FRIDAY'S BIG STORIES

Derby Fun Times, #1

We'll say this for the fixture computer, it really does have a sense of occasion. Nearly two whole weeks without Premier League football? No better way to get it all going again than with the first north London derby of the season.
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Or, if you prefer, first against third. Off-hand, we can't remember the last time that this fixture was also this important. Early days, of course, but this fixture generally has a "race for fourth" vibe about it. Not "early league leaders" against "still-unbeaten chasers".
And that means that this game isn't just a question of bragging rights, of points and of positions. More than any other game so far this season, tomorrow's fixtures will provide the first definitive answer to the question we're all asking: Are Arsenal and/or Tottenham Actually, Properly Good?
The question of Proper Goodness is the most important question facing any team with pretensions to silverware. It is also, on its own terms, a bit of a silly question. We know Arsenal are good, in the ordinary, boring sense. That's a given. They finished fifth last season. But we live in an age when six out of 10 is a disappointing review, when three out of five constitutes failure. A team can be good and yet nowhere near Properly Good. A team can be fifth and yet miles from first.
The question is particularly pointed for Arsenal because, honestly, everybody loves a bit of amateur Arsenal psychology. It's the way they swing from finest team the world has ever seen to total clowns, total embarrassments, what the hell are you doing, Granit, often in the space of about 10 seconds. And then there's all the stuff about the referees. There really is no team so existentially exciting. Actually supporting Arsenal seems a deeply stressful way to live one's life.
Anyway, a perfect season, stylish football, goals up front, a new resilience at the back … and a loss at Old Trafford. That game against Manchester United was strange in some respects, not least the fact that both teams played very well. It might, if you take the balance of play and the weight of chances, serve as more evidence that Arsenal are approaching Good. Or if you take the result, and the way a work-in-progress United cracked open Arsenal's defence like a egg, then it stands as proof of the distance between good and Good.
Tottenham are facing down a different version of the same question. Generally speaking, they haven't looked anything like as convincing or entertaining as Arsenal, as Antonio Conte pokes and prods at his squad in search of his best combination. But there they are, one point behind, unbeaten, invincible. Here is the paradox of Goodness: a team doesn't have to be good, in the ordinary sense. Indeed, sometimes it helps if they're not. Teams playing well and getting points is how football is supposed to work. Teams turning in mediocre performances, but still somehow ending up with the points: that's the stuff of which champions are made.
So come half-past two on Saturday afternoon, we should be able to make a definitive judgement on two competing forms of aspirational Goodness: whether Arsenal have been flattering to deceive, and whether Tottenham have just been straight-up deceptive. One of these teams has been lying to you! It's time to expose the frauds.

