Are Arsenal finally the team Mikel Arteta wants them to be? There is little doubt the Gunners are ahead of schedule in that mission, sitting five points clear at the top of the Premier League and exceeding all expectations to this point in the campaign. But one of the few outstanding questions about his dynamic side is whether they can consistently impose themselves on big opponents away from home, something their title rivals Manchester City have done for so many years.
The three north London derbies Arsenal have contested at Tottenham under Arteta serve as useful signposts in marking their evolution.
In July 2020, Arsenal were beaten 2-1 by Spurs in a match played behind closed doors due to COVID-19 and Arteta lamented his side's poor defending. The Gunners' back three that day was Shkodran Mustafi, David Luiz and Sead Kolasinac, none of whom are still at the club today. In December of that year, with just 2,000 fans allowed back in as crowds slowly returned as sports adjusted to the coronavirus pandemic, the Gunners dominated the ball but found themselves caught out on the break, losing 2-0.
This time, Arteta was left to rue his side's finishing. "We didn't have the end product that is required to win football matches," he said of a front four comprising Willian, Alexandre Lacazette, Bukayo Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Only Saka remains an Arsenal player now.
Then, back in May 2022 with Champions League qualification on the line, Arsenal wilted badly as Tottenham cruised to a 3-0 win that eventually helped Spurs leapfrog their bitter rivals into fourth place. Goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale later admitted Arsenal became emotionally "unstuck" given the magnitude of the occasion.
Arteta subsequently went out and got Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko from Manchester City, proven winners able to add mental resilience. And so the Gunners make the 4-mile journey across England's capital this weekend theoretically in their best shape for some time, finally ready to win this fixture on their own terms, possessing all the components to play with the authority and conviction Arteta demands.
Regardless of Tottenham's indifferent form since the World Cup, it will be a tough task as the north London derby has increasingly become skewed by home advantage. From their past 14 Premier League visits to Tottenham, the Gunners also have just one victory -- a 1-0 win in March 2014. Equally, Spurs have won only once at Arsenal since the move from Highbury to Emirates Stadium in 2006 and were soundly beaten 3-1 in September, when the teams last met.
Tottenham will relish the opportunity to damage Arsenal's title challenge, but Antonio Conte's typical approach is not to launch an all-out attack; the Gunners will in fact likely face the counter-attacking challenge that greeted them in all three of Arteta's previous visits, the first two of which came against Jose Mourinho's Tottenham, where mistakes at the back and a failure to finish cost them so dearly.
Arsenal beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in October with a performance that signified a growing maturity within the group, but the Blues' recent travails under Graham Potter place something of an asterisk against that bare form. Their only defeat this season came at Manchester United in September. Arsenal imposed themselves impressively, only to lack ruthlessness at the top end of the pitch and exhibit naivety at the back; they were undone on the break in a manner that will encourage Conte to believe a repeat is possible.
To do so, though, Harry Kane and Son Heung-min will need to be at their best. The pair both scored in Tottenham's previous two home wins over Arsenal, the December 2020 triumph coming at a time when Kane and Son were outperforming their xG in remarkably impressive, if inevitably unsustainable, fashion.
Son won the Premier League Golden Boot last season after scoring 23 goals, sharing the award with Liverpool's Mohamed Salah, but has struggled to replicate anything like that form this season. Kane has done his best to put that World Cup quarterfinal penalty miss against France behind him with four goals in as many matches since returning from Qatar, standing now on the brink of surpassing Jimmy Greaves' career Tottenham goal-scoring record. The 29-year-old is one shy of Greaves' landmark 266 figure and could become the third player in history after Alan Shearer (260) and Wayne Rooney (208) to reach 200 Premier League goals. He currently stands on 198.
Arteta is far from alone in failing to stifle Kane. He is the most prolific goal scorer in north London derby history, amassing 14 goals in 18 derby games, and his relationship with Son will once again be vital if Spurs are to counter-attack to the same effect as in the previous three incarnations. Contrast that longevity with Eddie Nketiah, who will be charged with leading the line for Arsenal in the absence of Gabriel Jesus, who's been sidelined for several months after knee surgery.
Nketiah has made a promising start to filling that void, scoring four goals in as many games since the World Cup. The 23-year-old's form dates back much further, though: scoring 17 goals in his 24 starts since the start of last season suggests that a sustained run in the team would only elicit further improvement. The list of teams he scored against in that period -- Oxford United, Brighton, West Ham, Bodo Glimt, FC Zurich, Everton, Leeds, Chelsea, Sunderland and AFC Wimbledon -- highlights that his ability to produce consistently in the biggest games remains unproven, but Sunday is a rare opportunity in a fledgling, staccato career to do just that.
Losing Jesus is a blow for Arsenal, but Arteta has his team in a place Conte likely envies. Whenever comparisons between the two sides arise, Conte often cites the additional time and backing Arteta has been afforded since taking charge of Arsenal in December 2019. The Italian wants Spurs to shift their thinking and to be more aggressive and ruthless in the market, but while Conte wants to sign more established players, the Gunners have usurped them of late by acquiring younger talent mixed with academy graduates in a squad merely sprinkled with experience.
After a positive summer and a fine start to this season, Arsenal feel closer than Spurs to becoming the team they want to be. But Sunday will be a test of how far both have come.