It’s derby week. A week filled with anticipation for most of the Premier League community, but one that often invokes intense anxiety if you support either club in North London.
Arsenal and Spurs meet on Sunday at the Emirates, with both sides coming off the back of damaging defeats to Liverpool and Newcastle respectively. While Spurs’ loss may have been a little more surprising, Arsenal’s defeat at Anfield exposed the Gunners’ limitations, particularly with Unai Emery only having one of his first-choice back four available for the foreseeable future.
Spurs arguably have a stronger squad again this season, but Arsenal have beaten them in their past two Premier League meetings at the Emirates, and expectations will be high among the red half of North London.
Here are three players whose performances could decide the outcome of the game:
Despite all the midfield rotation in the first three weeks of the campaign, Xhaka is likely to both start and captain the Arsenal side, and his leadership will be instrumental when Arsenal face difficult periods in the game.
Xhaka’s individual performance, however, not his captaincy, will be the most important factor in deciding who wins the all-important midfield battle. In the two fixtures last season, Xhaka was solid in the centre of the park, with his metronomic passing and laser-like vision setting up numerous incisive attacks, particularly in the 4-2 win at the Emirates Stadium.
Importantly, however, he didn’t make a major defensive error in either fixture and covered a vulnerable backline admirably, particularly at Wembley in the controversial 1-1 draw. He needs to produce a similar defensive display on Sunday if Arsenal are to keep Spurs from pouring forward consistently.
With Tottenham generally not playing an out-an-out destroyer in midfield this season, Xhaka is also perhaps the most likely player to exploit their relative weakness in this area, with his ability to play balls between the lines and feed Arsenal’s attack.
A true captain’s performance could begin to turn the tide of Arsenal fans’ opinions towards him once again.
Poor marking led to Matip’s opening goal last weekend, and the same cannot happen again in a fixture where Spurs’ have scored their last 3 goals from set-pieces or penalties.
The Greek defender is the current leader of an undermanned defence and relished this mantle in the two fixtures last season, generally marking Harry Kane well and organising the defence in a manner lacking in a lot of matches under Unai Emery. Without the steadying hands of Rob Holding or former captain Laurent Koscielny next to him this time, the task becomes much tougher, however.
Needs to avoid needless fouls around the penalty area, and ensure that no one, including himself, makes rash decisions, particularly leaving the defensive line or in the tackle. His performance could be the biggest determining factor in the result.
Has improved significantly this season, looking solid on the right-hand side of the defence. However, the Englishman has yet to face a major test this season though (Liverpool attacked Arsenal’s left side for the majority of last weekend), and a battle with Heung-min Son shapes as such a test.
Has always been a solid contributor on the ball – he is a natural central midfielder – but questions have been asked over his defending, and those questions grew louder after Arsenal’s capitulation in Baku.
With a vulnerable defence next to him, and likely a less defensively-inclined attack than previous seasons, a solid, mature performance could shape Maitland-Niles as an unlikely, but genuine challenger to Hector Bellerin’s spot in the Arsenal line up this season.