LONDON – ArsÃ¨ne Wenger had been asked for his memories of Mauricio Pochettino, the player, and he responded by turning his palm upwards and making a karate-chopping gesture in a diagonal direction.
â€œTough,â€ the Arsenal manager added, with a smile. Wenger, clearly, has vivid recollections of Pochettinoâ€™s brutal, scything foul on Michael Owen at the 2002 World Cup, which gave England their certain penalty in the 1-0 win over Argentina.
More seriously, Wenger recognises an uncompromising new managerial rival in north London; one, he feels, who has made a positive impact at Tottenham Hotspur and will add to the passion of what stands to be a gripping derby at White Hart Lane on Saturday lunchtime.
The subplots are numerous, and they include Theo Walcott going head-to-head with Tottenham for the first time since January last year, when he was carried off during the FA Cup tie at the Emirates Stadium and, on the stretcher, made a scoreline gesture with his hands at the visiting fans. Arsenal were 2-0 up at the time.
It is a showdown that brims with creative potential, not to mention significance in the race for the Champions League places. Wenger described the Tottenham striker Harry Kane as having been â€œabsolutely outstanding until nowâ€. Could he, or the equally in-form Christian Eriksen, make the difference for the home team?
Wengerâ€™s attacking options are mouthwatering and this is without Alexis SÃ¡nchez, who has a hamstring problem. The Chilean, however, has struggled to accept that he will not play. â€œHe feels he can defy the medical people,â€ Wenger said. â€œBecause he is so keen to play, he thinks he can get over strains.â€ Could SÃ¡nchez yet feature?
There is, of course, the broader sweep of history and Wengerâ€™s supremacy in this bitter neighbourhood spat. Since arriving at Arsenal in September 1996, he has always finished above Tottenham and his record in all competitions against them reads: W21 D17 L6. He has seen off 10 Tottenham managers, excluding caretakers.
Pochettino dodged the question of what it would mean to him to finish above Arsenal and he preferred to talk about the fire of such fixtures, suggesting that the heart would always rule the head in them.
â€œIt is impossible to put out the passion and the emotion,â€ Pochettino said. â€œOur supporters go to the stadium because they feel passion. We need to feel the same passion [as them]. You need to be clever, to play with your brain but, also, you need to play with your heart.â€
The notion of balance, of the perfect calibration between the competing demands and targets, stood out. Pochettino has what he hopes can be a long-term project and he spoke about Tottenhamâ€™s proposed move to a rebuilt and enlarged White Hart Lane and, also, how he had overseen the signing of a clutch of young players with potential.
â€œI think Wenger is a good example of this balance you need to give,â€ Pochettino said. â€œHe has been perfect because, always, he gives a balance to the team â€“ between young, medium and experienced players. For the club, itâ€™s the same. We are a company, a business. You need a good balance.â€
Pochettino, though, was quick to add the rider: there was no medium or long-term for a manager without results in the short-term. â€œSaturday is a big game for us,â€ Pochettino said. â€œEverything is no more than Saturday for us, and for our supporters, too.â€
For Wenger, Arsenalâ€™s recent upturn â€“ which has as its centrepiece the 2-0 win at Manchester City three weeks ago â€“ has been based on subtle tweaks, such as the deployment of a more solid midfield three, with Francis Coquelin in a defensive role and Santi Cazorla also involved. Wenger has moved Cazorla in from the wing and watched him thrive.
â€œThe balance of the team can depend on one player,â€ Wenger said. â€œGetting that one player right gives you the efficiency and it is not always a player who makes headlines, someone glamorous. Most of the time, it is a player who works in the dark and has a real team attitude.
â€œIt can be a Coquelin type, or Cazorla but, sometimes, the balance is to have one more guy who keeps the ball up front. It has been quite positive having Cazorla central. He has a good balance between attacking and defending. He is a better defender than people think.â€
Wenger talked about the chemistry between his creative players and the â€œreal strikersâ€ such as Olivier Giroud who, he said, â€œdictates a bit your game, because he has a certain styleâ€. Wenger continued: â€œAll the others are more similar types, with mobility, speed and technique. Itâ€™s to find the right balance.
â€œFor example, if I told you at the beginning of the season that [Luis] SuÃ¡rez would score two or three goals for Barcelona, when he scored 33 last year [at Liverpool], I would say: â€˜Itâ€™s impossible.â€™ So they have to find their space, their room and their aura in the team.â€
Wenger noted how Pochettinoâ€™s arrival in the Premier League â€“ at Southampton in January 2013 â€“ had been greeted by scepticism. â€œWhat happened to him reminds me of something,â€ Wenger said, with reference to his own welcome in England. â€œPeople were asking why he had come but he quickly convinced them of his quality. He looks already to get his style at Spurs and be efficient.â€
Both Tottenham and Arsenal are in what is known these days as â€œa good momentâ€. They have found stability; entertaining players are to the fore and confidence has swelled. Pochettino mentioned how his team were feeling more comfortable at White Hart Lane â€“ where they enjoyed their breakthrough win against Chelsea on New Yearâ€™s Day.
This one matters the most. â€œI can be torn between my head and my heart, as I am attracted by giving more balance to going forward,â€ Wenger said. â€œBut the first thing my heart wants is to win.â€ – The Guardian