There is a mammoth – potentially league-shaping – fixture this weekend, and it is not the one happening in North London.
A day after Chelsea host Manchester City in a match that may shed greater detail on the health of their title ambitions, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur will enter combat for pride, hope and emotional investment into their current direction.
In a way, the derby is of greater significance even though it has no ramifications for the league’s powerhouses. Belief is an undervalued commodity in football, with both Mikel Arteta and Nuno Espirito Santo requiring it in spades.
Their clubs are in contrasting cycles: Arsenal are confronting the pains that come with a rebuild, Tottenham have been delaying that eventuality – further cemented by their decision not to cede Harry Kane.
Right now, Spurs have more solidity owing to the consistency of the squad make-up and structure behind the scenes. But there is credence at the Emirates that in the medium to long-term, they will be more equipped to dominate in North London again and pressurise those in the Champions League places.
Arteta’s Arsenal spell has fallen victim to the boom-bust narrative, owing to the tragicomedy ways in which they can welcome defeat.
A balanced view, however, suggests that the manager has eradicated quite a few problems while still navigating a work in progress.
Mikel Arteta is gradually reshaping Arsenal
The squad he inherited was stale, ageing, unmotivated and without specialists. Over the past 18 months, the group has been reshaped. This is most noticeable in a defensive respect where Ben White, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Gabriel Magalhaes have come in to replace David Luiz, Shkodran Mustafi and Hector Bellerin. In goal, Aaron Ramsdale – who is comfortable with the ball at his feet – has usurped Bernd Leno.
Thomas Partey, hopefully with his injury issues confined to the past, adds greater steel anchoring the midfield. Arteta has instilled a stable defensive platform for Arsenal to remedy their offensive misery.
The team’s work without the ball was very obviously his first focus and they posted the third best goals against figure last season but scored just 55 times – their lowest league total since 1995-96.
The permanent signing of Martin Odegaard should help reverse that dearth in chance creation and conversion. Emile Smith-Rowe, Bukayo Saka and Kieran Tierney are also key in this regard.
Earlier this month, after a hideous start, Arsenal were rooted to the bottom of the table. Tottenham were at the summit, with nine points separating the rivals.
The shredding of that state of play has been swift: if the hosts win by a two-goal margin, they’ll be looking down at Spurs.
It feels as though even in the short term, Nuno’s charges have little comfort to count on. By the manager’s own analysis, there is “so many problems that we have to solve.”
The receding impact of Kane – at the moment anyway – is one of those. Had City made a worthy offer for England’s captain, it would have been interesting to see whether Daniel Levy stuck to his safeguarding of status or accepted that mega-money could help fund the club’s on-pitch future for the long-term.
Having lost the magic of Mauricio Pochettino and then the box-office draw of Jose Mourinho, keeping Kane was not solely a football decision. Levy, still after a naming rights partner for the stadium, has needed to protect Spurs’ value.
Martin Odegaard hit the winner as Arsenal won at Burnley
Kane and Heung-min Son, 28 and 29 respectively, are the only superstars now. Tottenham’s panorama for the future cannot circle around them. Dele Alli has sadly been a faded force and there is long-standing annoyance at the club that the chairman doesn’t sanction sales when players can fetch a maximum to facilitate a refresh.
This was the case with Toby Alderweireld to Manchester United in 2018, Christian Eriksen who could was worth £80m at a point, and Dele, who was billed as a £100m-man.
Kane adds to a long list, and as the top goalscorer in the derby, may continue his habit of scoring against Arsenal and bring some relief to Levy.
Whatever the result on Sunday, Arteta has embraced a rebuild head-on, while Tottenham are only delaying the inevitable.