Here we are. The worst day in our football calendar in my opinion: North London Derrby Day at home.
I hate it.
There’s just so much always riding on this one, the nerves are heightened and – despite there being no fans in the stadium and therefore home advantage is pretty much negated – it feels like one in which the pressure is all on us to win as the home side. But the problem is that home matches this season haven’t really been home matches at all. The global pandemic has ripped away any extra boost that a home side has when it comes to the intensity and extra drive from the fans, so the players go out there today in a sterile environment with only their own shouting to build any kind of atmosphere.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE a derby day when we win it; there’s no better feeling in the world and the sun seems to shine all the brighter when it happens. But up until that final whistle goes and we have confirmation of an Arsenal victory, this particular game is a jangling bag full of nerves for me personally.
Ordinarily this game is hard to predict – even if we have tended to get results or at least draws at home – but it feels even more so today. We are a patchy side that is playing better football, but is regularly shooting ourselves in the foot. Our inconsistency is why we are the epitome of a mid table side stuck in 10th and seemingly unable to move from that spot whether we win, lose or draw each week. Tottenham haven’t been great either this season, but they have been slightly better than us of late and seem to have started picking up results, which also adds to our worry given their firepower.
That’s why todoay feels like a very intriguing game because it feels like one in which literally anything could happen. We could get a Mikel Arteta masterclass, a classic Jose Mourinho smash and grab, or even a blood and thunder end-to-ender in which goals are scored but both teams end up with the points. Who knows what happens today.
What I do think will happen is that Mikel picks his strongest possible side and I think that means few changes from Thursday mnight. I think we’ll have Leno in goal, a back four of Bellerin, Luiz, possibly Pablo Mari, then Tierney at left back. In front of them I think we’ll see Xhaka and Partey and the quartet of attacking options will of course include Aubameyang, but I wonder who else gets the nod. I suspect Mikel is cautious with ESR and so it wouldn’t surprise me to see him on the bench from the start, but as an option to come on in the second half. So I think Odegaard goes in at 10, then hopefully Pepe on the left and Saka on the right. I know Willian has upped his game of late, but that was from such a low bar, that him ‘upping his game’ is basically going from shocking to ‘okay’ at best in my opinion. So I hope Arteta goes for a bit of devilment to unlock the Scum’s back line.
Games like today need players who can do something a little different. Emotion often has an impact when there are fans in the stadium but there aren’t many people in the ground today, so the excitement needs to come from the pitch and for me that is from players like Pepe or Saka. So my hope is that Arteta leans in to the ‘X Factor’ rather than a journeyman who is collecting his wages and offering us little in attack.
A win today would be a massive confidence boost. I don’t think it does much in the context of our domestic season and I think the ship has sailed in terms of hitting any of our objectives in the league. But it can have a psychological impact if we can get the win today, in terms of carrying forward momentum in the Europa League and other games that are upcoming. In the Championship what you often find is that it isn’t the side that’s finished third that ends up winning in the Playoffs. It is usually the side that has hit form at the right moment at the end of the season and if we can start putting together a run of wins in any competition, it feels like it offers a massive boost to our hopes of winning the Europa League.
Arteta will have to do something he’s been unable to do so far, however, as he’s got zero wins out of two managing Arsenal against the Scum, with a tight 2-1 defeat last season and a disappointing 2-0 defeat earlier this season. Our recent record against them isn’t great either; no win in five stretching back to December 2018 when we won at home 4-2 thanks to goals from Auba, Laca and Lucas Torreira. That was a glorious day in the North London sunshine but I think today will be a very difficult one for us to come out of with three points. I have hope – you always have to have hope – but our form is such that I just know that we will shoot ourselves in the foot somehow. Whether that’s a penalty for them (they seem to always get penalties against us), or a stupid red card I don’t know, but it feels like there will be some sort of defining moment in the game that might be the difference between these two sides. I just hope that defining moment isn’t another moment of madness/stupidity from an Arsenal player.
And so now we play the waiting game. I have a few errands to run this morning but The Management will be acutely aware what day it is today; she can always smell my fear for these ones. Let’s hope that fear turns to joy come 6.30pm.
Catch you all tomorrow.