Few people would have predicted at the end of last season that rivals Arsenal and Tottenham would head into the first north London derby of 2023-24 level on points and both in the Premier League’s top four.
Spurs had finished 2022-23 eighth, a mammoth 24 points behind second-placed Arsenal and in relative disarray. A positive start under Ange Postecoglou has, however, earned them 13 points from their opening five games to match their fierce rivals, who have also won four games and drawn one ahead of Sunday’s meeting.
That said, Arsenal are way, way ahead of Spurs in their project, having run Manchester City close in last season’s title race and reinforced over the summer to strengthen their chances of fighting on multiple fronts this season. Having this week also got their return to the Champions League off to a flying start with a 4-0 win over PSV Eindhoven, there are signs of genuinely sustainable progress at the Emirates.
Spurs’ recent run to begin the Postecoglou era has been impressive but amounts to very little comparatively. It took Arsenal three years under Mikel Arteta – including two successive eighth-place finishes under him – to get to the stage where they are in contention for major honours.
Arsenal therefore go into the latest instalment of the north London derby as favourites, not least because they have the home advantage. Arsenal have not lost any of their last 12 home Premier League games against Tottenham, winning eight and drawing four, while Arteta has overseen three wins from three in home north London derbies. They come up against a resurgent Spurs this weekend, though, and won’t be taking victory for granted.
At the heart of both sides’ hopes will be the influence of their superb number 10s.
In Martin Ødegaard and James Maddison, Arsenal and Spurs have players who are equally crucial to their teams, as well as leaders both on and off the pitch. Ødegaard, who this week signed a new contract at the club, is of course Arsenal’s captain, while Maddison was made part of Postecoglou’s ‘leadership group’ immediately after signing for the club this summer.
They both play in versions of the number 10 position, though despite similarities in their position on the teamsheet and in terms of their importance to their sides, there are a lot of differences in how they influence games. On Sunday, getting the most out of these two could be key to who gets a result.
But for the last few games of last season when Arsenal fell away in the title race, Ødegaard was a frontrunner for the Premier League’s player of the season. He was integral to Arsenal’s success with the ball in building attacks, but his influence was more apparent high up the pitch. His tally of 132 touches in the opposition box was the second highest of all central midfielders in the Premier League, and he was also Arsenal’s joint-highest scorer in the Premier League (15), adding seven assists. Having scored two goals already this season, only five players have more direct goal contributions than Ødegaard’s 24 since August 2022. Take out players who play in attack, and the Norwegian is top. Joint second in that list is Maddison (23).
Tottenham’s summer signing has made an impressive start to life at his new club. Two assists on his debut at Brentford were followed up with goals in the wins at Bournemouth and Burnley and then to him being awarded the Premier League’s player of the month for August. He also played key roles in the home wins over Manchester United and Sheffield United, and has only been substituted twice, with the side at least two goals ahead on each occasion. The team’s poor display without Maddison in the League Cup exit at Fulham gave an indication as to how reliant Spurs are on him already, and what a key role he plays for the team.
But while Ødegaard and Maddison play with a similar degree of freedom in attacking phases and both threaten the opposition’s goal regularly, there are also stylistic differences in what exactly they contribute.
Ødegaard likes to come short to get the ball, and is exceptional in tight areas. He has incredible dribbling ability, and he also does some of his best work with close combination play with teammates to work the ball past a group of opponents. He has a real preference for short passes; he has played only six long balls in five Premier League games so far this season, and has only put in three crosses in open play, attempting five more either directly from set-pieces or in the first phase of play following a set-piece. Given Arsenal take a lot of their corners short to Ødegaard, he gets on the ball in wide positions regularly but will rarely take the opportunity to put a cross in.
Maddison, on the other hand, while still a decent player when passing over short distances and a better dribbler than you might think, takes every opportunity to whip a cross into the middle. He has attempted nine crosses so far this season just from open play – the third most in the Premier League of central midfielders – and 35 overall, which is the third most of all players. He has also attempted 22 long balls compared to Ødegaard’s six.
Once the ball is in the penalty area, Ødegaard is also closer to a second striker than Maddison in how he arrives to meet crosses and the threat he provides. His 0.29 non-penalty xG per 90 in Premier League games last season was only marginally lower than Spurs forward Son Heung-min (0.31), level with Raheem Sterling and more than teammate Bukayo Saka (0.25), Brentford striker Bryan Mbeumo (0.28) and former Manchester City man Ilkay Gündogan (0.26), all of whom it could be argued are known for their goal threat more than Ødegaard.
Ødegaard and Maddison are similarly lethal from distance, and while the Arsenal captain gets into very advanced areas often, he is also a real threat from the edge of the box. He fired an arrow of a strike from 20 yards in the Champions League win over PSV on Wednesday, and struck from distance beyond Hugo Lloris in last season’s 2-0 win at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
But Maddison is an even bigger threat from range. Since he made his Premier League debut for Leicester City in August 2018, he has scored a league-high 18 goals from outside the penalty area (level with James Ward-Prowse), with one of those having come in a Spurs shirt already, in the win at Burnley.
