Tottenham host Arsenal on Sunday in a fixture that could see the White Hart Lane outfit move to within three points of their neighbours with a win. Both sides of north London suffered disappointing European nights during the week, with Arsenal exiting the Champions League and Tottenham all but going out of the Europa League, and will be looking to bounce back.
However, the Gunners go into the game amidst an injury crisis that sees them make the short trip to face Tim Sherwood’s Tottenham side without a cluster of crocked players. With Theo Walcott, Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere all missing for the away side, Arsene Wenger’s main asset—his midfield—looks considerably weaker than it would with a full bill of health.
So should the depleted Arsenal midfield give Tottenham hope of winning the midfield battle? Squawka takes a look at the respective sides' central areas to see who comes out top.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain v Paulinho
Sherwood is likely to revert back to a five-man midfield for the visit of Arsenal, with Sandro, Nabil Bentaleb and Paulinho the men expected to line up in central areas, while Arsenal are likely to line up with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mikel Arteta in central areas, and Santi Cazorla as the No. 10 in the absence of Ozil.
The Tottenham boss’s disdain for using Christian Eriksen as a No. 10 means that the Danish playmaker is once again likely to find himself shifted onto the left hand side of midfield, and that the creative thrust from central areas is likely to come from Paulinho, who is the highest-scoring of the club’s midfielders this season.
As the most attacking of the trio, Paulinho draws comparison with Oxlade-Chamberlain, who, while starting from deep, will be the most forward-thinking of Arsenal’s deep-lying midfield pair.
Five years Oxlade-Chamberlain’s elder, used to the central midfield role and bought at a £17 million transfer fee, Paulinho should theoretically be comfortable in the comparison.
The Brazilian has created an average of 0.92 chances per 90 minutes played this season, pipping Oxlade-Chamberlain by the smallest of margins.
However, Paulinho, who has in truth been a disappointment given his hefty transfer fee, has registered fewer assists per 90 minutes played than his young rival.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goals-to-assist ratio is over three times better than Paulinho’s, despite their chance creation being the same. The former Southampton man has averaged 0.31 assists per 90 minutes played to Paulinho’s 0.1m assists.
Some of this can be put down to misfiring teammates, such as the misfiring Roberto Soldado, who has a conversion rate of just 13 percent.
However, the higher assist numbers also suggest that Oxlade-Chamberlain is creating better chances for his teammates, rather than rolling the ball sideways for someone to have a shot. The England man has the burst of energy and speed to take the game by the scruff of the neck and go past opponents in a way that Paulinho is yet to show.
Against Bayern Munich in the Champions League, Oxlade-Chamberlain was the brightest spark of Arsenal’s performance, bursting from deep at the heart of most of Arsenal’s best moments. He completed 10 take-ons over the game—the same as the entire Bayern side combined.
The explosion from deep areas makes it easy to see why Arsene Wenger views the 20-year-old’s long-term best position as central midfielder. This comes in stark contrast to a Tottenham midfield that has seemed passive and lethargic at times this season when attempting to break teams down, resorting to passes across goal and shots from range, due to a lack of central creativity.
One area in which Paulinho has outperformed the Arsenal man is defensively. He has made both more interceptions and more tackles per 90 minutes played than Oxlade-Chamberlain. Even accounting for the fact that “The Ox” has played a number of games on the wing, Paulinho performs better in defense.
In his two games in the centre of midfield against Crystal Palace and Bayern, Oxlade-Chamberlain made just one tackle and two interceptions over both games.
Arteta v Bentaleb
But Paulinho’s defensive superiority to Oxlade-Chamberlain is unlikely to cause Arsenal a huge problem, given that it comes at the expense of attacking thrust and that Arsenal have Mikel Arteta alongside Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Arteta has averaged 2.81 tackles per 90 minutes this season and provides the calming influence that allows whichever one of Ramsey, Wilshere or Oxlade-Chamberlain is alongside him to have more impact going forward.
Alongside the resurgence of Emmanuel Adebayor, Nabil Bentaleb has been another of the success stories of Sherwood’s reign so far.
Similar to Arteta in style, the 19-year-old has made 11 appearances since Sherwood took over, averaging almost three interceptions per game.
Solid in front of the back four and adept at keeping the ball and dictating tempo, Bentaleb has the second-highest pass accuracy of any Tottenham midfielder, behind Mousa Dembele.
His 88 percent accuracy may not be as high as Arteta’s 92 percent, but Bentaleb has proven himself a hot future prospect in the second half of the season.
He has averaged 52 successful passes per 90 minutes played this season and managed to complete 98 in a single fixture against Crystal Palace.
While he has not achieved as many passes per 90 minutes as Arteta (72), he has added a calm presence to the Spurs midfield.
However, despite being in a similar mould to Arteta, he is not yet in the Spaniard’s league. The French-Algerian is still to fully find the balance between keeping the ball and going forward and has created just five chances in his 11 games, a figure dwarfed by Arteta’s 14 chances created.
Arsenal’s midfield may be depleted ahead of the North London derby, but the Gunners still hold the edge in spite of their spate of injuries and Tottenham’s summer spending. A win for Arsenal would see them extend their lead over Tottenham to nine points, with a game still in hand. With the two side’s respective squads and form, the Gunners look to be favourites to add to their 17 Premier League wins over Tottenham.