Why the Arsenal defence will be a decisive factor in the north London derby

Injuries, a manager under pressure, and rumours of squad instability – it’s nice to be looking in at someone else’s crisis for a change.

Arsenal have gone into countless north London derbies in recent years in just such a position – beset by absences, political strife on and off the field, and with an unsettled and unhappy dressing room.

This time around, for the first time in a long time, we are the club looking on at the flames beginning to engulf our rivals. Those flames can have a galvanising effect, of course (we have experienced as much ourselves), but, given the choice, you would always prefer to be the club watching the fire than trying to put it out with a damp tea towel.

That we play today’s derby at home is the cherry on top of a cake that is fresh from the oven and ready to devour. Spurs remain a capable side – as their exploits at Manchester City showed – but the obvious internal disunity also produced the performance shown against Newcastle, in which they were extremely ordinary.

Whether Mauricio Pochettino will set his ego to one side and pick the best team available to him is, as yet, an unknown but the sort of pride of which he is possessed is not easily swallowed.

Rumours of his imminent departure and those of want away Christian Eriksen have also proved a welcome distraction in the build up to the match, while the obvious rift between the manager and defender Jan Vertoghen have added additional elements of intrigue.

While all the above adds up to an excellent opportunity for Unai Emery’s men, however, it is only that – an opportunity. This is not a game that will win itself, however badly things are at Tottenham right now.

Oft times professional pride takes over in games of this magnitude and hostilities are suspended for a short period – reducing the impact of any perceived advantage. Lord knows we have snatched points before from extremely weak positions.

So the Gunners are going to have to push from the first minute to the last, as they did in this fixture last season, which was arguably their best performance of the campaign. The desire and intensity on that day was incredible and it will need every ounce of that character again to be sure that our advantage isn’t levelled out by a Tottenham renaissance.

It’s safe to say that I have no concerns with our forward line, which is among the best in the league right now. The array of talent we have in the final third is devastatingly good. I don’t doubt for a moment that we will score.

But it is rare that games like this are won or lost based on the performance of the attacking players. These battles are won by controlling the midfield and keeping an iron grip on matters in defence.

While our midfield is evolving and improving through the combinations of Dani Ceballos, Matteo Guendouzi, Granit Xhaka, Lucas Torreira, and Joe Willock, one can’t help feeling that their job is made doubly-difficult but their relative inexperience and the defence they have behind them.

Try as they did in the summer to make the changes required – the Gunners’ defence showed its true self against Liverpool last week and it remains the elephant in the room.

David Luiz is an all or nothing player and whether is truly an upgrade on Shkodran Mustafi is doubtful – rather a slightly older and more experienced one.

The makeshift nature of Ainsley Maitland-Niles at right back and the shortcomings of Sead Kolasinac as a defensive player add up to a source of real anxiety for fans and, I’m sure, Emery too – who must be sacrificing goats to hasten the returns of Rob Holding, Hector Bellerin, and Kieran Tierney.

Until then, we really are holding it together as best as we can but keeping the cracks from splitting feels like a constant battle. A mistake or a lapse is never far away and Harry Kane is possessed of enough quality to take advantage of the sort of mistakes we are prone to making.

If we can get through 90 minutes without making a gaffe at the back – and that is a large if – I feel confident we can do damage to a Tottenham side that is under a great deal of pressure at the moment. Given the points dropped by Chelsea and Manchester United on Saturday, a victory would also strike a blow wider than north London.

This is a good time to be playing Pochettino’s side – and a good time to put down an confidence-building marker – but it will count for nothing if we don’t find a way to control our own fallibility.

Today, that’s going to be decisive.

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