Mikel Arteta is 46 games into his reign as Arsenal boss, while Jose Mourinho is 54 games in at Tottenham.
Sunday brings together the two clubs’ relatively new managers. Mourinho was brought in with a clear objective to end Tottenham’s wait for a trophy since 2008 and I’m seeing a manager who is building a special relationship with his players. He is enjoying the way they are reacting to his instructions. They’re getting results and have rocketed to the top of the table.
Ironically, it’s actually the less-experienced Arteta who has won two trophies since taking charge — the FA Cup and Community Shield — but the pressure is on him now to pick up points with his team sitting 14th. This might be the perfect game for Arteta to turn Arsenal’s season around.
After Unai Emery’s exit, the problems were clear. Arteta identified there was a defensive issue when the team were out of possession and he had to make them more difficult to beat.
He reintroduced the back three which Emery had flirted with. They swept to victory against Manchester City and Chelsea in the FA Cup and it was impressive how they frustrated Liverpool in the Community Shield.
But it appears a back four offers a better platform for Arteta’s team to be more creative in the final third. The three can soon become a five and limit creativity, whereas Arteta wants to take control of games.
Last week against Wolves — who after three years of using a back three have now abandoned that system — Arsenal lost 2-1. They came up against an opponent who used, in the shape of Daniel Podence, a deep-lying No 10 with three players in front of him in a 4-2-1-3 formation.
Arsenal found that so much of a problem that it looks like Arteta copied that system in their 4-1 defeat of Rapid Vienna on Thursday, playing Alexandre Lacazette in the very same role Podence played.
In the opening exchanges Lacazette scored a wonder goal from distance and was feeding willing runners either side of him in Nicolas Pepe and Reiss Nelson, with Eddie Nketiah in front. It made them much more dangerous.
I am confident this system would make Arsenal more creative against Premier League opponents too. With three up top and one supporting, that will create more chances for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who has found himself starved of service.
A change of system could revitalise Aubameyang. He and Lacazette love playing together and the Frenchman being deployed from deep could rejuvenate that partnership.
Arsene Wenger used to tell us: ‘Be free in your mind.’ He wanted every player to feel like he could express himself. I saw some of that freedom against Vienna.
It’s well-known now that Harry Kane drops deep and makes life difficult for opponents. He operates between the defence and midfield, making himself hard to pick up. Lacazette in that deep role could work well. Arteta has to decide between the back three or going with the four.
This is a different Tottenham now under Mourinho. Their first XI is becoming much clearer and Mourinho doesn’t mind making big calls. Gareth Bale is not in the XI yet and didn’t do enough in the Europa League to replace Steven Bergwijn — a player who Mourinho previously admitted was not his first-choice signing.
Whatever system Arteta chooses, Arsenal will try to control the ball. But Tottenham don’t mind sitting deep, like they did against Chelsea. Tanguy Ndombele spent 65 minutes trying to stop N’Golo Kante from mounting attacks. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Moussa Sissoko were covering for their full backs.
Tottenham have deep-lying strikers who can do damage on the break and the stats say only Manchester United have scored more goals from counter-attacks this season. Arsenal will be wary of that. As with Chelsea last week, if they dominate possession, they will need to find the key to unlock the door against the Tottenham defence.
Arsenal, predominantly using a back three, have only scored 10 goals in 10 games in the Premier League. But in the Europa League, where they’ve mainly used a back four, they’ve scored 16 goals in five games.
Arteta has to decide whether he is ready to unleash this much more creative and positive system on Sunday against such strong opponents in league leaders Tottenham.