Know your opponent: Arsenal – Cartilage Free Captain

The stakes are usually high in every North London derby, and tomorrow’s game is in Tottenham Hotspur The stadium fits the bill. Spurs go into the game two points out Champions League center while Arsenal have a golden opportunity to put a stranglehold on top of the table thanks to Manchester citya 2-1 defeat at the hands of their cross-town opponents Manchester United.

Join us to get to know your opponent is our regular guest from The Short Fuse, Managing Editor Aaron Lerner. We talked about Arsenal’s improbable run in the first half of the season, where they want to strengthen the squad in January, and ultimately whether or not he believes Arsenal will lift the trophy at the end of the season.

CFC: Obviously to start: In your wildest dreams, do you think Arsenal can be at the top of the table midway through the season and look as good as they have at times?

TSF: of course not. Anyone trying to tell you they’ve seen Arsenal perform this season coming is lying. I was confident they would be back among the T4 contenders this season, and the supporter in me believed that when all was said and done, they would be back in the Champions League next year. Being at the top of the table now aside, the best part about it is like I said – they’ve often looked really good this year.

They’ve had a handful of lucky hits, batting Leeds comes to mind, but for the most part, they win matches because they ought to be win. Arsenal is often the better team. The defense is really good and the offense does enough. Gunners have a slight edge over xG, so there may be a slight drawback. But the offense is still light years better than it was last season.

CFC: While it’s always a team effort, there is one player that is simply unflappable and is the most vital cog in the machine. Who is this for Arsenal so far?

TSF: At the moment, this player is undoubtedly Martin Odegaard. It’s in great shape. He makes Arsenal tick, along with Thomas Partey to a lesser extent. The two control the flow of the game, setting the tempo, lifting the ball over the court, and spreading it out. In 16 games this season, Ødegaard has already matched his goals total from last year (7) and surpassed his assists total (4 last year, 5 now).

The understanding he formed with Bukayo Saka on the right flank is fun to watch and couldn’t be more fun to defend. Sidenote: Imagine when Arsenal get someone like Ødegaard on the left flank in the space currently occupied by Granit Xhaka to do the same with Gabriel Martinelli. Xhaka has been impressive this season and has added an attacking style to his play, but he plays left 8 because he is the best place on the list not because he is an analog player to Ødegaard.

CFC: Joao Felix moved to Chelsea (and was promptly sent off on his debut) after some flirtation at the Arsenal end, although that could have been rumour-mongering. With so much time in the January window, what do the Gunners need and do you think there’s any chance of the club buying someone?

TSF: Arsenal need at least one more attacking option and defensive midfield cover. It looks as though Arsenal are closing in on a major financial deal with 21-year-old Ukraine winger Mykhailo Modryk to give a speech to the former. Arsenal recently made a £62m bid for Shakhtar Donetsk, their third bid. I think the Gunners will get this deal across the line before the window closes.

I’m less confident they’ll provide defensive midfield cover, which is worrying given Thomas Partey’s lack of toughness since his move to the Emirates. There is no one on the Arsenal list who can come close to replicating the things he does. And let’s be clear, there aren’t many such players out there in the world, period. Arsenal certainly won’t bring him perfect cover, but it would be nice to have someone else in the list who can provide some kind of progression with the ball from that spot, because Mohamed Elneny, who I love as a team player, doesn’t bring that at all.

A note on Arsenal transfers, in general: I don’t think Edu and Mikel Arteta will make any moves that deviate too far from the long-term plan they had in place when he took the reins at the club and have been working hard for more than that. Several windows now. I think the plan was always to buy Modric or someone like him to add a wide attacking option. Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli can’t play every game, especially if Arsenal are in the Champions League. At most, the gunners have opted for this offensive build-up now rather than in the summer, and they’re moving on to the already-planned transition. It is an acknowledgment that with Gabriel Jesus injured and challenging for the title, they need to do something to bolster the roster.

CFC: Turning to European competition, Arsenal are enjoying a ‘farewell’ week thanks to the new format of the Europa League. Besides the Barcelona/Manchester United winners, which club would you not want to face in the Round of 16?

TSF: Questions like this always make me apprehensive about jinxing things. Knockout football is a fickle beast. There are plenty of teams in the Europa League, probably all of them, that can get their ‘oh’ if you have a night off. Arsenal is not deep. The quality drops quickly once you get past the 13th or 14th guy on the list, so midweek fixtures are tough.

You can’t play the same line-up Sunday-Thursday-Sunday without risking fatigue and injury, so players like Tottenham’s cult hero Rob Holding, who is from the wonderfully restored and improbable hairline (Google before and after him, please) will play. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Arsenal stumble into a shocking early exit from the Europa League. But if you were to force me to choose a club, I would Juventus. They beat the Gunners in a closed-doors friendly a month ago and have a lot of quality.

CFC: There’s still a lot of football to be had, but answer me this question: Do you think Arsenal win the league?

TSF: No, I apologize for the repeat, but Arsenal’s roster is poor. At some point, it will affect. There will be injury to a key player (and pretty much every place in the starting lineup is a key player) and/or fatigue will lead to a drop in quality. We may also see some decline in scoring, which will turn one-goal wins into draws and equalize losses. When Manchester City are chasing you and you still have two games to go, you really have no margin for error. All it takes is the slightest stumble/dip in shape.

538 has City, 51% to win the league, and Arsenal, 41%. I think this seems correct. If Arsenal manage to win the title, it will be a lot because Pep Guardiola’s side can’t seem to shake off the mess they’re in now and continue to be not quite the dominant side of the past. Seasons like anything else. Arsenal have been amazing this season. I don’t think they will continue to operate throughout the month of May. So Arsenal’s performance will need a commensurate wiggle from Manchester City.

CFC: How about predicting Sunday’s game?

TSF: I think Arsenal will win 2-1. Arsenal haven’t achieved a league double over Tottenham since 2013, but Mikel Arteta’s side have surprised and exceeded expectations at almost every turn this season. We’re still waiting for the bandwagon to return to the pumpkin, and it just hasn’t happened yet. It has come to a point where it is foolish to bet against them continuing to do what they have done all season, which is to play well and win games.

I’m knocking on every piece of wood around me to be safe, but this Arsenal team is really good. If it sounds like I’m still trying to convince myself of it – I am. We’ve had a lot of false dawns with this club and I think I’ll always feel a little bit of a fear that bottom could fall at any moment. I can hardly believe they are having the season they are, and I don’t want it to end.

You will get a penalty and turn it on though. I’d be surprised if you could get equal odds from a book about this one. This always happens. If I had to pick the second most likely outcome, I’d come back with a 1-1 tie. There have been goals in the North London derby recently, but those recent results are perhaps the exception rather than the rule.

We want to thank Aaron for stopping by as always. I sat for a Q&A on The Short Fuse To talk about all things Tottenham. Make sure to stop by and give it a read! We have always had a great relationship with TSF and we have no reason not to continue it.

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