This is it, the one game never to be lost. No peace, love and understanding in a match where bragging rights are secondary today. Win and Arsenal go top with the added sweetness of the misery it piles into the psyche of the Middlesex Pub Team. Lose and this will be the longest international break ever. Even though it will only be the usual fortnight.
Yesterday’s results should give the players a boost. No matter the performance didn’t merit a win, Middlesbrough’s draw at the Emirates can now be turned to a positive by Wenger and his phalanx of coaches and shrinks. Their draw at Manchester City opens up the prospect of being top going into November. Occupying that spot ought to imbue confidence in the players for the remainder of November which includes a trip to Old Trafford and PSG in the Champions League.
‘Ought’ is a powerful word. Today ‘ought’ to be a straightforward win for Arsenal. Unbeaten in all competitions since the opening day of the season, they face a team which has drawn four and lost two of their last six. Out of form, out of sorts and rushing their ‘star’ striker back from injury after an utterly abject performance in midweek.
But that’s out of the window. The footballing cliché has it that the form book doesn’t matter in a local derby, anything can happen. And with Tottenham is an enjoyably wretched state, there’s every reason to be confident of victory. As long as the players leave the complacency to the professionals, i.e. us, we’ll be in good shape.
Arsène has a number of selection choices today. Not headaches particularly but certainly decisions to make. At the back, I expect Nacho Monreal to return if fit. However, there’s no apparent rush in this one as Kieran Gibbs has done a good job as his deputy.
The biggest choice is midfield. Unless Arsène was being coy with the media on Thursday, Santi Cazorla is unlikely to be fit in time for today. The question of who replaces him ought to be straightforward: Mohammed Elneny. The Egyptian has played well at Sunderland and Ludogorets. Alongside him, I expect Francis Coquelin although Granit Xhaka is available following suspension.
The pair of them are alike in many respects. Temperamentally, Coquelin walks a tightrope and has a short fuse. Xhaka is prone to late tackles; the pair carry risks and you certainly wouldn’t want them side-by-side without a calming influence. I expect Arsène to keep faith in Coquelin today.
On the flanks, Alex Iwobi will most likely return on the left with Alexis leading the line. Tottenham struggled against Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday with the Germans quick forwards and wide players exposing the hapless Walker and hopeless Davies. Rose isn’t much better than him so Walcott on the right seems the best option.
It’s harsh on Olivier Giroud but Spurs central pairing of Dier and Vertonghen would probably relish playing him. He’s more static than Alexis in terms of the areas he plays and the Chilean dropping deep to pick up the ball is a defender’s nightmare; if they follow they leave a gap, if they don’t the midfield is outnumbered.
Pace is going to be important today and having a Walcott and Iwobi wing pairing has the advantage of stifling the Tottenham full backs attacking instincts. Spurs have been Graham-esque in their play this season: tight at the back, unimaginative in attack.
That’s another motivation for winning today: ending their unbeaten. If there was ever a team which needed to be known as ‘the not-quite-invincibles’, it’s those from Middlesex.
All of which leaves the line-up:
Cech; Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal (Gibbs); Coquelin, Elneny; Walcott (Ramsey), Özil, Iwobi; Sanchez
The players and manager know what this means to supporters, that winning is all that matters. However much you want to look at the result in the context of a season, on the day winning is all that matters. The time for considering the impact of what the points gained or lost may mean has passed. The impact of dropped points mean is for a future day; today is all about winning.
A crushing win – sickening for them to endure – or a late winner which leaves them with a burning sense of injustice. Any win will do, even a rebound off the referee’s arsenal into the net. Winning is good and this fixture leaves no room for magnanimity.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.