Last season, Maddison and Ødegaard scored 10 goals between them with an expected goal value of less than 0.10. That means each shot would have been given less than a 10% chance of being scored based on our expected goals (xG) model, suggesting they were extremely low-quality chances. Maddison was responsible for a league-high six of those, while only three others scored more than Ødegaard’s four. It won’t come as much surprise then that both players have outperformed their expected goals numbers over their Premier League careers; Maddison has scored 45 goals from 34.6 xG, while Ødegaard has 25 goals from 17.2 xG. A contributing factor for Maddison is his shooting ability at set-pieces, with only Ward-Prowse (15) having scored more goals from direct free-kicks than him (8) since his debut. By coincidence, Maddison and Ødegaard have the exact same goals-per-90 rate over the course of their respective Premier League careers (0.31).
Given Ødegaard is left-footed and Maddison right, they tend to provide more goal threat from opposite sides; Ødegaard coming in from the right and Maddison moving onto his stronger foot from the left. However, Ødegaard is more one-footed than Maddison, and his game is – in general – more weighted to one flank than Maddison’s.
That is a deliberate ploy from Arteta that has become even more pronounced this season than in previous campaigns, with Ødegaard having struck up an effective partnership with Saka over their time together in north London.
Excluding defenders, Arsenal’s most common pass combination in Premier League games this season is Ødegaard to Saka, with 57 passes. That is the third most common in the entire Premier League behind Rodri to Mateo Kovacic and Mateo Kovacic to Rodri for Manchester City. Arsenal’s second most common combination is Saka to Ødegaard, with 48, which is the sixth most common overall in the top flight.
City’s two defensive midfielders get on the ball extremely often – Rodri has had more touches this season than anyone else in the Premier League (639) – and the fact that Ødegaard and Saka are second only to them says a great deal about how well Arsenal progress the ball down the right and get into advanced enough positions for right-sided forward Saka to get on the ball. Clearly, much of that is down to their captain. Arsenal’s attacks are heavily weighted to the right flank, with 42.5% of their attacking touches coming down that flank, and much of that is down to Ødegaard.
However, although Ødegaard is brilliant on the ball and has fantastic vision, he is less of a creative force than Maddison. The Tottenham man will more often look for the final ball, while Ødegaard will tend to look for the pass before the assist. Often that pass will be to Saka, of course, who is one of few players to have created more chances (15) in the Premier League this season than Maddison (14). Maddison ranks fourth in the league overall – and above Saka – for expected assists (xA), with 2.03. Ødegaard, meanwhile, has created only five chances this season with an xA value of just 0.46. Three of the chances he has created came in the win at a woefully underwhelming Everton last week.
With Ødegaard doing his damage down Arsenal’s right and Maddison enjoying pulling out to the Tottenham left, that side of the pitch could be a key battleground on Sunday. That will mean both play a key role in stopping the other.
Ødegaard and Maddison both do important jobs for their team when it comes their out-of-possession game. Pressing ability has patently been part of Arteta’s thinking with all of his attacking signings at Arsenal, and Ødegaard is one of the very best. The team’s press is often initiated by the Norway international, who moves forward from midfield to create a 4-4-2 block, and he will jump out to press an opposition centre-back following a square pass, usually to the left-sided centre-back. He will also make sure to cut off a pass to the opposition’s deepest midfielder with the line of his press.
He has been a key reason that Arsenal’s pressing game has worked so effectively under Arteta. Since the start of last season, Ødegaard leads the Premier League for the number of times he has won possession in the final third (53), and also leads the league on a per-90 minute basis when looking at players with a minimum of 1,500 minutes played in that time (1.5). He is top for Arsenal and in the top 10 overall for total pressures (1,013) in that time, too. He is a perfect fit for Arteta both in and out of possession, and with a few years together, he has learned to do exactly what his manager wants without the ball.
This is arguably an area in which Maddison needs to improve, which will surely happen with more time playing under Postecoglou. He has spent most of his Premier League career playing for a Leicester side who, for all of their intentions to dominate possession and press high under Brendan Rodgers, weren’t able to in the same way that Postecoglou will ask of his Tottenham team. Leicester had just 47.7% of the ball on average last season.
It therefore isn’t fair to compare Ødegaard’s numbers last season to Maddison’s, but in the small sample size of this season, Maddison trails way behind Sunday’s opposite number. Ødegaard is in the Premier League’s top 10 for pressures in the final third (70) and top 20 for pressures (143), while Maddison ranks 26th for pressures in the final third and 51st for pressures.
While Maddison does work hard, he could arguably do more when out of possession. Ødegaard (54.9km) has covered more ground than him (51.3km) this season and has embarked on more sprints than the Tottenham midfielder (76 to 58). Given Spurs rank top of the Premier League this season for final-third pressures resulting in a turnover (99), Maddison should arguably have made more than nine. Teammates Son-Heung min (24) and Richarlison (20) top the individual rankings, while Ødegaard has 12 to his name. Off-the-ball work won’t have been the main reason Postecoglou signed Maddison, but he may still be hoping for more from him on this front.
The north London derby is always a big deal for the teams involved, even when it was grossly one-sided in Arsenal’s favour in the 2000s and when both teams were aiming for little more than fourth place in the late 2010s. At this early stage in the season, it is hardly going to make or break either side’s campaign, but Arsenal’s title credentials and Tottenham’s start under Postecoglou make it feel even more important than ever.
Ødegaard and Maddison, the players in the middle of the two teams, will undoubtedly be key to who gets bragging rights on Sunday.