Ending St Totteringham's Day Could Be Start of Spurs Dominating Arsenal

Alex DunnFeatured ColumnistApril 28, 2017

Mauricio Pochettino and his Tottenham side can make a real statement on Sunday against Arsenal.
Mauricio Pochettino and his Tottenham side can make a real statement on Sunday against Arsenal.Alastair Grant/Associated Press

Tottenham Hotspur are not 14 points clear of Arsenal with five Premier League matches remaining because their manager, Mauricio Pochettino, thinks small. He is not highly thought of, and probably coveted, by some of the world's biggest clubs because he thinks local.

So when he says the possible cancellation of St Totteringham's Day for the first time in 22 years, by virtue of his side winning Sunday's derby at White Hart Lane, is neither a distraction nor motivation, one is inclined to believe him.

Pochettino isn't interested in mind games. He isn't interested in rolling out platitudes in manager-speak either. Without being transparent to the point of naivety, what he says is generally what he thinks.

For those not acquainted with a phrase that has become one of the most venerated in north London lexicon over the years, St Totteringham's Day refers to the day in the Premier League calendar when Tottenham can no longer mathematically finish higher than Arsenal.

Groundhog Day has become synonymous with Arsenal over the years, but Bill Murray has popped up just as often at White Hart Lane as he has at Highbury and the Emirates Stadium. Indeed, at least once in each of the 21 seasons since the 1994/95 campaign.

Wednesday's win at Crystal Palace, who in April alone have beaten Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, showed the type of gritty fortitude Spurs sorely lacked during last season's run-in. It was a similarly impassioned but controlled Pochettino that spoke of keeping a professional focus after the game. He's happy for the fans to be swept up by the occasion Sunday presents but not his players, per the Guardian):

"We know what Arsenal means, this game, for our fans. But we are not thinking about being above Arsenal.

"Our challenge now is to try to reduce the gap to Chelsea again and think about bigger things than only to be above Arsenal.

"To win big trophies and achieve big things, your mentality must be bigger than that. You must think about bigger dreams. Big dreams. It's important to have them."

The 74 points accrued to date represents Spurs' highest points total in the Premier League era. They head into Sunday's game trailing Chelsea by four points, having won eight league games on the spin. Ominously for Arsenal, they are also on a run of 12 consecutive victories at White Hart Lane.

As the youngest team in the Premier League, with an average age of 25 years and 266 days, Spurs can become as big a club as they want—just so long as they match the ambition of Pochettino and his players.

The now-cult photographs of Pochettino with his arm draped over one of his charges who's signing a contract extension suggest, for the minute, it is a group of players and management team happy to grow together. Whether similar images will emerge of Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil over the summer remains to be seen.

A maximum return from a run-in—Arsenal (h), West Ham United (a), Manchester United (h), Leicester City (a) and Hull City (a)—so tricky it looks like it was probably pencilled in by either Wenger or Gunnersaurus would give Spurs 89 points for the season. As unlikely as such a scenario sounds, it would nonetheless match or better the points that were required to win the title in nine of the past 10 Premier League seasons.

Pochettino is right to aim higher than looking down at Arsenal. Spurs need to win Sunday's derby to give themselves a fighting chance of catching Chelsea. Anything else is secondary.

While it's true they would benefit from ridding themselves of a monkey that has been on their back for more than two decades, it's no longer the great ape it once was. Arsenal today are more like those friendly chimps that used to brew up in the PG Tips ads, always happy to help out a neighbour.

Tottenham probably are 14 points better than Arsenal, which is not quite the same as being 14 points better off. It's not the vagaries of form separating them but ability. Spurs have better players, a better team and a better manager. It's that simple.

On the final day of last season, when Tottenham's inexplicable implosion at Newcastle United allowed Arsenal fans to drink in another St Totteringham's Day, a wry grin enveloped Wenger's face.

"It looked many years like that," he told reporters, when it was put to him that it seemed like this was finally going to be the time when Spurs would catch them. As many Arsenal fans would vouch, Wenger has an uncanny knack for not letting things catch up with him. Those with banners would argue the sack is one of them.

