Derby holds up a mirror to mediocrity



About five years ago, British pundits began to play a rather silly game: how many Arsenal players can you fit into the Tottenham Hotspur line-up? Combined XIs have always been used to fill talking time in match build-ups but this exercise was dreamt up amid changing power dynamics and, thus, came to be seen as a measure of progress. When aspiring analyst Tim Sherwood picked zero last year — despite the availability of one Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang — he said he preferred to avoid the risk of sullying his smooth-running Lilywhites.

At the start of the 2019-20 season, this game seems more foolish than ever. As the sides prepare for the North London derby this weekend, neither will be overly enthused by their performances so far. It’s early, yes, but there’s a distinct feeling that the boat to the top has already left them behind. The derby, so long a barometer of one side’s superiority over the other, is now a mirror reflecting mediocrity.

You could fill up three immensely capable combined XIs if you were so inclined, but the wealth of talent on offer has yet to make an impact.

Or provide much creativity, in Spurs’ case. Watching tame, white waves smash against the opposition backline is already feeling tiresome. Where are defence-stretching runs? Who’s capable of finding them when they are made? Wantaway Christian Eriksen provided the verve to save the opening day against an enthusiastic Aston Villa but it’s unclear how much longer he can be counted on.

After an improbable Etihad Stadium escape, it fell to Newcastle United to illustrate the dearth of inventiveness. As impressive a defensive effort as it was on their part, their lives were made easier by the Londoners’ tepid passing in front of their line. Only Lucas Moura exhibited a sustained desire to break past it and he squandered the opportunities when they fell to him. Even the returning Son Heung-min was painfully static and didn’t trouble anyone with his signature pesky runs. We all know his partner, Harry Kane, is capable of creating something out of nothing but that nothing at least has to have the defence on the back foot.

All build-up, no thrust

In contrast, Arsenal had genuine reason to believe they had thrown off the shackles of mediocrity after winning their opening two games — incredibly, the first time they have done so since 2009. But Liverpool, as helpful as always, were sure to issue a reminder of just where they sit. A couple of smart breaks from Nicolas Pépé aside, the Gunners did little to challenge the authority of their Anfield hosts.

The biggest indictment of Unai Emery is that his current side is as toothless in such big games as the one he inherited. Arsenal haven’t beaten a member of the top six away from home since 2015 — an unacceptable statistic in a sport as volatile as football. Heck, in the same weekend Crystal Palace managed to sneak a win at Old Trafford.

Emery has demonstrated a reluctance to play Alexandre Lacazette alongside Aubameyang in those clashes. With Pépé now in the equation, can he be persuaded to deploy all three in what, on paper, looks a lethal trident? Given that the Anfield visit taught us that David Luiz won’t help Arsenal win any battles of attrition, perhaps a mercurial blitz is Emery’s best recourse.

More than anything, we need signs of life on Sunday evening — From both sides. The North London sides have had a fairly stable managerial setup recently — power was handed over smoothly to Emery, while Mauricio Pochettino has been in the job for five years. Progress was supposed to look so much better. But with both teams stuck in a potential quagmire, surpassing your neighbour doesn’t mean all that much.

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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