Arteta would "love" Wenger to visit Arsenal for first time since 2018 departure

Derby Fun Times, #2

Of course, when we say Properly Good in a Premier League context, what we really mean is "able to keep up with Manchester City". As such, there has only been one other Properly Good team in recent Premier League history, and Liverpool are already eight points behind the defending champions.
It is perhaps unfortunate for the red half of Manchester that it's their neighbours who are setting the gold standard for Premier League Goodness, though presumably it's quite funny for the blue side. In any case, it's almost irrelevant. Manchester United have been a long way from Proper Goodness for a good long while.
Recent signs are that they are at least pointing in the right direction. But Erik ten Hag doesn't just have Erling Haaland to contend with: he also has the weight of history against him. The last Manchester United manager to win their first derby was Alex Ferguson, all the way back in January 1987. It was a different time. And for an end, City weren't particularly good, let alone Good, and at the end of the season they went down.
So Ten Hag's benchmarks are set spectacularly low. Don't get dismantled like Moyes' boys. Don't get dismantled like Rangnick's … er, need a rhyme need a rhyme need a rhyme … Rangnick's inorganics? That'll do. It would, of course, be a disgrace for anybody involved with United to even contemplate such defeatism, but here in the cosy bubble of neutrality we can be honest about things. It's a long way between good and Good, and United aren't even secure in the lower-case version yet. Meanwhile, City have just signed a goalscoring robot from outer space.
Which isn't to say that there aren't interesting questions to be answered here. If he's going to stick with a midfield three, then Ten Hag is going to have to choose between Casemiro and Scott McTominay. That this is even a question at all speaks wonder for McTominay's form. Nobody takes him seriously, yet manager after manager keeps picking him so he must be doing something right. And maybe the solution is to be found further forward. Play Bruno Fernandes as the central striker, play both Casemiro and McTominay, and hope that Ronaldo doesn't storm out of the stadium shouting "Coward! Coward!"? There's a reason Joel Glazer doesn't return our calls.
And yet. And very much yet. A United victory is unlikely, per the odds and per common sense, but not impossible. Not even unimaginable, as has often been the case recently, given the flickers of quality and the fact that Ten Hag's just had a good chunk of proper coaching time. And strange things happen in football and stranger things happen in derbies. What if Kevin Du Bruyne's walking past a window just when somebody throws the formbook out?
So where a respectable United loss would probably, secretly, mark an acceptable weekend's work for Ten Hag, a result of some kind - any kind - would do some very interesting things to the overall Premier League vibe. Most importantly, it would suggest that the distance between good and Good is not insurmountable; probably too early for United, but north London and half of Merseyside will be very interested indeed. Manchester United, the neutral's favourite. How far they have fallen.

IN OTHER NEWS

If a late, decisive goal in the correct net is a last-minute winner, then is a late own goal a last-minute loser? We're definitely not going to ask Leicester City's Kirstie Levell for her thoughts on the matter, after this happened against Everton last night. Oh me, oh my, oh no.

RETRO CORNER

On this day some 24 years ago, Arsenal trotted out onto the Wembley turf. Not for a cup final, but for a home game: their first Champions League group game against Panathinaikos. Highbury was too small for European football, you see. Arsenal were thinking bigger.
They won that game, but as everybody knows, Wembley wasn't a particularly happy hunting ground. In the end they could only manage third in the group, after Dynamo Kyiv left Wembley with a point and Lens left with three. And the next time Arsenal played in the Champions League, they played their games at Highbury, everybody was much happier, and they actually got out of their group.
But what The Warm-Up had forgotten, or possibly had never known at all, was that Arsenal at one point tried to actually buy Wembley, properly and permanently. The search for a bigger home hadn't yet landed on Ashburton Grove, and they were considering all sorts of wacky options. The FA were furious, of course. Apparently selling Wembley to a club side would have seriously damaged England's bid for the 2006 World Cup. But the deal didn't go through, and so England were free to host the World Cup. Not going to look that up. Pretty sure that's right.

HAT TIP

Football generates misery, and misery loves company, so here's a collection of Guardian football writers detailing the worst football matches they've ever seen. See if you can guess which game John Brewin was watching, when he heard "those guffaws of insincere laughter only otherwise heard during Wimbledon fortnight". Or Andy Brassell reckons was "the most meaningless of meaningless friendlies … A match which would have short-changed spectators had it been a training session."
You'll have your own, of course. If pushed, The Warm-Up would have to go with the 2016 Ryman Premier League play-off final, a 3-1 defeat for Dulwich Hamlet in which East Thurrock's first two goals were scored - as far as we could tell - by the wind. By the howling wind. By the howling, horizontal wind that poured straight out of a hole in the sky, passed through the bones of every miserable pink-and-blue scarf-wearing fool in Rookery Hill, then rattled straight down the pitch and nodded in two corners.

COMING UP

The men's domestic game is reawakening after the international break. We've got Hull City v Luton Town in the Championship, Athletic Bilbao v Almeria in Spain, and Angers v Marseille in Ligue 1.
Have a Good - with a capital G - weekend. Michael Hincks will be here on Monday.
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