Behind the smile, though, Wenger is far too astute a man not to have been acutely aware that, contrary to what the record book says, Tottenham overtook his team last season.

Both managers have created sides in their own images. The problem for Arsenal is Pochettino is the younger and better-looking man. Arsenal more resemble the portrait in the attic than Dorian Gray, with Wenger's vanities and foibles never more evident than when his team takes to the field. 

Not that he remains anything but a warm, generous, captivating and highly intelligent man. As many people would probably vote for him as they would the other dyed-in-the-wool Arsenal fella running in the general election, but then governing the country probably isn't half as tough as guaranteeing UEFA Champions League football season after season after season ad infinitum.

Or, as Wenger put it recently, per Paul Wilson of the Guardian: "I have done it for 20 years, and it looked always like nothing. Suddenly it becomes important, so I am quite pleased people realise it is not as easy as it looks."

Wenger's switch to three at the back in recent matches feels a bit like your dad stepping out in a pair of Nike Air Max, but he'd argue for all the fawning over Pochettino's tactical innovation, there's still probably more chance of Arsenal winning silverware this season than Tottenham.

An FA Cup final victory over Chelsea would represent an English-record 13 triumphs for the club, while a seventh for Wenger would make him the most successful manager in the competition's history.

Still, there's an inescapable sense of building at Tottenham. Quite literally, as each passing week White Hart Lane slowly becomes a living relic as the club's new double-the-capacity stadium starts to swallow it, brick by brick. Amid this possible new cycle of dominance hatching in north London, Dele Alli's second consecutive PFA Young Player of the Year award seems another portent of progress.

In five of the past six seasons, a Tottenham player has won the award. Only Eden Hazard was able to break a stranglehold that, since 2011/12, has seen Kyle Walker, Gareth Bale, Harry Kane and Alli scoop the gong.

Pertinent, perhaps, is that the last winner before Spurs' pre-eminence was Jack Wilshere. While all of the aforementioned players have progressed from being promising to genuine stars, Arsenal's own band of Peter Pan fledglings seem to have grown old without growing up. With Wenger showing no sign of getting the hook, it's hard to envisage significant improvement among those who have become stale under his tenure.

Theo Walcott enduring a steady stream of criticism of late from a section of his own supporters, along with Wilshere—on loan at Bournemouth—hobbling off at White Hart Lane with a broken leg to an uncertain future, paints a fairly compelling portrait of how Arsenal's not-so-young English talents are faring in comparison to Spurs'. Hector Bellerin is another to have gone backward, which is ironic given it's a direction he's shown only sporadic interest in recently.

Nonetheless, such is football's fixation for wanting tomorrow yesterday, should Alli make it an unprecedented hat-trick of the same award next season, it would likely be seen as quiet stagnation. Alli, like Tottenham, will be expected to be a front-runner for the biggest prizes from the get-go next term.

Regardless of who spends what over the summer, if Spurs end the campaign as the prettiest bridesmaid again, however unfair, there will invariably be cruel speculation of what's wrong with them to still be left on the shelf.

Tottenham had four players make the PFA Team of the Year in Walker, Alli, Danny Rose and Harry Kane. Hugo Lloris and Toby Alderweireld will both feel aggrieved they didn't make the cut, while Christian Eriksen and Mousa Dembele would surely merit a place on the bench. From Arsenal, only Sanchez would have any right to throw himself to the ground in protest at omission—were he that way inclined.

While Pochettino is right in urging his players to forget about St Totteringham's Day, only the truly righteous will not enjoy the partisan-to-the point-of-religious bickering that is likely to ensue on Sunday.

Football is great because it less indulges schadenfreude, a sense of pleasure derived by someone from another's misfortune, than actively encourages it.

In wider society, acts of schadenfreude are generally frowned upon. While the temptation is always there to engage in a full-on Temuri Ketsbaia-style hoarding-destruction celebration when a disliked work colleague is overlooked for promotion, it would likely result in a disciplinary. Likewise, it might be seen as a little uncouth to once a year wave a printout of your annual earnings in the face of a less well-remunerated workmate.

