Nervous in North London: One defeat away from crisis

IN the unlikely event that Andre Villas-Boas did not understand the importance of his first ever North London derby, Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy has been making sure to remind him — every day, for the past two weeks.

“He keeps on mentioning it,” Villas-Boas says. “The kick-off time, what are we going to do, what is going to happen, results from the past. There are memories all over the place.”

Arsene Wenger, of course, has plenty of them and does not need such reminders.

“I have ‘played’ these derbies for 16 years now so at least I understand the importance.”

Even for Wenger, though, there can’t have been too many derbies as demanding as this one. There was February’s game, of course, which saw Arsenal come from 2-0 down to not just win the game but also alter the entire course of the clubs’ 2011-12 campaigns.

Today, however, it is both teams who badly need such a turnaround. Ultimately, this particular derby goes beyond just beating their biggest rivals to potentially saving a season and sending the opposition’s into tailspin. It’s been a long while since both North London clubs have been going into this fixture at such a low ebb at the same time. Tottenham have lost three of their last four; Arsenal have endured their worst start to any season since 1982-83. If you’re not supposed to even start looking at the league until 10 games in, the sight now isn’t the prettiest. Both sides are buried in mid-table.

Little wonder Levy has been so obsessive.

The most galling thing for both teams, though, is that such bad runs came after what had seemed promising beginnings. Tottenham beat Manchester United in a particularly impressive four-game streak; Arsenal spent a few games suggesting a first title challenge in five years.

So, what has gone wrong?

Interestingly, at Tottenham, they don’t necessarily see it as an issue of decline but rather one of adjustment. One club insider says that, given the fact last season was viewed as Harry Redknapp’s big chance at a title charge with the squad now having to deal with the fall-out of that as well as the loss of the likes of Luka Modric, this is almost seen as a ‘free’ season for Villas-Boas to put things in place. That will remain the case unless the fans get seriously agitated.

In the meantime, though, Tottenham legend Alan Mullery feels Villas-Boas has been further hampered by the absences of some newer players. It is hardly coincidence that the only game Spurs have won since the injury to Mousa Dembele came against hapless Southampton. The midfielder does a key job of pinning Villas-Boas’s nascent system together.

“Dembele’s been injured for over a month,” Mullery says. “They’re missing him because he was outstanding. Scott Parker hasn’t played either. He’s a real good character. So the team isn’t consistent enough to do the things expected of them.”

It can’t be denied, though, that Villas-Boas’s own character occasionally causes his side some issues too. Although the semblance of an overall system is coming together in the manner it never did at Chelsea, he still has a problem with creating uncertainty where there was none — not least with the ongoing and unnecessary speculation over the first-choice striker and goalkeeper. That’s also reflected in press conferences characterised by passive-aggression.

At the least, on Thursday, Villas-Boas was relaxed enough for one joke. When he spotted a journalist with a red jacket, he laughed “not in this training ground”.

Wenger, meanwhile, was all jokes yesterday. In fact, you wouldn’t have thought he was under any kind of pressure at all. When he was asked whether the recent anxiety of the Arsenal crowd was justified, his answer was simple. “No.”

“We have to deal with the crowd. That’s our job. We cannot say we are professional if we are affected by any reaction of the crowd. If you want to be a top level professional you have to understand your crowd wants you to win and you have to deal with the fact they are not always happy. That’s where you see the personalities.” One of the biggest issues with Arsenal, though, is those very personalities. Wenger acknowledged after last weekend’s draw with Fulham that “belief is not at its maximum” and the question is why the manager’s very evident self-confidence does not seem to transmit itself to the players. You only had to look at the fear that gripped them the moment Fulham pulled one back.

As a former member of an Arsenal defence defined by durability, Nigel Winterburn’s view is interesting.

“I’m always of the belief you have to drive yourself to achieve. It shows more when things are not going well, that desire to put things right yourself. Unfortunately, you can’t manufacture that.”

Perhaps the bigger problem for Arsenal, though, is they can’t buy that either. Because, ultimately, almost every single issue comes back to the same circular debate that has dominated the Emirates for the past few years: money.

There’s an interesting story about last season’s transfer window that perhaps indicates a lot. For years, Wenger liked Mikel Arteta but was supposedly worried he wasn’t quite Champions League quality. Eventually, though, he had no option but to fall back on the Spaniard. Is that individual example of decline happening across the board, to the point where their top-four status is now more precarious than ever?

“I just don’t think they’ve got the clout,” Winterburn says. “I just think it’s the amount of money they’ve got to spend and the type of player they can bring to the club at the moment.”

That lower conviction and quality, then, leads to problems in other areas.

“If you look at the teams that have really done well for Arsenal, they’ve always had a lot of pace in their team and that pace has been missing so far this season.

“If you’ve not got the strongest squad, everything else has to be perfect for you and it’s just not working out for Arsenal.”

The irony, however, is that the team might need the demands of a derby to set that right again. So, given all the emotion of the fixture and how it can skew things, is it actually a good or bad time to be playing it?

“It’s OK if you’ve not been on great form and you take the lead,” Winterburn says. “Then it can give you that belief and momentum back. The problem is, if you’re not on good form and fall behind, it can knock your confidence.”

Tellingly, the two managers cautioned both players and media against reading too much into short-term results. As Villas-Boas himself said, last season Wenger seemed to suffer an even worse crisis only to still go on and finish in the top four.

“It’s absolutely irrelevant to condemn people on a weekly basis. When you lose, you are condemned; when you win, you are back.”

The only difference is that, as last season showed, that might actually be the case for this North London derby more than other games. Levy will no doubt remind Villas-Boas beforehand. Wenger will already know all too well.

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