This time, it is game on. After Arsenal successfully requested to postpone the last north London derby because they were lacking 15 first-teamers, the annoyance along Seven Sisters Road only really subsided once the final whistle blew on the rescheduled fixture. The switch turned it into a de facto shootout for Champions League qualification; Tottenham won resoundingly, if not without controversy, on a stormy May night at their home and the issue was duly settled.
The prize is not as immediate on Saturday but the old wounds are easily wrenched back open. Nobody would dream of petitioning to put this encounter back a few months, because these bitter rivals are both flying. An Arsenal win would, in a development few of their exploits in recent memory would prepare anyone for, entrench their position as early leaders; if Antonio Conte can cajole a first win at the Emirates for Tottenham since November 2010, they will leapfrog the hosts.
Arsenal are certainly unrecognisable from the side that, reduced to 10 men just after the half-hour, folded in the spring; it is a fair bet Spurs will show up more strongly than the bedraggled unit who were overwhelmed in the first half of this fixture almost exactly a year ago, in a sure sign that Nuno Espírito Santo’s reign was not long for this world. While bragging rights won in October may expire upon the rematch early next year, there is reason for both to spy a longer-term opportunity now.
Even if Erling Haaland has all but scotched any title pretensions by the time thoughts turn to Qatar in November, the void directly beneath Manchester City beckons invitingly. It is a gap vacated, for now at least, by a recalibrating Liverpool and a Chelsea who may take several months to define themselves after Todd Boehly’s arrival whirlwind. Anyone moving quickly now would be rewarded. There may be no prizes for second place in May, but neither of Saturday’s competitors would be unhappy to occupy it as a launchpad for the future pursuit of honours.
By mid-afternoon it should be possible to discern who looks the more capable. If the intended destination is the same, the journeys to this point have been decidedly different. Arsenal had no choice but to rebuild after the muddle that engulfed their 2010s and, their project under Mikel Arteta having gathered momentum, carry the fascination of an evolving team yet to discover their limits. For Tottenham, the past two years have resembled a scramble to claw back the gains made during most of Mauricio Pochettino’s five-year reign.
That does not automatically make this a clash of the sustainable and the ephemeral. Conte’s reputation for short, tempestuous tenures featuring soaring highs and simmering exits is well earned; recent noises about a new contract are encouraging but it would take a brave punter to back him hanging around for another half-decade. His squad-building activity hardly smacks of short-term self-interest, though. While some of an Arsenal stripe pointed to the arrival of the 33-year-old Ivan Perisic as evidence of that, there is more to be gleaned from the fact Dejan Kulusevski, Richarlison and Yves Bissouma are upwardly mobile and should survive any managerial changes.
The same can be said for Cristian Romero, 24 and originally a Nuno loan signing, and the slightly expensive punt that was Djed Spence. While Ryan Sessegnon, still only 22, was not trusted by previous managers Conte has shown faith in the wing-back this season. Arsenal have fielded the second-youngest starting XI in the league but will hardly be facing a bunch of old lags gearing up for one shot at glory.
It would be harder to deny the difference in styles that will, provided external factors do not intervene, decide the occasion. While Conte bristles at the suggestion, Tottenham remain in essence a counterattacking team: for long periods of games they can appear scratchy, uncertain on the ball, before coming through with bursts of exhilarating attacking play few can live with.
Figures from Stats Perform show they have attempted nine shots from fast breaks this season to Arsenal’s two, scoring twice in such situations; they average 49.3% of possession while Arteta’s players, adhering to their manager’s obsession with control, take up 57.7%. While Spurs’ total number of passes is only a shade below that of Arsenal, they have made 1,065 in their own defensive third to Arsenal’s 677; in the final third, they have made 719 passes to Arsenal’s 1,205.
Who will Saturday suit? Arsenal, who have shed their propensity for sterile domination and now shift the ball around with speed and meaning, will not feel deterred if Conte chooses to sit in. A front four of Martin Ødegaard, Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Gabriel Jesus can convincingly claim to be the quickest-thinking and most intuitive in the league: some achievement given Jesus, a turbo-charging influence who has bound it all together, only arrived in the summer. But Conte may sense weakness in a potentially depleted Arsenal midfield, perhaps opting to bolster his own with Bissouma and almost certainly wondering what fresh damage Harry Kane and Son Heung-min may inflict when spaces appear.
It would pay to monitor the touchline battle, too. Conte failed to win at the Emirates with Chelsea and it was a capitulation there, in September 2016, that hastened his switch to a back three that promptly brought a run to the title. There was beef with Arteta in May, Conte telling the Spaniard to be “more focused on his team and not complaining” after the latter raged at Paul Tierney’s dismissal of Rob Holding. Having seen off Thomas Tuchel there is a vacancy for the object of Conte’s pitchside venom; Arteta is no angel himself and the rivalry has scope to develop if their teams remain nigh-on impossible to separate.
The season is young enough for either manager to explain a derby defeat away, but the invitation to climb back up in the world is so richly gold-embossed that nobody will play down the importance of winning. The wait, a much shorter one this time, is almost over.