Arsene Wenger could be forgiven if he shuddered when Christian Eriksen scored after just 11 seconds to put Tottenham ahead against Manchester United last week.
In doing so the Dane highlighted an aspect of the game in which Spurs outperform the Gunners, especially in big games such as Saturday’s derby between the north London rivals.
While Tottenham can fly out of the traps against their rivals among the Premier League’s Big Six, Arsenal are more likely to sleepwalk towards calamity.
Wenger’s team illustrated their susceptibility to jittery starts in the home game against United on 2 December.
The visitors reaped the rewards of an aggressive high press to score twice in the opening 11 minutes, through Antonio Valencia and Jesse Lingard.
United went on to win 3-1, capitalising on Arsenal’s increasing desperation to equalise by scoring again on the counter-attack through Lingard, despite having Paul Pogba sent off.
If that felt depressingly familiar to Wenger and the club’s weary supporters, it may be because it was one of four matches this season against fellow Big Six teams in which Arsenal conceded an early goal, defined here as coming inside the first 20 minutes.
They also fell behind early against Liverpool, when Roberto Firmino initiated a 4-0 thrashing, at Manchester City, when Kevin de Bruyne’s goal precipitated a 3-1 defeat, and in last month’s Carabao Cup semi-final second leg against Chelsea.
Only in the last of those fixtures did they regroup and avoid losing.
Arsenal are by no means strangers to conceding early in other games too, but the problem is far more pronounced against their Big Six rivals.
They have let in a total of 10 early goals across all 39 games in all competitions this season, an average of 0.26 per game. In 10 fixtures against other Big Six teams in all competitions this season, they have shipped five goals, an average of 0.5.
So in the biggest games they have been twice as likely to concede in the first 20 minutes.
How Tottenham raise their game
Tottenham, by comparison, are less likely to let in an early goal, regardless of the type of opposition.
They have conceded just seven early goals in 37 games across all competitions, an average of 0.19 per game. In matches against the Big Six they have shipped two in seven fixtures, an average of 0.29.
Compounding the concern for Wenger is the fact that Spurs are far more likely to score an early goal in a Big Six game than his side.
Arsenal have in fact struck early goals with greater frequency than Tottenham across all fixtures this season, at an average rate of 0.36 per game compared to their rivals’ 0.32.
But in Big Six matches Spurs raise their game, upping their average to 0.42 early goals per game, while the Gunners mislay their shooting boots, scoring a paltry 0.1 early goals.
The damning bottom line is this: while Tottenham tend to score early more often than they concede in Big Six matches, Arsenal have been five times more likely to concede an early goal than to score one.
|Early goals conceded per game|
|Overall||v Big Six teams|
|Early goals scored per game|
|Overall||v Big Six teams|
It was a distillation of the high-tempo pressing game in which the Argentinian has made Spurs experts – one which also appears to be an Achilles heel for Arsenal.Should Mauricio Pochettino need further cause for optimism, it can be found in the manner in which Erisken scored that goal against United.
Manchester City and Liverpool both favour a similar approach and duly took early leads against the Gunners.
Tellingly, United do not habitually play that way but Jose Mourinho, perhaps having spotted the weakness, switched to the tactic for their trip to Emirates Stadium and it proved a match-winning gambit.
Recent form, however, does provide a straw for Wenger to clutch at as his team aim to close the gap on Spurs and the top four at Wembley on Saturday lunchtime.
Although Arsenal fell behind with characteristic promptness in their last match against another Big Six team, that EFL Cup semi-final with Chelsea, they showed rare resilience, equalising moments later and then taking control in the second half.
The persuasive evidence is that such resilience will be in order again against Tottenham.