Arsenal legend Thierry Henry has described the possibility of Tottenham Hotspur winning the Premier League as "the ultimate nightmare" for Gunners fans and believes Saturday's north London derby is the most important he has "ever known."
In his column with the Sun, Henry wrote on Friday:
The ultimate nightmare would be for Tottenham to finish as champions instead. My God, I don’t even want to think about that possibility. It would be unbearable for all us Arsenal fans.
That is why tomorrow’s meeting at the Lane is probably the biggest North London derby I have ever known.
Spurs have been excellent this season and find themselves second in the league table, three points behind Leicester City and three points ahead of bitter rivals Arsenal.
The Gunners are one of just five teams to win the Premier League title, but they last did so in 2003/04. With Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea all struggling, this season represents their best chance to claim it again, so a failure to do so—particularly if Spurs are the ones to beat them to it—would make their campaign an unmitigated disaster.
The anger and frustration of the Emirates Stadium faithful on Wednesday, as Arsenal slipped to a 2-1 defeat at home to Swansea City, was audible; the crowd booed manager Arsene Wenger for substituting goalscorer Joel Campbell for Danny Welbeck.
Bleacher Report UK set the scene:
Bleacher Report UK @br_uk
Scenes at the Emirates as Arsene Wenger takes off goal-scorer Joel Campbell. https://t.co/QQPjiYr4kA2016-3-2 21:07:32
Henry said he has never seen such anger from the fans:
I have never heard the Arsenal supporters as angry as they were at the Emirates on Wednesday night when their team lost at home to Swansea.
They were less patient than I have ever known, booed one of the manager’s substitutions and groaned every time a pass went astray or a tackle was lost.
Per the Telegraph's Sam Wallace, Wenger responded to Henry's comments in his press conference on Friday:
Sam Wallace @SamWallaceTel
Wenger on Henry saying Arsenal fans angrier than ever: 'He can't measure angriness of 60,000 people, he sits in the stadium's best seats'2016-3-4 09:32:09
John Cross of the Mirror summarised his spiky retort:
John Cross @johncrossmirror
Arsene Wenger basically accuses Thierry Henry of joining the prawn sandwich brigade and not knowing how angry Arsenal fans are.2016-3-4 09:30:53
John Cross @johncrossmirror
Might be a little awkward when Thierry Henry comes in to take the kids' training sessions. As the kids say... Shots fired2016-3-4 09:31:40
Former Gunners hitman Henry believes the team can still win the title but that the players need to seriously improve their attitudes and performances:
There are still 10 games to go, and 30 points to play for, so they need to send out a strong, positive message. Those players have to pick themselves off the floor, stand up and fight.
Despite their recent poor results, Arsenal are still in with a shout in the title race. But the way they are playing at the moment does not tell me that they are going to win it.
Henry isn't the only former Arsenal striker to criticise the team, with Kanu also having his say on Twitter:
Kanu Nwankwo @papilokanu
What is going on with arsenal and can someone tell me?come on boys this is time to show character and believe and start winning,we Kan do it2016-3-3 13:32:46
The Gunners have long been thought of as mentally fragile, given their tendency to fail to turn up for big games and buckle under pressure.
Despite winning the FA Cup two seasons running, their problems have come to the fore once again after they conceded ground to their rivals with back-to-back defeats to United and Swansea.
Indeed, per the BBC's Neil Henderson, the Sun described Tottenham vs. Arsenal as "Fighters vs. Bottlers" on Friday's back page:
Neil Henderson @hendopolis
SUN SPORT: Nailed #tomorrowspaperstoday https://t.co/QJq0FFDrH72016-3-3 22:52:30
The stats would support the paper's description of Arsenal as "bottlers," with the Gunners frequently failing to take their chances, per Sky Sports Football:
Sky Football ⚽️ @SkyFootball
Arsenal had enough clear-cut chances to win 9/13 PL games they've drawn/lost: https://t.co/uWowIEzdiE ¦ @p_smith86 https://t.co/N4dvsCKAYX2016-3-3 13:02:03
By contrast, Spurs' defeat to West Ham United on Wednesday has been seen as more of a brief stutter on an otherwise upward trajectory, with the Lilywhites having won six successive matches before that. Henry agrees with that view and praised manager Mauricio Pochettino for his impressive job at White Hart Lane:
The belief they now have at Tottenham means that they play better and they act better.
They could not take their chance to go top of the table on Wednesday night but that does not mean they bottled it at Upton Park.
If there is ever such a thing as an acceptable defeat, losing 1-0 in a local derby away to a very impressive West Ham team—who boast an excellent record against all the big clubs—was surely it. Tottenham had won their previous six games before Wednesday’s defeat.
That is the kind of consistency which Arsenal have been unable to show.
Pochettino's transformation of Spurs has been quite remarkable. Like their rivals, they've often had the reputation for flattering to deceive before choking, often in spectacular fashion.
While there is still a long way to go in the title race—a contest they were never expected to be in, meaning Spurs will perhaps feel less pressure to maintain their push—they appear different this season.
Their record of conceding just 22 goals—four fewer than the next tightest side, Manchester United—shows the extent of their organisation and work rate. Only Leicester have scored more than their 49 goals.
If Spurs beat Arsenal on Saturday, the Gunners will be six points behind them and possibly nine points behind the Foxes if Claudio Ranieri's men beat Watford later in the day. The psychological blow that would deal could be significant.
As for Arsenal, a win would push them right back into contention, but question marks would likely still remain over their ability to maintain their ascent with the pressure firmly on.