It all comes down to this. It’s a do or die North London Derby with Champions League football on the line. The stakes have rarely been higher between these two and it promises to be a electric atmosphere in North London.
Tottenham and Arsenal have been scrapping for a top four spot all season long and the tensions between the two have mounted after the Gunners postponed this clash earlier on in the season over Covid cases – despite having just one positive test – in a move that infuriated Spurs boss Antonio Conte.
The timing of this rescheduled game could hardly come at a better time, towards the business end of the season with just three games to go. Four points separate the pair and Arsenal can clinch Champions League football with victory over Spurs tonight.
Even if Spurs win – they will need Arsenal to slip up in their final two games against Newcastle and Everton. Tottenham simply have to go for it, but will that play into Arsenal’s hands, or could the enormity of the occasion play into their thinking?
Conte admitted securing a top four finish would be like ‘winning a title’, and the Italian would have studied Arsenal’s side looking for weaknesses, though Spurs have shown inconsistencies this season and will have flaws of their own that the Gunners can exploit.
Sportsmail gives a tactical breakdown of this epic North London showdown, detailing where the game could be won and lost.
Tottenham and Arsenal go head-to-head on Thursday night battling it out for a top four spot
ARSENAL MUST SHUT DOWN TOTTENHAM’S TERRIFIC TRIO
Without a doubt going into this one, the biggest talking point has been the threat posed by Tottenham’s front three of Dejan Kulusevski, Harry Kane and Heung-min Son, who have forged a dangerous forward line.
They have 57 goals between them and 23 assists and each have shone in their own right this season – with Kulusevski joining in Janaury from Juventus and sparking down the right flank for Tottenham.
Arsenal’s defenders will have their hands full up against the trio, who have all played their part and been instrumental in helping Spurs pick up results in the last five games and can be lethal on the counter attack, which will likely be Conte’s main stategy in this game.
However, they have shown that an organised and rigid defence can keep them quiet in recent times.
Tottenham drew a blank in back to back games against Brighton and Brentford, who both restricted the supply to the front line – with both games resulting in zero shots on target from Conte’s men.
Arsenal will have to monitor the threat of Dejan Kulusevski, Son Heung-min and Harry Kane
There is a feeling that Spurs are reliant on their three star players to make things happen, and when the team have a slow start to the game there can be frustration.
Arsenal will have to be switched on throughout the 90 minutes and will want to pay particular attention to Kane – who has been dropping deep and turning provider in recent months. The England captain can act as a playmaker to pick out perfect defence-splitting passes, but is also obviously a huge goalscoring threat and it will require a team effort to mark him out of the game.
Ben White and Gabriel Magalhaes may have to double team him at times when he arrives in the box but Arsenal’s midfielders will also be forced to do a job on him when he drops into those pockets in midfield.
Ben White and Gabriel Magalhaes have a marking job to do on Harry Kane – but face a dilemma when he drops into midfield
We’ve seen Kane cut a marginal figure at various points this season and quite often if Spurs have a bad day, he struggles to get going. Son has proven he can make the difference – as he did by netting in the 1-1 draw against Liverpool – and either Takehiro Tomiyasu or Cedric Soares will be wary of the threat he poses.
Kulusevski has often been the supply man for both Kane and Son this season. He’s racked up eight assists and he only made his debut in February. We’ve seen him drive into the box and then twist and turn his man with brilliant footwork to provide chance on a plate.
He’s scored three times too – and Arsenal will have to come up with a solid man-marking job to ensure not too much attention is paid to each of the three players, otherwise it could expose their team elsewhere.
SAKA CAN EXPOSE TOTTENHAM’S WEAK LEFT SIDE
Arteta will be fretting over the fitness of Bukayo Saka for this game after he limped off 20 minutes from time in their 2-1 win over Leeds United – and that’s because he is a game changer on his day who can really hurt Tottenham’s back line.
Saka has gone from strength to strength this season with 11 goals and six assists, winning plaudits with his direct style of play – and he could be a real menace for Ryan Sessegnon and Ben Davies on Tottenham’s left hand side if he is match fit.
The England star stood out for the Three Lions at Euro 2020 this summer and deserves credit for bouncing back from a disappointing penalty shootout miss against Italy in the final.
Bukayo Saka’s directness and dribbling ability could cause real issues for Spurs down the left
He’s been sensation for Arsenal this season and is in form too – with two goals and one assist in his last four games.
Saka has created 64 chances for Arsenal – according to Opa – level with Son Heung-min. He’s carved out an opening every 42.7 minutes, better than Kane, Son or Kulusevski. His trickery, speed and clever footwork is also highlighted in the amount of fouls he wins – 56 – including 20 in the final third. Kane is Tottenham’s most fouled player on 47.
Spurs have to be careful if Saka burst through with the ball – he can be so dangerous and is always willing to break into the box with the ball, having 210 touches in the opposition penalty area this season.
Being without him for this crucial game would be a body blow for Arteta, who knows Saka’s running and dribbling ability can bamboozle Tottenham defenders and create openings for Arsenal’s forward players.
MIDFIELD BATTLE COULD DECIDE THE GAME
Tottenham’s midfield largely picks itself these days with Oliver Skipp out injured and Harry Winks not a first team regular, which means Conte is likely to go with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Rodrigo Bentancur as his middle two.
