Why top-four battle will come down to Arsenal unity vs Tottenham flair


op-four-chasing Arsenal and Tottenham both benefited from playing opponents with one eye on midweek European fixtures on Sunday — but neither will be so fortunate this weekend.

Spurs face a daunting trip to quadruple-chasing Liverpool on Saturday evening before Arsenal host Leeds, who have been dragged into the thick of a three-way relegation fight.

With a two-point lead over their bitter rivals, fourth-placed Arsenal will be the more comfortable of the two, and this weekend offers them a good chance to open up a five-point gap on Spurs and potentially a cushion going into the north London derby at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Thursday week.

But this is merely a scrap for fourth place, quite different to the relentless nature of the title race between Liverpool and Manchester City. Neither Arsenal nor Spurs have shown enough consistency this season to suggest they are certain to win their three other fixtures, so there should be more twists to come.

If Spurs have an X-factor, it is their world-class individuals. In head coach Antonio Conte, they have one of the game’s best, while Sunday’s 3-1 win over Leicester was made comfortable by the brilliance of Harry Kane, Heung-min Son and Dejan Kulusevski at one end and Cristian Romero at the other.

Arsenal, by contrast, are lacking the same star quality but feel like a more rounded team under Mikel Arteta, further along in their rebuild than their neighbours.

Last month, Brighton and Brentford offered a blueprint of how to nullify Conte’s Spurs — specifically, deny them space in the final third and stop Kane getting on the ball — and, in having a more clearly-defined system, Arsenal are harder to stop and better at breaking down stubborn opponents.

Arteta is also getting more from his squad than Conte, and important performances from fringe players Mohamed Elneny, Eddie Nketiah and Rob Holding in the wins over Chelsea, Manchester United and West Ham point to a united group, with deceptive depth.

By contrast, Lucas Moura was hopelessly rusty on his first Spurs start since mid-February on Sunday, while Harry Winks was off the pace in a late cameo, hardly surprisingly given Conte has barely changed his XI for over two months.

Both clubs have been impacted by injuries in the same positions, with Spurs losing midfielder Oliver Skipp and wing-back Matt Doherty, and Arsenal without Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney in similar positions.

The absences may prove crucial in the run-in. In Nuno Tavares, who is deputising for Tierney at left wing-back, Arsenal have an agent of chaos, and while the Portuguese is in the team there is a chance they will drop points in any game. Kulusevski, who came off the bench to twice assist Son on Sunday, should have the beating of Tavares if they both start on May 12.

For all their star quality up front, Spurs, though, are weak on both flanks. In the absence of Doherty and Sergio Reguilon, who is sidelined indefinitely with a groin injury, wing-backs Emerson Royal and Ryan Sessegnon failed to make an impact in the final third against Leicester. But it is long past the point where Conte is likely to change his system or experiment on the flanks.

If Arsenal allow Spurs’ wing-backs to have the ball, and keep it away from their forwards, they will be in a strong position next week. Spurs finish the season against Burnley, who are likely to be fighting for survival, and already-relegated Norwich, while Arsenal face a tough trip to Newcastle and host Everton on the final day, when the Toffees may also be playing for their Premier League status.

The derby will surely be crucial, but the fight for Champions League football could come down to Spurs’ individual brilliance against Arsenal’s collective cohesion and unity. Whatever happens in the next fortnight, expect the contest to go the wire.

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