By Richard Clarke
It seems we have entered the age of the rollercoaster derby.
Comebacks, capitulations and goals galore.
Arsenal-Tottenham games used to have an altogether different lexicon. Results were “snatched”, “stolen” or sometimes “nicked”. A 1-0 was fine. If the goal was late, scrambled or plainly offside, it did not really matter. The glory was always the same.
These days, the derby is different. Terms like raid, resurrection and run amok seem to be more apt. Certainly no swash is left unbuckled in the current north London argument.
Tottenham visit Emirates Stadium on Saturday lunchtime in the first such encounter this season. Their last four trips to N5 have seen 23 goals - that’s almost one every 15 minutes.
In those 360 minutes, Arsenal have come from 2-0 down to win 5-2 and also scored twice within 13 seconds to record another victory. Meanwhile Tottenham have bagged a brace inside two injury-time minutes to draw and won after trailing by a couple of goals themselves.
It is an unprecedented period of see-sawing success and, as ever, Arsène Wenger has a theory.
“These games are played at a frenetic pace,” he said. “Both teams go for it and when one team has the lead the other one absolutely takes every risk because they refuse to lose the game. So sometimes that opens the game up.
“The first goal is always the game-opener, certainly it was always the case recently. We have had some tight games as well but in the recent years I feel the two teams have played in an offensive style and that of course created these goals.”
The ultimate example came on February 26 this year. Arsenal trailed after four minutes and when Emmanuel Adebayor scored from the spot just after the half-hour it seemed Tottenham would be opening up a 13-point gap between the two teams. However the home side were level by the break and Theo Walcott’s brace completed a famous 5-2 win. At full-time that difference was only seven points and Arsenal would reel in Tottenham over the final few months of the campaign. Usually Wenger is not one for hyperbole ahead of such a huge game but even he admits that final hour was a turning point for both teams.
“Yes I think so,” he said. “It was for us especially because we came back closer to them and, in the end, the difference was one point. And that one point was absolutely vital for getting into the Champions League. So it was a massive three points last season. We were 2-0 down but came back and won the game 5-2, that was as well a big lift for the squad.”
The teams go into Saturday’s game one point apart in the table and, given we are only 11 games into the campaign, the result can not have such a dramatic effect.
That said, a victory over near neighbours always satisfies and, if it is followed by another against Montpellier on Wednesday, then Arsenal will have gone a long way to steering themselves back on course after defeat at Old Trafford and that dramatic draw against Fulham last weekend.
Wenger should have Wojciech Szczesny (ankle), Bacary Sagna (fatigue) and Theo Walcott (muscle) all available. They were among a gaggle of players being tested on Friday afternoon.
As they all showed in last season’s derby at Emirates, those three have the character for this particular challenge. The same can be said of Mikel Arteta, who saw a last-gasp spot-kick saved by Fulham keeper Mark Schwarzer on Saturday. But, Wenger asserts, he will step up again if required this weekend.
“Of course,” said the manager. “That's what you want. If everybody doesn't take a penalty again when he misses, you could be quickly in trouble in the team.
“I spoke to him and he was so disappointed for having missed that penalty. But one thing you cannot question from Mikel Arteta is his motivation plus his desire to win and to do well for the team. Then, on the other hand, you want your players to have personality and take responsibilities.
“But give me one player in the world who has never missed a penalty. Lionel Messi scored 76 goals last year and missed one against Chelsea in the semi-finals of the Champions League. Pele missed, everybody missed. You have to accept that – it is part of the game.”
Much has changed at Tottenham since February. When they last came to the Emirates, Harry Redknapp was managing the team and Luka Modric was running it. Both have gone. Ledley King and Rafael van der Vaart have departed too.
However they recruited Andre Villas-Boas as manager while Messrs Dempsey, Lloris, Sigurdsson, Vertonghen, Adebayor and Dembele came in.
“They are a different opposition now, that is for sure,” said Wenger. “And they have a different style of play.
“They lost some players like Modric and Van der Vaart. But they have replaced them with some different players who are great players as well. We’ll see that on Saturday. But we are playing at home and so we will try to dictate our style, no matter how they play.”
And, while these derbies have become free-scoring, lead-changing affairs, they are also even more important given that both sides now harbour similar ambitions year in, year out. Something that you could not have said seven or eight years ago.
“Yes the derbies have a mathematical interest as well because in the recent years Tottenham had good teams and have fought for the Champions League spot,” said Wenger. “They were fighting for the Premier League for a long time last year as well.
“But above all that it is Arsenal-Tottenham and, no matter what the consequences are in the Premier League, it is always a vital game.
“It is always an exciting, nervous day,” the manager said in summation. “But what is important for us is to play our football and to focus on that.”
That last point goes for the fans too.
Both sides have asked their supporters to respect the opposition on this often heated occasion.
Saturday is a day when we could all heed the wise words of the late great David Rocastle, a man who drew respect from both sides of the north London divide.
“Remember who you are, what you are and who you represent.”
Enjoy the game.
Arsenal: Giroud (doubt - hamstring), Sagna (doubt - fatigue), Arteta (doubt - hip), Oxlade-Chamberlain (doubt - hip), Szczesny (doubt - ankle), Walcott (doubt - muscle) Gervinho (ankle), Gibbs (thigh), Diaby (thigh), Rosicky (tendon), Fabianski (ankle)
Spurs: Defoe (doubt - hamstring), Lennon (doubt - hamstring), Walker (doubt - hamstring), Assou-Ekotto (knee), Dembele (hip), Parker (Achilles), Kaboul (knee)
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