Arsenal take on Tottenham at White Hart Lane this afternoon in the second North London derby of this Premier League campaign.
Whilst the focus will likely be on Gareth Bale and both starting line-ups I have a sneaking suspicion it may actually be the players who come on the bench who could be the difference in what is shaping up to a season defining fixture for both sides.
The likely lineups presently are as follows:
Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas confirmed on Friday that Jermaine Defoe will be fit and available for selection after returning from an ankle injury.
However, with 11 games left to go in the season, I suspect the manager will give former Arsenal man Emmanuel Adebayor the nod to start, given that Defoe hasn’t played in a month.
Despite his sending off last time Spurs played Arsenal at the Emirates and his lacking form this season, I would still be surprised to see Defoe play 90 minutes. If he starts, he’ll likely be substituted for the Arsenal fans’ nemesis long before the final whistle.
A fit and firing Jermain Defoe can come off the bench to devastating effect but either way Villas-Boas has a dangerous and aggressive option from the bench. That is something Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger cannot truthfully claim to have.
Currently new signing Olivier Giroud is the Gunners’ only recognized centre-forward. Lukas Podolski has played on the left flank all season and Theo Walcott’s stint through the middle was short-lived.
Wenger confirmed on Friday that Bacary Sagna is unavailable, meaning young Carl Jenkinson will have to cope with Gareth Bale for 90 minutes. The only other alternatives are Laurent Koscielny who is not a right-back or Francis Coquelin who is not a right-back.
I reckon William Gallas will be Villas-Boas’ choice to partner Jan Vertonghen in central defence. Vertonghen has has started 23 out of 27 league games for Spurs and Gallas’ previous with Arsenal will give him the edge over Michael Dawson for a fixture of this magnitude. He has a wealth of experience of London derby games.
Gylfi Sigurdsson can freshen up Tottenham’s midfield with if Lewis Holtby is withdrawn. He is as close to a like-for-like replacement, bearing in mind that neither player has really hit their stride so far for Spurs.
However, Arsenal have no like-for-like replacement for Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere or Mikel Arteta – their prospective replacements are far from adequate cover for the main men. An injury or a sending off could do a lot of damage in their midfield and the middle of the park is where this game will most likely be won and lost.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could be used to freshen up the wide play but with Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon on Spurs’ flanks, if he’s features from the bench, he will likely spend much of his time chasing back to help out Jenkinson or Nacho Monreal who have both never played in a North London derby before.
Tomas Rosicky is an option to revitalize the midfield but his lack of fitness and form means he is still something of an uncertainty. He has just one goal for the season and zero assists.
Aaron Ramsey can be brought on to harness the midfield and calm the tempo of the game down but that’s only required if Arsenal are winning – if they’re chasing Spurs, he offers little in the way of an attacking threat – he has just one goal and two assists for the entire season.
Coquelin can come in to protect a lead or to replace Arteta but, again, he offers little attacking threat.
Gervinho looked like he might be a decent option at centre-forward earlier this season but he hasn’t scored a goal for the Gunners since October and his wastefulness in front of goal has been appalling.
If Wenger starts his best team and they can’t, for whatever reason, break Spurs down effectively, he has not one genuinely reliable or dangerous option from the bench. He has not a single firing gun in his reserve Arsenal.