By Ewan Roberts, Deputy sports editor
Saturday 1 Dec 2018 7:00 am
The gap between Arsenal and Tottenham may only be three points in the table, but in reality it is far greater. Mauricio Pochettino is in his fifth season at Spurs, having turned the side into consistent and genuine title challengers, while Unai Emery – irrespective of an 18-game unbeaten run – is still at the beginning of an enormous project to turn around a club that were in decline under Arsene Wenger.
The Frenchmans absence from a north London derby for the first time in 22 years feels like one of the last reminders that his reign really is over. And it should have ended long ago. At his peak, Wenger did not suffer a Premier League defeat against Tottenham for a decade. Four successive Spurs managers tried, and failed, to beat him. But in eight league meetings with Pochettino, he emerged victorious only once as Tottenham cemented their credentials not only as the best team in north London, but the capital too.
Yet Emerys arrival feels like it could shift the balance of power again. Arsenal were treading water under Wengers management, now they have direction. Ironically, it is a similar path Spurs walked not so long ago, and Sundays game will have a strange dynamic given how much Emery sees Spurs as a reference point – even if he knows enough about the north London rivalry not to admit it publically – and how much he respects Pochettino.
While Emery routinely cites Pep Guardiola and Diego Simeone as the best coaches in the world – both of whom operate at extreme ends of the football spectrum, one committed to dazzling, attacking football and the other masterful in defence – it is in the middle ground between those two opposing forces that he himself resides, and where he finds a kindred spirit in Pochettino. He even recommended the Argentine to Valencia back in 2012.
Back when Valencia were looking for a coach, I told the president that, for me, my ideal successor would be Pochettino, who was at Espanyol, because I analysed all the teams, the Spaniard told Marca recently. Later, Poch called me to thank me. I did it without knowing him, but I knew his Espanyol well.
Listening to both men, it is easy to see why there is so much mutual respect. They are coaches first, managers second; they want to press hard and demand fantastic work rate; they obsess over the small details and are prepared to tweak their own setup depending on the opponent; their teams can play possession football or on the break; they are disciplined and yet free; and they must achieve all this on a transfer budget that is but a shoestring compared to their rivals. Above all, unlike Guardiola and Simeone, they are extremely flexible and pragmatic – even if it means never attaining that same purity of footballing ideal that Manchester City and Atletico possess.
I am excited to face Arsenal and Unai Emery who is a very good friend of us, to challenge and to face all the coaching staff. It is a little bit ironic that our worst enemies are West Ham and Arsenal but I love Manuel [Pellegrini] and Unai and we have a very good relationship. OK, during 90 minutes we are going to fight, but then before and after I think we are going to enjoy. – Pochettino on his relationship with Emery
At home to Chelsea last weekend, for example, Spurs had just 40% possession but had nine shots on target in a ruthless display of high-pressing, hard-countering football. They sacrificed the control of ball and territory they usually enjoy to exploit Chelseas frailties, namely an overly attack-minded left flank, the lightweight Jorginho in front of the defence and the calamitous David Luiz.
One of the key factors in that battle was how fluid Spurs midfield was, and the roles within them. Christian Eriksen described his position against Chelsea as being a left midfielder, but with license to drop deep, help the team build and try to create something. Dele Alli, likewise, was both a second striker and a sitting midfielder, depending on the situation, running beyond Harry Kane and holding beside Eric Dier when required. Sure, plenty of box-to-box midfielders know how to attack and defend, fewer are asked to do both simultaneously.
Emery has shown elements of that flexibility already, to an extent Wenger never did. Granit Xhaka has performed a multitude of midfield roles, from enforcer to dictator, and even lined up at left-back. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has played as a winger and a striker, with Arsenal shuffling between a lone frontman and a strike partnership when required. Emery even dabbled with a back three against Bournemouth. The impact of his substitutes, who have scored more than any other club, also underlines his willingness to change things.
Being competitive means adapting yourself to the reality of your opponent, he explained in a forensically detailed interview with Spanish author Marti Perarnau. Sometimes, you win because you use the ball better, and sometimes you have to adapt and give in to the idea that you dont have it.
What I like is provoking the opponent. Its a more aggressive idea, which exposes you more. Bielsas style, Guardiolas style. When you lose the ball, you win it back as quickly as possible. Anywhere the ball may be, the team has to position themselves to press and win it back. If play stops, everyone goes back to their position. If the ball is in play, we press, all while remaining organised tactically.
You would be forgiven for thinking those were the words of Pochettino, rather than Emery. The Spaniard, like his counterpart, also recognises the need to fine-tune his squads psyche – his rebuild is not just a tactical one, but a psychological one. Arsenal need to learn to compete again, to believe they can win at any ground in Europe just as Spurs players will show no fear when they travel to Camp Nou in two weeks in need of victory.
Like the Argentine, Emery is also incredibly hands-on in his coaching, moulding the players to his style. When we dont have the ball, he tells you exactly where to stand and how to get it back, explained Shkodran Mustafi. That sentiment was echoed by Morgan Scheniderlin almost six years ago, who recalled Pochettino showing the Southampton players how to block passing lanes, where to position themselves and even how to orientate their bodies.
That such basics were required speaks volumes about the latter years of Wengers reign, but it makes Sundays game all the more compelling; two sides looking to press hard and attack quickly, with one team years in the making and the other just a matter of months. In many respects, Spurs offer a taste of what Arsenal might look like deeper into Emerys project, and the level of competitiveness they must reach to get back into the top four.
The Spaniard recognises the need for a statement victory – one he was denied at PSG in Europe – and so far he hasnt beaten a side higher in the table than Everton. Spurs would be that scalp, a positive result to reinforce everything he is working towards. But Pochettino delights in these tactical battles as much as Emery. He handed both Guardiola and Maurizio Sarri their first Premier League defeats and ended Antonio Contes 13-game winning run. Now he will either show his old pal that he still has some way to go to reach Spurs level, or that the Arsenal project is ahead of schedule.
More: Arsenal FC