For a manager with two seasons and two months' exposure to the top level of English football, Antonio Conte has accumulated a vast experience of derbies. Last Wednesday’s League Cup win over West Ham United was his 25th all-London contest on the touchline.
Conte could have guessed what that victory would yield. His Tottenham Hotspur, playing with new zest since he took over from Nuno Espirito Santo in November, will play his ex-employer Chelsea in the semi-final of that competition. Two legs that, as Conte has complained, must be squeezed into an already tight schedule in early January.
Within the next month, Spurs face a relentless diet of derbies. They play fellow London clubs five times, and you could almost stretch that to six if you measure the relatively short trip - 24 km - to Watford, their opponents on January 1. Amid all the stresses imposed on English clubs, with Covid-19 outbreaks preventing a number of matches taking place in the concentrated period when many European leagues have a winter break, Spurs at least will not have to travel too far.
But a concentration of derbies, with their heightened atmosphere, can feel suffocating, particularly when so many clubs within each other’s vicinity are chasing the same prize, a top-four finish, and perhaps a cup. London’s position in the Premier League hierarchy may feel diminished over the last five years - Conte, with Chelsea, was the last manager to bring the Premier League title to the capital, in 2017 - but there is no fiercer site of competition going into the new year.
Chelsea, Arsenal and West Ham United occupy the third, fourth and fifth spots in the table, and although the gap between Chelsea and Arsenal stands at six points, recent form encourages Mikel Arteta, Arsenal’s manager, more than it does Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea’s. Since losing at Everton on December 6, Arsenal have won four times on the trot across competitions; since losing their London joust with West Ham on December 4th, Chelsea have dropped six points from three league games.
Tottenham v West Ham - player ratings
Since dropping his captain and leading goalscorer, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, for a disciplinary breach, Arteta has watched his young team score 14 times in four matches. Ahead of next month’s Africa Cup of Nations, which will take as many as 40 internationals from Premier League clubs for up to four weeks, Arsenal’s loss of Aubameyang, the Gabon captain, looks less damaging that Chelsea saying a temporary goodbye to Eduoard Mendy, their Senegal goalkeeper.
Today’s fixtures have a kinder look for Arsenal, away at button-of-the-table Norwich City than for Chelsea, who travel to Aston Villa.
West Ham, meanwhile, are bearing fresh derby-inflicted bruises to a momentum that made them among the conspicuous risers of 2021. Defeat to Arsenal 11 days ago loosened their grip on a top-four berth in the table; defeat to Tottenham put them out of the League Cup, a competition where Liverpool, who play Arsenal in the semis, are the only non-London club left.
In Conte’s sights is his first direct experience of the city’s most charged derby, the North London rivalry, Spurs versus Arsenal on January 16. The gap between the two is six points and three places in the table, but Tottenham, because of a series of match postponements caused by Covid-19, have three matches in hand. By the time they host Arsenal they will have played three league games, too, and could be on their way to a League Cup final, perhaps against Arsenal, in February.
And Conte’s last league game of next month? Against Chelsea, which means, Cup and league combined, he will face the club he won the title with three times in 18 days.
First up, in this medley of derbies, a trip south of the river Thames to Crystal Palace, currently 11th in the Premier League and under a manager, Patrick Vieira, who during a stellar playing career drove Arsenal to three Premier League titles between 1998 and 2004. He later joined Juventus, to fill a vacancy for a combative midfielder that had been created by the departure of Conte from Juve.
The Italian thought even then that Vieira had a promising future career as a coach. “I was sure Patrick would become a really good manager,” said Conte. “He’s doing really well and I'm not surprised because he was a fantastic midfielder and, usually, when you are a midfielder you have more possibility to become a manager. You see situations both offensively and defensively.”
“It’ll be a pleasure to see him,” said Vieira of Conte, praising the Spurs manager’s “Italian passion and love of the game. He’s been successful everywhere he’s been.” Not least in London.