Arsenal supporters have been doing it for 21 years. As well they might. Though as the writer Martin Amis once said, in a line that surprisingly fits Arsenal Fan TV luminaries Robbie, Clive, Kelechi, Ty, Moh, Troopz, DT et al. like a Savile Row suit: "The English feel schadenfreude even about themselves."

TV will almost certainly eat itself if Arsenal lose on Sunday.

In those 21 seasons of unbridled and sneeringly joyous one-upmanship, Arsenal have accumulated some 384 more points than Tottenham. That's an average of 18.3 per season. On 13 occasions, the gap has been 10 points or more, with 11 of those boasting an excess of over 20 points.

The disparity has been closing for some time, though. Over the past five seasons, on three occasions, just a solitary point has separated them. Each of these times, St Totteringham's Day was celebrated on the final game of the season.

For Arsenal fans long since resigned to the fact the Premier League title is a forlorn dream, leaving it so late probably makes it all the sweeter. It's like how making a train you seemed destined to miss, despite sprinting for it, is perversely worth having to spend the duration of the journey sucking air into a brown paper bag to stave off hyperventilation. Though that may just be me.

The widest gap between the two clubs was a gargantuan 45 points in 2003/04. Arsenal's Invincibles went an unprecedented 38 league games unbeaten, finishing with a final record that read 26 wins, 12 draws and 0 defeats, to the tune of 90 points.

Spurs finished 14th, with Glenn Hoddle dismissed after just six matches. David Pleat took over for the remainder of the season in what was possibly the world's longest run for the caretaker since Harold Pinter's play of the same name did 444 performances at London's Duchess Theatre.

The last time Tottenham finished above Arsenal was in the 1994/95 season. An annus horribilis for the Gunners that saw them sack legendary manager George Graham in February 1995. His position became untenable when it came to light the man who had won them two league titles had accepted an illegal payment of more than £400,000 from Norwegian agent Rune Hauge following Arsenal's acquisition of two of his clients, John Jensen and Pal Lydersen.

In a week when football's inability to sufficiently govern itself has become increasingly apparent, it probably didn't take Hercule Poirot levels of deduction to surmise something fishy was going on with Graham. Watching either player at work would probably have sufficed.

At one point under Stewart Houston, Graham's assistant who took over the reins, it looked as though Arsenal might even go down before a late rally saw them finish 12th. London rivals Chelsea (11th), Wimbledon (ninth), QPR (eighth) and Tottenham (seventh) all finished above them. Arsenal finished the season six points clear of the relegation zone, 38 shy of champions Blackburn Rovers.

They were 11 points behind a Tottenham side that had Jurgen Klinsmann up front. The German arrived in England a pantomime villain and left a darling of pretty much everyone except Arsenal supporters and then-Tottenham owner Alan Sugar, who had fallen out with him. In his only full season in north London, Klinsmann scored 21 times and was named the Football Writers' Association Footballer of the Year.

To rub a vat of salt into an already gaping wound, Arsenal were beaten in the European Cup Winners' Cup final that year by Real Zaragoza, courtesy of a last-minute goal in extra time from former Spurs favourite Nayim, hit from a full 40-plus yards.

It spawned the slightly exaggerated but no less amusing chant "Nayim from the halfway line," a solo EP from Hot Chip singer Alexis Taylor bearing the same title and, perhaps most impressively, the naming of a street in Zaragoza in its honour, called Gol de Nayim (Nayim's Goal).

Arsenal started the final, held in Paris' Parc des Princes, with Martin Keown in central midfield. David Hillier replaced him for the second half. For the benefit of younger readers, the pair possessed a range of passing that made Francis Coquelin's look like Andrea Pirlo's.

However bad it gets for Arsenal on Sunday, it will never get Keown-in-midfield bad.

For Tottenham, it could mark a changing of the guard like few others.

  

All statistics worked out via the official Premier League website.