL 2012/13|
Of course, what Arsenal's midfield lacks in ability to shut out their opponents, they can make up for in terms of their quality in possession of the ball. Ramsey is among the top three passers in the Premier League so far this season and this ability to circulate the ball in midfield could prove critical on Sunday. Five Arsenal players have made 100 passes so far this season, while just two among the Spurs squad can boast the same.
With Cazorla expected to be used cutting in from the left in the absence of Lukas Podolski, there is a chance for Arsenal to create a numerical advantage in an albeit congested midfield. While Villas-Boas will be looking to press the home team, the likes of Jack Wilshere and possibly Tomas Rosicky have the talent to create space and in Cazorla they arguably possess the Premier League player most likely to breach Spurs' high line. The Spaniard played 30 successful through-balls last season with nobody else managing more than 17.
This possession game proved successful in the wins over Fenerbahce and Fulham but it is worth noting that Arsenal were exposed on the counter-attack against Aston Villa. And even without Bale, Tottenham remain an effective counter-attacking team. Interestingly, only one side scored more Premier League goals on the break last season than Spurs. That team was Arsenal.
For that reason, the Theo Walcott factor could be important here with the success he enjoys up against Danny Rose potentially proving key. Moreover, if Cazorla is asked to cut inside from the opposite flank, this match could become a battle of the right wings. Kyle Walker and Aaron Lennon were a significant attacking weapon on the opening weekend against Crystal Palace, with over 49 per cent of Tottenham attacks coming down the right third of the pitch. Furthermore, Andros Townsend, who replaced Lennon for the Swansea game, won the match-winning penalty from the right-wing slot on Sunday.
The tactical battle doesn't end even if the defensive lines are breached. There are always the goalkeepers to bail out their respective sides and with the possibility of both teams playing a high line, there could be big roles for the sweeper-keepers on Sunday. Hugo Lloris is strong in this area, happy to come off his line to cut out through-balls, but Szczesny must improve after being caught out by Gabriel Agbonlahor against Villa.
High lines, counter-attacks, through-balls and wingers. Maybe just a moment of magic? There are many areas that the north London derby could be won or lost so predictions are tricky. But given that the first meeting between Wenger and Villas-Boas back in 2011 ended in a 5-3 win for the Gunners, a repeat of Tottenham's opening 1-0 wins would see unlikely.