If a lot has changed since the last north London derby, consider the last time Tottenham Hotspur visited Arsenal. That, in so many ways, was another world.
The managers were Mauricio Pochettino and Unai Emery. The Covid-19 virus possibly didn’t even exist. The stadium was packed with fans.
The two clubs nevertheless remain in a sense of flux. There have been times when it’s even been difficult to say whether things are better since that 2-2 draw in September 2019.
Spurs have almost had a number of different campaigns in this season. There was a tepid start, an excitable title challenge, a “Mourinho season” disaster, and now something closer to what you would have expected at the start: they are ticking along and have the opportunity of top four and maybe two trophies.
A large part of that recent upturn has been a player who almost personifies this changeability.
Gareth Bale’s surprise signing was one of the major reasons for such optimism going into the season, only for fitness to interrupt his start… and then much of the campaign. It isn’t too long ago since it looked like this was going to be a failed emotion-driven punt.
There were long periods when Bale seemed a shadow of the player he should be. When he came on in that 3-3 collapse against West Ham United, it didn’t just look like his pace had deserted him, but that any sense of impetus had too.
Those who believe Bale had fallen out of love with football, and was only interested in golf, were given plenty of credence by his displays – when he managed to get on the pitch.
Jose Mourinho only added to the uncertainty in February when he said he couldn’t guarantee the Welsh international the games he needs to get sharp, amid apparent tension over a social media post.
All of that has dissipated, any uncertainty dissolved amid effervescent play and so much celebration. Bale has suddenly been the revelation everyone at Spurs hoped he would be.
If anyone is searching for a grand explanation to this, or any big story behind it all, there isn’t really one.
Those around the Spurs dressing room say, amid so many ructions, it really is just a case of time and patience. Bale has got a bit of football, got his feel back, and is just content again.
One source insists it “really is just psychological”.
If so, it has had a pronounced physical effect. It is not just that Bale is scoring again. It is that there is a sport to his game once more. He is trying things, and doing things, creating a spectacle. That could be felt in the first few minutes of that game-changing win over Burnley. There was an initial run that was so invigorating, and set a pace.
There’s also been the effect on those around him.
Part of Spurs’ problem in that recent slip was that the scoring rate of Son Heung-Min and Harry Kane had receded. One has now been revitalised. Kane is now striking up the kind of interchanges with Bale that he had been with Son, creating the potential for a lot of memes, as well as goals.
Some around Spurs are still urging caution. While there is encouragement from Bale’s form, they want to see how he adapts to the biggest games – especially if he is to stay another season.
There are none bigger for the club than this derby, although that doesn’t necessarily mean Arsenal will pose that challenge.
This isn’t because of the changeability of their own season. It is because, at this point, it seems clear that the Europa League is their main focus. It offers the chance of a trophy, as well as maybe the quickest return to the Champions League.
It also feels like Mikel Arteta can focus on it in a way that Mourinho can’t, since Spurs – to his credit – are still fighting on three fronts.
That may actually suit Arsenal. They can be a bit more calculated about this game.
It maybe doesn’t bode all that well for the match itself, mind.
The north London derby has for a long time been one of the Premier League’s most goal-laden fixtures, and probably its outstanding derby in terms of pure entertainment.
We know Mourinho’s constrained approach to such matches, though, and it doesn’t exactly give a pragmatic Arteta incentive to step out.
It’s a slightly different world for this fixture – much like a lot else.