Arsenal and Tottenham aren’t acting like ‘big six’ clubs but derby day victory can kickstart seasons
Part of the big six, though the butt of many jokes about it. What does a team who loses to Brentford and sits bottom, pointless after three games, have to do with anything ‘Super’ at all?
That short-lived conversation went well beyond any on-pitch matters of course, but on the pitch is precisely where it matters most to the supporters, to the judgemental neutrals and most certainly to the players themselves.
Results have picked up most recently for the Gunners, it’s true. Ahead of Sunday’s north London derby at the Emirates, Mikel Arteta has spoken of momentum and optimism being on the upturn . “Confidence rises, competition brings the best out of you when you have difficult moments and the boys have managed to win three games in a row so credit to how they have handled the situation and now they are obviously looking forward to play on Sunday in what is our biggest game of the season,” he said. That’s unquestionably true, yet requires context as ever.
Arsenal lost three in a row to start the season, and have since won four out of five: two Carabao Cup successes against lower-league opposition and two Premier League wins against clubs with a combined one point from 30 available between them. You can only beat what’s in front of you, but newly-promoted Norwich and yet-to-get-into-gear Burnley are not a yardstick of improvement. In the midst of those four wins came a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Man City , whereby Arsenal again displayed an immaturity and incapacity to cope with the big challenges, tactically or in terms of personnel.
They may well rise to the challenge against Tottenham. They may well be turning the corner as Arteta has hoped for. But they remain a very slow work in progress with many levels to go before they can be considered among the teams capable of earning Champions League spots again. The closest of derbies aside, would many neutrals back Arsenal to beat, say, West Ham right now?
It isn’t just with results where Arsenal have floundered of late. Transfer work has come under scrutiny ever since Arteta was, very loudly and publicly, installed as manager rather than head coach. He and Edu remain questioned in that regard - and yet there’s no doubt he has also done some excellent work in bringing through some of the most talented youngsters at the club in a generation. Constantly buying new players for the same position is a less-appealing trait, and one they hope the likes of Aaron Ramsdale and Ben White might help put an end to for future windows. The jury remains firmly out there, too.
So what of Tottenham? If the red half of north London faces a barrage of questions, have Spurs so quietly moved on from the manager search fiasco and replotted their way back into top-four contention? Not quite.
Nuno Espirito Santo has had to juggle his team selections, on occasion through injury, at other times through internationals camping out in Croatia for the week. A diamond midfield flopped against Crystal Palace , his preferred back three hasn’t been seen with regularity and he played many of his first-choice league team in the Carabao Cup in midweek - terribly un-top-six-like behaviour from him.
Spurs have so far treaded the fine line between doing too well and faring too poorly, nicely positioning themselves in early-season anonymity to allow the new boss to get to grips with the demands of a job that were too vast or too disinteresting for Erik ten Hag, Antonio Conte, Paulo Fonseca and a host of others.
They are better-placed than Arsenal, have more points, have fewer new signings to bed into key roles in the team and are, albeit in an already-ridiculed third-tier competition, in Europe this season. By most measures, they head into the north London derby as favourites - yet their record of just two wins at Arsenal in the Premier League era, one at Highbury in 1993 and another at the Emirates very nearly 11 years ago, is atrocious.
For both clubs, then, there are both present and near-term future improvements at stake, above and beyond the matter of the derby itself.
Victory here will not ease concerns or answer questions, but can absolutely be a gateway to exactly what Arteta was speaking about: a virtuous circle of better morale, results and expectation. Victory here might be the real start for either club’s campaign, and a hint of how much progress they might make this season.