Arsenal face test of Champions League aspirations against Spurs in North London derby

Premier League clash at the Emirates Stadium also sees duel between Brazil attackers Gabriel Jesus and Richarlison

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Ahead of his 13th North London derby as an Arsenal manager or player, Mikel Arteta thought the team-talk needed something fresh, arresting. So he turned to the long-serving club photographer Stuart MacFarlane. He is a familiar face to the players. His job means he knows their faces intimately.

So last September, MacFarlane stood in front of the tactics board in the dressing room at the Emirates Stadium and addressed the players. He spoke as a fan, emotional, urgent, gritty in some of his language, spelling out what this fixture meant to his fellow supporters assembled in the seats above.

On the faces he knows so well he saw a mixture of reactions to his words: Some clenched-jawed smiles, some deep, concentrated stares. Not all footballers are alike, but something was triggered by the unusual device Arteta had chosen to motivate them. By the 34th minute, Arsenal were 3-0 up against Tottenham Hotspur.

Arteta will not, most likely, ask MacFarlane to make a speech on Saturday, when Spurs visit for the first derby of a very different autumn. Novel tricks tend to have an impact only once, and, besides, the mood among Arsenal’s players is less in need of a sudden, startling boost.

Ahead of the equivalent fixture last year, a poor start to the campaign had left Arsenal in the bottom half of the Premier League table. This September, Arsenal are top, and, should they repeat last season’s home triumph over Spurs – it finished 3-1 –they would go four points clear of second-placed Manchester City.

From that elevated vantage point Arsenal fans dare to anticipate at least a top four finish that would bring Champions League football to their elegant stadium for the first time since 2017, an era when the team-talks were still being delivered by the cerebral Arsene Wenger.

Arteta learned a great deal from Wenger, as an Arsenal midfielder for five years when top-four finishes were routine, but he wears his passion on his sleeve more obviously than his French mentor did.

He could scarcely conceal his disappointment when, in his most recent confrontation with Spurs, the possibility of fourth place, or better, fizzled away. That derby, in May, had none of the energy Arsenal, geed up by MacFarlane, carried into last season’s home game. It was its mirror opposite.

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Spurs led 3-0 by the second minute of the second half; Arsenal played an hour with 10 men following Rob Holding’s red card. The result put Spurs ahead in the race for Champions League access, and all it entails in terms of revenue and the ability to attract signings.

Arsenal are not in Europe this season, and Arteta would be entitled to claim some credit for persuading several of Arsenal’s summer recruits that while they were joining a club that might not be in this season’s Champions League, it had the momentum, the manager, and the belief to be in Europe’s most prestigious competition next September.

Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus are seasoned, serial champions from their Manchester City careers – from where they knew Arteta, a former number two to Pep Guardiola – and they believed. So did Fabio Vieira, who joined from Porto, where Champions League participation had been a given for the 22-year-old.

Tottenham meanwhile could guarantee a seasoned European campaigner like Ivan Perisic, hired from Inter Milan, midweek nights standing to attention to the Uefa anthem. They were shopping in a summer market with similar objectives to their London neighbours’.

Perisic and Zinchenko are both versatile, left-sided midfielders who can operate at full-back; Yves Bissouma, who joined Spurs from Brighton, is, like Vieira, a midfielder of great promise. Richarlison, signed from Everton, is a Brazilian striker of technique and energy - as is Gabriel Jesus.

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The former City striker has been a superb addition, with his four goals and three assists so far, and for his aggression and leadership qualities. Richarlison has so far been on the Spurs bench for all but two Premier League matchdays. But in the duel for Brazil’s approval, Richarlison leads his compatriot.

The national team’s manager, Tite, this month selected Richarlison to spearhead the Brazil’s attack in two World Cup warm-up games, and left out of his squad the in-form Jesus.

Richarlison promptly netted his seventh goal in six Brazil matches. Gabriel Jesus’s last competitive goal in national colours was in 2019, 15 appearances ago.

The Arsenal man may still earn selection for Qatar if he maintains his club form. Matches such as Saturday’s high-pressure, top-end-of-the-table derby need to make his case.

His duel with Richarlison, if and when Spurs manager Antonio Conte calls the striker into action, will be monitored by Tite, while the home club’s official photographer will be keeping his lens trained on Arsenal’s number nine.

Updated: September 30, 2022, 2:43 AM
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