Why midfield battle will decide north London derby

Arsenal bravely battled to a draw in the first leg of their Carabao Cup semi-final with Liverpool on Thursday evening – but their efforts following the sending off of Granit Xhaka could play an important part in the outcome of their north London derby clash at Tottenham this weekend.

That’s the view of Sky Sports pundit Alan Smith, who told the Essential Football Podcast that the midfield area will be key to deciding the contest at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, with his former club Arsenal struggling for numbers in the centre of the park.

Arsenal will be without suspended Xhaka and they’re also missing Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny, who are at the Africa Cup of Nations, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who left on loan to Roma, and Martin Odegaard, who has tested positive for Covid. Emile Smith Rowe is also a doubt.

That leaves Albert Sambi Lokonga as Arsenal’s only first-choice central midfielder, although Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli filled in after Xhaka’s red against Liverpool.

“The midfield battle will be key with Arsenal’s problems there,” said Smith. “If Tottenham can get a grip of that area of the pitch and get good service to Harry Kane and Co then Arsenal will have to defend extremely well.

“Going into such a big game it’s far from ideal. Arteta might have to be creative in the middle of the field. Ben White could step forward – he’s done it for Brighton, for Leeds. But I don’t think you’d want to disrupt that centre-back partnership which is working so well. Calum Chambers did ever so well for Fulham in that holding role… He may have to play one or two out of position.

“Hopefully Smith Rowe will be ok – he doesn’t sound to be too far away. But it’s unusual to have so many problems in one area.”

However, Arsenal’s relatively new-found improved defensive resolve was on show again at Liverpool and Smith was impressed by the way the Gunners held out in that tie.

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Highlights from the Carabao Cup semi-final first leg between Liverpool and Arsenal

“Arsenal showed a lot of backbone, a lot of steel to hang in there,” he said. “They defended really well. It’s not always been the case with Arsenal at times. It was a challenge which would have tested any coach [going down to 10 at Anfield] but Mikel Arteta went to a back five.

“I gave Ben White man of the match but they all defended really well. You were expecting Liverpool to play better than they managed to but from Arsenal’s point of view there will be a lot of tired bodies going into Sunday but spirit-wise that dressing room would have been buzzing afterwards.”

Given the quick turnaround for Arsenal – whose midweek match came the day after Tottenham’s second-leg defeat in the Carabao Cup semi-finals to Chelsea – attitude will be key if they are to overcome fatigue to get a result at their rivals.

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Highlights of the Carabao Cup semi-final second leg between Tottenham and Chelsea

And Smith is backing them to do just that – despite a poor mental approach to their shock FA Cup defeat to Championship Nottingham Forest last weekend.

“I said a few months ago there would be bumps in the road because it’s such a young side – and especially when you have to make as many changes for the FA Cup tie as Arteta did, the squad can’t quite cope at the moment,” said Smith.

“They should have played better against Forest. Their attitude wasn’t right from the off. But you have to bounce back and they did that at Liverpool. That points to good character. We know they’ve got talent but Arteta would have been delighted with that.”

If Arsenal can land three points on Sunday and complete the derby double over Tottenham, Smith also believes they’ll be in with a really good chance of winning the race for fourth ahead of Spurs, Manchester United and West Ham.

Smith would certainly edge Arsenal ahead of Spurs in that contest right now.

“Without being biased I do think Arsenal are better placed,” he said. “There are fewer questions to answer there. Spurs boss Antonio Conte is trying to remodel the whole team and trying to get them to play his way. But he’s desperate for more quality into that squad.

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“Arteta has been in place longer, he’s made some signings and it’s looking like his team. And there’s an understanding within that XI when they go onto the pitch. Whether that translates into top four, we’ll have to wait and see.

“The Spurs performance over two legs against Chelsea would have hit the supporters hard and damaged a bit of confidence in the dressing room. They know they’re well behind but you’d expect them to have made a better fight of it. Conte looks a bit subdued on the touchline and that can transmit to the players and fans. But a north London derby is probably the best game for him and his players at the moment.

“You’d expect a marked improvement in Spurs’ attitude and body language. They’ve got great strikers and threat up top. In midfield and at the back there are more doubts.

“Derbies are so hard to predict. Arsenal were much the better side at the Emirates and if they could do something similar again that would set them up beautifully for rest of season.

“It won’t be easy – there will be tired bodies going over north London – but once you get out there you can push yourself and get over that to some extent. Arsenal are short of bodies but not short of spirit.”

Premier League Preview: Will Spurs or Arsenal win north London derby? | Chelsea’s last chance at Man City | Bowen’s brilliance at West Ham

In the latest Essential Football Podcast, host Alice Piper is joined by Nick Wright, Charlotte Marsh, and Peter Smith to preview this weekend’s Premier League action. Plus we hear from Sky Sports pundit Alan Smith ahead of the north London derby.

PART ONE | Alan Smith delivers his north London derby verdict ahead of Arsenal’s trip to Tottenham and explains why the midfield battle will be key after the Gunners’ tiring battle with 10 men at Liverpool on Thursday.

PART TWO | It’s first vs second in the Premier League on Saturday when Manchester City host Chelsea. Is this the London club’s last chance to stay in touch with leaders City? And could a win for Thomas Tuchel’s side open the door for Liverpool, too? Plus we look ahead to Philippe Coutinho’s Aston Villa debut, with Steven Gerrard’s men facing an out-of-sorts Man Utd for the second time in a week.

PART THREE | Jarrod Bowen is in fine form and we take a look at the numbers behind his recent purple patch and discuss how it is driving West Ham back into the top-four race after their dip in December. Ahead of their match with Leeds we also examine how injuries have made life tough for Marcelo Bielsa this season. And finally, will Brighton or Crystal Palace come out on top in their rivalry showdown on Friday night?

Source : Sky Sports