Roles have reversed, but Spurs can't afford to be passive at the Emirates
How times change. Just a couple of years ago, Spurs went into every North London derby as underdogs. Arsenal always seemed to hold all the aces. The greater strength in depth, the better big-match temperament and the more experienced and savvy manager.
Now the reverse is true. It is the Tottenham team that is playing the better football, the Tottenham team that is competing in the Champions League and the Tottenham team who has the better manager. Arsene Wenger has all too frequently cut a jaded and frustrated figure on the touchline over the course of the past two seasons, while Mauricio Pochettino has consistently proved himself to have the tactical edge over most opponents.
On paper, then, Saturday's game at the Emirates appears Tottenham's to lose. Except for two things. The first is that making predictions when Spurs play Arsenal is a risky business. There's something about a derby that can fire up a struggling team. Arsenal may have looked out of sorts in recent weeks, but it would be no surprise were they to up their game. For all their troubles, the home side are still in sixth place in the Premier League and just four points behind Tottenham. They won't be pushovers.
And then there's Pochettino himself. Although the Spurs manager has yet to lose in six fixtures against Arsenal, he has yet to secure an away win. Indeed, his results away to the big clubs have been the one slight blemish on his time in charge at White Hart Lane. No manager can go to the Etihad, Old Trafford, Anfield, Stamford Bridge or the Emirates and not come away empty handed from time to time, but Pochettino's record is significantly worse than might be expected.
It's as if Pochettino goes into these fixtures in a negative frame of mind. The recent game against Manchester United was a case in point. Spurs' primary aim was to play United at their own nullify-and-contain game, to frustrate United by grinding them down and hoping to force them into a mistake. It might even have worked had Dele Alli been able to prod home a delightful pass from Christian Eriksen. But in the end, it was Spurs who made the one mistake and United who came away with the three points.
There's no need for the Spurs manager to be reckless, just alive to his opponents' weaknesses and ready to exploit them. As the home side, Arsenal will expect to be doing most of the pressing and Pochettino will set up his team to play deeper than it would at home. But Arsenal are vulnerable on the counter -- they lack the pace to counter the creativity of Alli, Eriksen and Harry Kane -- and Spurs mustn't become so passive that they forget to attack themselves. In close games, it is all too easy to lie back and settle for a point when there are three for the taking.
In Pochettino's favour is that the international break appears to have come at a good time. Though Toby Alderweireld will be out until the new year, Kane, Alli, Hugo Lloris and Harry Winks all appear to be fit once more, while Eriksen returns from Denmark duty on a high after scoring a hat trick against the Republic of Ireland that helped secure his country's place in the World Cup finals in Russia.
The availability of Kane is crucial. While Spurs managed to find goals and win games in his absence last year, this term they have looked a far less potent side without their star striker.
Just as important, Spurs have no need to protect players ahead of next Tuesday's Champions League tie against Borussia Dortmund. Thanks to the accomplished victory against Real Madrid, Tottenham have already qualified for the knockout stages and can field a slightly below-strength team in Germany if the manager doesn't feel that his players who are just returning from injury are capable of playing two full games inside a week. Spurs' success in their first four Champions League games has bought them the luxury of being able to prioritise the Premier League for the next two months.
It's been seven years since Spurs' only win over Arsenal at the Emirates. On that occasion, Tottenham looked a beaten side at 2-0 down at halftime, only for a Gareth Bale and Rafa Van der Vaart revival to inspire the team to a 3-2 victory.
Since then, there have been only crushing defeats -- who can forget the 5-2 trouncing after taking a 2-0 lead in 2012? -- and a number of nervy 1-1 draws.
Now is the time for Tottenham to step up a gear and make their quality count, to have the courage to go out and win the difficult games. After all, there's more at stake than North London bragging rights. Spurs are already eight points behind runaway league leaders Manchester City. No one will be counting on City losing points away to Leicester. So Spurs can't afford any slip-ups against Arsenal.
John Crace is one of ESPN FC's Tottenham bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @JohnJCrace.