For the first time in a long time, there really isn’t much riding on today’s north London derby.
Although the inconsistency of the teams around and above us means nothing is ever impossible, the reality is that Arsenal have been every bit as inconsistent as their rivals over the last month, if not longer.
It’s a frustrating pattern we’ve settled into when any sort of consistency might have seen us propelled up the league and into a commanding position but that is the reality of where this squad is in its process of repair and rebuild.
As much as we might have wanted a rapid return to the Champions League places, a legacy of poor choices, transfers, and investments mean that, at least for this season, that remains a far-off possibility.
All of this doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t expect a good performance or a win today, even from players whose future might not necessarily lie with the club. In fact, with some of the pressure that comes with the higher spots released, you might expect Arsenal to play with a certain amount of freedom.
In truth, I think much about the derby will be decided on the decisions Jose Mourinho makes. Will he press high? Will he sit deep? Will he counter-attack? Will he play on the front foot?
The Portuguese’s natural instinct is always to defend first but, in the last two or three weeks, he has pivoted out of desperation towards a more expansive approach, which has seemingly reaped rewards and puts his side among the form teams in the league.
For a game as big and important to his season as this, though, can Mourinho really resist the urge to revert to the sort of football he knows and loves best? I would argue that, if he’s smart, he will do exactly that, allow Arsenal to commit and then break with the pace of Son and finishing ability of Kane and Bale.
Going toe-to-toe with Arsenal, meanwhile, will, at least in my estimation, play directly into the hands of Mikel Arteta’s men, who have shown themselves willing and well able at exploiting spaces and creating chances this season, if not always able to finish them.
This all supposes, of course, that Mikel hasn’t made a plan for Mourinho that will nullify anything he may attempt to do. I would be amazed if he hasn’t something up his sleeve for the likes of Kane and Bale at least but the success of those plans will probably depend on where Mourinho asks his team to play and how.
For those reasons, I expect this year’s derby to be one of the most tactical battles in years, with the win decided in the smallest margins. My hope is that those margins don’t in any way involve VAR or the wretched referee, who have shown repeatedly this season that they are capable of costing us decisions, goals and points. For once, I’d like a match settled on its own merits.
Although victory or defeat won’t define our season at this stage, it could set the tone for the rest of our campaign and it is important that we continue to show progress.