Heart Of Football

Free-firing Gunners favoured to earn their Spurs

Arsenal’s German midfielder Mesut Ozil drives the ball before scoring a goal during the Uefa Champions League Group A football match between PFC Ludogorets and Arsenal, on Nov 1, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

The journey is short, the enmity is long, and the kick-off in the north London derby comes at noon English time (8pm Singapore).

When we talk of tribalism and territorial rivalry, few games stir such intensity as Arsenal versus Tottenham. It has been that way ever since Arsenal moved from the Gunnery Terrace south of the River Thames to Tottenham's neighbourhood in 1913.

Hence the north London derby.

Hence the depth of feeling that, no matter how many foreigners play, this is deeply personal; and local.

Adding the fact that both teams fancy their chances of winning the Premier League, and that should eliminate any doubts about any lack of biting tempo today.

Arsene Wenger's Arsenal are on a roll of 10 wins in 11 games. Mesut Ozil is scoring wonder goals, Alexis Sanchez dynamic ones, while Theo Walcott is racking up numbers that are rare to him. Even Olivier Giroud is rising off the bench to head a few in.

So it is a wounded, unsure Tottenham against an Arsenal that, dare one say it, appears closer now to playing the style of football that Wenger believes in - possibly for the first time since the Gunners' own disruptive, costly move from Highbury into the future in July 2006.

Against that, no defence in England has been tighter than Mauricio Pochettino's. Ten games played, just five goals conceded, and the only unbeaten team in the Premier League since the season began in August.

That, however, masks the inability of Tottenham to score goals in what has been the long and sorely missed absence of Harry Kane. The good news for Tottenham, the tempting news for Pochettino, is that Kane is back to full training.

The only question is whether he starts in the line-up or on the bench. His thigh problem, a consequence no doubt of the miles he runs and the strain he undertakes for club and country had gone two whole seasons with barely any respite to regain energy and sharpness and muscle power.

It's the same for almost everyone, except that Kane's physical style had been so willing, so unremitting, that if he were a racehorse, Tottenham and England would have been reported to the League Against Cruel Sports by now.

Pochettino is cagey about exactly when Kane will be unleashed against the Gunners. But the Spurs boss bridles at suggestions that he would take any risk, with Harry or anybody else.

He is wise to do so because we saw towards the bitter end of last season, when Tottenham ran out of steam after competing for so many months, that Spurs lack reserves to sustain their high octane football.

That is further hampered by the fact that Tottenham is going through a spell now that Arsenal endured a decade ago. Spurs' stadium at White Hart Lane is going through a modernisation that is sucking financial resources into bricks and mortar rather than key players to make that final push to the title, and beyond that, the Champions League.

Tottenham struggled, and lost a "home" game against Bayer Leverkusen last Wednesday in the Champions League. It was played at Wembley rather than the building site that is White Hart Lane.

No doubt their chairman Daniel Levy was very happy with the payout from the 85,512 attendance, but sacrificing home advantage in the compact, noisy Lane surrenders a factor of intimidation.

No Lane. No Harry Kane. And no joy at Wembley.

Pochettino didn't use those excuses. He simply said: "We were very poor, that is the truth. We cannot play like that against Arsenal."

No sir. If Spurs are to break a sequence in which they have triumphed only once in 26 league and cup ties at Arsenal, they will need Dele Alli and a rejuvenated Kane.

And they will not have the reassuring toughness of Toby Alderweireld at the centre of their defence for he definitely, is injured.

So it is a wounded, unsure Tottenham against an Arsenal that, dare one say it, appears closer now to playing the style of football that Wenger believes in - possibly for the first time since the Gunners' own disruptive, costly move from Highbury into the future in July 2006.

That move, into an arena a few hundred metres away, cost £390 million (S$675.6 million). Take that out of any budget, and it is clear that Wenger's inability to win another Premier League, or a first Champions League title, has some mitigating circumstances.

Today, however, he is far more comfortably placed than his rival. Not only is the Gunners' attack firing, the defence has been stiffened by Shkodran Mustafi (a German international despite the Albanian name).

Mustafi, a countryman of Mesut Ozil, spoke last Tuesday night of his team-mate's "wonder" goal in Sofia. "Incredible, yes," Mustafi said, "but I don't want to say too much because it will get into his head and he's going to think he's the best again."

The defender had his tongue in his cheek (I think). He knows that the trouble with Ozil isn't that he thinks too much of himself, but the opposite.

Wenger has another view. The manager is negotiating to keep Ozil, even if it costs a £200,000 per week salary to do so.

And Wenger is in a phase of massaging his playmaker's self confidence rather than fearing the quiet, almost shy, German might go on an ego trip. Indeed, Wenger used the highest comparison he could by comparing Ozil on current form to Dennis Bergkamp.

"Great players make the right decisions in game situations," Wenger said. "They take the optimum solution."

Ozil's optimum solution against Ludogrets was to dink the ball artfully over the advancing 'keeper, then, unhurried as is his way, he took an extra touch. The German feigned to shoot, putting the last two defenders on the seat of their pants before he caressed the ball into the goal.

"You wanted him to take the chance earlier," Wenger said. "But he had enough skill to prove he was right. When the ball was in the back of the net, it was clear it was the optimum solution."

Wenger's love of talented individuals is sometimes portrayed as managerial weakness. If Ozil is to get anywhere near Bergkamp, long may this fantasy element be indulged.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 06, 2016, with the headline 'Free-firing Gunners favoured to earn their Spurs'. Subscribe