The pair have been solid since the Uruguayan midfielder arrived from Juventus in the January transfer window and offer a decent balance in the centre of the park as a tough tackling presence and a deep-lying playmaker who has great vision and can pick out a pass to set the team on their way.
Bentancur has given Spurs a real lift since he joined and has added a dash of creativity with a superb range of passing and he’s actually boosted the displays of Hojbjerg, who has had a few fans on the fence about his ability
Whoever’s midfield comes out on top can give their side the edge and change their fortunes
Rodrigo Bentancur has given Tottenham’s midfield a lift and helps them build attacking plays
Given Spurs are likely to play a 3-4-3 against Arsenal, Arteta will look to flood the midfield with his 4-2-3-1 system, and dominate possession, which should suit Spurs as that will allow them to sit deep and hit them on the counter.
But when Tottenham do have the ball they’ll need to play intelligently and move the ball quickly as Conte likes to build up play from defence to work the ball towards his attacking players.
Arsenal should go with Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka as their two holding players with Thomas Partey unavailable due to injury. The defensive-minded pair can help frustrate Tottenham with their physicality and interceptions – but the surprise form of Elneny in recent games could catch Tottenham off guard.
The Egyptian is not usually a first choice name at Arsenal – he has only made five starts in the league this season – but four of them have come in the last four games, and he has impressed in all those matches. His passing is also a factor that stands out, completing 97.5 per cent of his passes in the win over Leeds, which should keep the Gunners ticking and help them keep the ball.
Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny have formed a solid partnership that has helped steer Arsenal towards Champions League football
Martin Odegaard scored against Spurs in the reverse fixture and will be a huge threat with his ability to play in tight spaces and create space
Overall this season Elneny has a 92 per cent pass success rate and is making 1.9 tackles per 90 minutes – higher than Tottenham’s best from Hojbjerg on 1.4.
Meanwhile, Odegaard scored in the reverse fixture at the Emirates and will always be seen as a threat if he can pick up the ball in tight areas and create space for himself.
The Norwegian has created 67 chances this season and has a dribbling success rate of 52.4 – the best of any player from either side.
Whoever’s midfield gets on top in the game can have a decisive impact on the result and could change their team’s fortunes on the night.
CONTE’S ARSENAL HOODOO
Tottenham fans have been excited to see Antonio Conte manage Spurs in big games like this and his tactical experience has already seen Spurs beat City and get two points off feared title challengers Liverpool.
But they should look away now because the Italian has a woeful record against Arsenal – he’s only ever won once against them.
He’s managed a total of eight games against them, drawing three and losing four, with an aggregate score of 15-8.
Chelsea fans will remember the 3-0 loss to the Gunners in 2016 that prompted a furious reaction from Conte, who ended up switching his Blues side to a back three and that was catalyst to them winning the title in the 2016-17 campaign.
Antonio Conte has a woeful record against Arsenal – winning just once in his eight meetings
He got his revenge in the reverse fixture that season – winning 3-1 at Stamford Bridge in February to move closer to winning the Premier League, but then his side were ousted 2-1 by Arsene Wenger’s men in the FA Cup final that summer.
Their next two meetings in 2017-18 were draws before they were dumped out of the League Cup semi-finals.
Conte will be well aware that if there are any fixtures you must win as a Tottenham boss – Arsenal home and away are it. For whatever reason he has not been able to have too much success against the Gunners, but has a fresh slate in his first match against them as Spurs boss.
He has a new team and has never faced Mikel Arteta before. Tottenham were dreadful in the reverse fixture, losing 3-1, so he has a chance to show just how far his team have come since that dismal day.
He is up against Mikel Arteta for the first time and has a chance to show how far his Spurs side have come since losing 3-1 to Arsenal in September
WHO’S GOT THE NERVES?
Spurs have already been building up the atmosphere towards tonight’s game, messaging supporters urging them to make a huge noise and informing them they will have blue and white flags to hold up to make it as special an evening as possible.
This is the first ever North London Derby to be played in front of fans since the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium opened in 2019 and the home faithful will be doing everything they can to Spurs the team on.
There is already so much on the line as it is, but with the added hostile atmosphere from the crowd, players might be feeling the nerves a little.
But it’s difficult to determine which way that will swing until kick off comes around. Spurs will appreciate the loud roaring support and it will give them an initial lift for sure, but many teams relish playing in a rival’s backyard and will get their own motivation from that too.
Tottenham and Arsenal stars will be playing in an intense atmosphere on Thursday night in the first ever derby in front of fans at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
The home atmosphere will give Spurs a lift but they must ensure they use the energy to their advantage and not fall flat under the expectation
It’s Spurs who must chase the game, with Arsenal knowing as long as they avoid defeat they stand a good chance of getting top four – with victory clinching it.
If it was the other way round then an intimidating atmosphere might work in their favour, but seeing as they’ll have to put in a cautious performance to keep their four point gap, the enviroment might cause a few mistakes.
And from Tottenham’s perspective there is always the prospect of slipping up under the weight of expectation, which fans have seen countless times throughout the years.
The atmosphere will make for a fantastic spectacle and could even make tactics go out of the window as both teams fight for the win.