Anxiety stalks north London as Arsenal's glass jaw meets Tottenham's lack of a knockout punch
Arsène Wenger would welcome a shot in the arm for his Arsenal team right now. Anxiety stalks the club ahead of the pressure-cooker derby against Tottenham Hotspur at the Emirates Stadium and no one seems more central to the emotion than the long-standing manager.
The respect for what Wenger has accomplished at Arsenal is enduring among the fans, even if it feels as though it will only be properly cemented upon his departure from the position that he has held since September 1996. But it is no longer sacrilegious to question whether he remains the right man for the job and a section of the support has begun to do so.
It is not just the seven years without silverware; rather, fundamental questions about the club's targets and future direction. Can perennial Champions League qualification in itself be enough? The top teams appear further away than ever and, if third- or fourth-placed finishes do not stand the test of time, then admirably robust balance sheets certainly do not.
Wenger's current side can provide thrilling romps for the neutral but, mired as they are in their poorest start to a league season since 1982, they are sorely testing the patience of those that love them. The players are not immune to the nerviness around them although, to borrow from the playground, they did start it. The circle is vicious.
Against Fulham at home last Saturday, having taken a 2-0 lead, they sought to preserve what they had, instead of continuing to express themselves and, once Dimitar Berbatov had pulled a goal back, it was shocking to witness how the panic gripped. Fulham went into a 3-2 lead and, despite Arsenal rallying to draw, Wenger would lament his team's fragility.
André Villas-Boas is also under intense pressure. His team have lost three out of the last four in the Premier League and the manager admitted that his chairman, Daniel Levy, had been prominent among those to tell him, repeatedly, that Tottenham must not lose the derby. The Portuguese, though, did nothing to dispute the notion that Arsenal had vulnerabilities that could be exploited, much as his quick counterattacking team did to Manchester United in the 3-2 away win in September. "You try, I think you try [to exploit them]," Villas‑Boas said.
Arsenal fans may recall the angst-ridden buildup to the previous derby at the Emirates on 26 February and wonder whether anything has changed. Back then, the situation was more dramatic, with their team in fifth place, trailing Tottenham in third by 10 points. When Tottenham took a 2-0 first-half lead and with the home crowd turning on one of their own players, Theo Walcott, it became grave.
Arsenal, however, fought back to win 5-2 and Walcott, with two goals, was the villain turned hero. Wenger's team felt their season ignite – they would finish third – while the defeat marked the beginning of a Tottenham slump that ended with the manager Harry Redknapp paying with his job.
"That gave us after [that result] a little doping," Wenger said, as he hoped for something similar. "Gareth Bale had a ball to put Tottenham 3-0 up that he didn't take. We were a little bit on the ropes but we managed to come back and win in a convincing way. It's the same pressure again because we want to win.
"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 the crowd wants you to win and you have to deal with the fact that they're not always happy. That's where you see the personality and the sense of responsibility of the player."
Wenger has noted in the past how "the crisis is like a fire with a strong wind … it moves very quickly from one club to another", and it was easy to imagine the intensity of the spotlight upon the defeated manager. Who can least afford to lose? Probably Wenger, but Villas-Boas has also heard questions about why the Tottenham support ought to keep their faith in him. "Judge me after the full season," is the thrust of his response.
He is aware of Arsenal's offensive capacity, and not only from studying the DVD of the 5-2 result at the Emirates. When he was in charge at Chelsea last season, he suffered a 5-3 home defeat to Wenger's team, albeit one inspired that day by the now departed Robin van Persie. Villas-Boas stressed the need for focus in the face of "power and emotion when anything can happen" and for lessons to be learned from last season.
One feature of the derby buildup has been the tightness with which team selection cards have been pressed to chests. Villas-Boas cited doubts over Kyle Walker, Aaron Lennon and Jermain Defoe but refused to divulge their chances while Wenger said that Wojciech Szczesny, Bacary Sagna, Mikel Arteta, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Olivier Giroud would need late fitness tests; all six are expected to pass.
Wenger bemoaned Santi Cazorla's non-playing midweek trip to Panama with Spain – it was quite a journey merely to "sunbathe" – and he conceded that his team was "just flat at the moment", certainly in physical terms. Rejuvenation will be the order of the day.