Tottenham Ahead of Arsenal in Every Way, Except in Terms of Trophies

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistNovember 17, 2017

All smiles now but tensions will be fraught on Saturday for the much anticipated North London derby.
All smiles now but tensions will be fraught on Saturday for the much anticipated North London derby.Alastair Grant/Associated Press

Never let it be said football has lost its capacity to surprise. In terms of thoughts one might not expect to commit to paper, praising Arsenal for pragmatism would be up there with saluting FIFA for its transparency. Yet here we are.

But first, the gloom.

Ahead of the 194th meeting between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur since the first in 1896, there is an overwhelming sense it will be the cockerel crowing on Saturday afternoon. Arsenal could turn their cannon on it, but the fear is they would only end up shooting themselves in the foot. 

Four points currently separate Tottenham in third to Arsenal in sixth. Such is the pervading mood in both camps, without a league table to hand one might assume that number to be closer to 40.

That Arsenal are currently enveloped in an existential crisis barely needs stating such is the perpetual nature of the affliction, but when Jean-Paul Sartre stops bothering to go to the match because he finds it a bit gloomy, it's perhaps time to acknowledge the gap is fast becoming a great big bloody chasm.

For the less melodramatic, an Arsenal win on Saturday would put them to within a point of their neighbours. Spurs are unbeaten in the last six North London derbies; though the smart money is on a stalemate given the previous three meetings between the two clubs at the Emirates have been 1-1 draws.

Still, pushing aside neutral observations for just a minute, it's clear North London is split down the middle. Like a party and a hangover.

Half of its residents are cast in a brilliant white light, bathing in a footballing utopia dreamt up by Mauricio Pochettino and brilliantly executed by his band of buccaneering brothers. With talk of a Wembley hoodoo long-since exorcised by demolition jobs carried out on Borussia Dortmund, Liverpool and Real Madrid under the arch, Spurs are one of the most exciting sides in Europe. Perhaps that does them a disservice. Maybe exciting should read best.

In Pochettino they have arguably Europe's finest coach. Likewise, in Harry Kane, likely to be fit for the weekend, probably its best centre forward. With five goals in his last four appearances against Arsenal, Kane could well ruin Arsene Wenger's 51st derby, just as he did the Frenchman's half-century last season, via a goal in Spurs' 2-0 win in April.

Behind Kane, Christian Eriksen has spent the week cementing his reputation as one of the continent's most in-form playmakers, while Dele Alli is again showing why he is purportedly courted by both Real Madrid and Barcelona. In terms of squad depth, Danny Rose, Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele have managed just five Premier League starts between them due to injury yet have barely been missed.

Tottenham's defence isn't too shabby either. It has conceded the fewest goals in each of the last two Premier League seasons, and just seven this term. Spurs' options at centre-half when everyone is fit are Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Davinson Sanchez, Eric Dier, Juan Foyth and Ben Davies. It should come as no surprise Pochettino was an uncompromising central defender in his playing days.

Then there is Arsenal, who on the first day of the season started with a back three comprising Nacho Monreal, Rob Holding and Sead Kolasinac. Only one of them is a central defender by trade. They conceded three against Leicester City. Prior to the international break they started with a back three comprising Monreal, Laurent Koscielny and Francis Coquelin. Only one of them is a central defender by trade. They conceded three against Manchester City.

The red district of the capital has long-since been a weirdly polite dystopia, where everyone is unhappy but talk of an uprising never goes beyond shouting into a YouTube camera in car parks. It's a bit like the Truman Show in that they never go anywhere; except unlike Jim Carey's character all of the residents are acutely aware it is someone else that pulls the strings.

In the guise of major shareholder Stan Kroenke and chairman Sir Chips Keswick, the silent puppeteers continue to divide opinion. They are loathed either a little or a lot. Between them they adhere to two of the worse stereotypes. One an American obsessed with money; the other a stiff Englishman observant to the status quo, regardless of whether it still gets results.

Wenger being in cahoots with a board chivvying the Premier League to award the title based on net spend, similarly induces bilious nausea in the paying seats at the Emirates. There was heckling at the AGM, though reports of avocado being thrown are exaggerated.

There's a very definite sense Alli engaging in talks with super agent Jorges Mendes this week only reaffirms Real Madrid have fallen deep for the player who led them a merry dance in the UEFA Champions League this season. Arsenal's own star acts, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, are turning in the type of directionless displays that could well result in the heaviest heavyweights concluding they are too dear, even when available for free over the summer. Such is the apathy there would be few dissenting voices were the pair sold in January. 

Pochettino would have bombed them out in the summer, perhaps even sooner, just as he did Kyle Walker at the first sign of dissension. Wenger used to be the master at selling at just the right time, even when dismantling his great teams. To allow Sanchez and Ozil to run down their contracts without actually doing any running is financial negligence, whether on his part or the club's board.

Had Arsenal cashed-in they could have reinvested the money in a defence that conceded 18 more than Tottenham's last season. At just over two-thirds of the £60 million Arsenal turned down for Sanchez from Manchester City, Spurs bought his namesake Davinson Sanchez. At 21 he could have been a mainstay Arsenal built their rickety defence around for the next decade. Instead the Colombian will make the best backline in the Premier League even better.

Few, if any, would dispute Tottenham have the better manager, the better side, the better squad, the better board. What they don't have, at least for the minute, is anything tangible to show for it. In the words of Jose Mourinho, until they win something, they will forever be football poets.

The defeat of Real Madrid at the start of the month to help ensure progression to the last 16 of the Champions League was rightly lauded as one of the finest displays by an English club in European competition in years. It was a signature performance for Pochettino and his players, as was the goalless draw at the Bernabeu before it. But that's all it was. Platitudes are dished out in November, trophies in May. 

As Petr Cech pointed out in midweek, in a suggestion presented as being mischievous or "mind games", but in reality was just plain fact, Spurs still have some distance left to run before they can pronounce themselves as the real deal. Ultimately, success is judged in terms of silverware. With four Premier League titles, five FA Cups, three League Cups, a Champions League and a Europa League to his name, it's understandable why he feels the current noise over Spurs is a little overblown.

For all Arsenal's inherent faults they have delivered in terms of silverware where Spurs have not. After winning the FA Cup three times in the last four seasons, despite almost continual criticism, Arsenal have emerged as the unlikeliest arch pragmatists. No side is accused of being flaky as often as Arsenal, yet of the 12 domestic trophies available to them over the past four years they have won a quarter of them. In Wenger's 21 years at Arsenal, the 11 permanent and four caretaker managers at Tottenham over the same period have managed a pair of League Cups between them.

Asked if there had been a power shift after last term when Spurs finished above Arsenal for the first time since 1995, the year prior to Wenger's appointment, Cech said per the Telegraph: "No. I don't think so. There is always one odd year where things can change.

"They've been there in the last few years so now I think they have to make sure they win something to show the progression. They have young, talented players as well as experienced players. Their team is very well balanced. 

"…Success is ultimately winning trophies. We were under pressure the last couple of years, people talking about winning trophies, obviously we are disappointed not to have won the title but we won FA Cups. Although the season was not always what we wanted, we always had a trophy at the end of it."

It was a point Wenger expanded upon in Thursday's press conference. It's hard to argue last season's FA Cup final win over Chelsea hasn't already been dismissed as the game that saved the Frenchman. Rather than being saluted as a fine piece of management, where Wenger took risks tactically and got it spot on to beat a side that finished 18 points above his own, in some ways it is almost perceived as a negative. It was a trophy that prolonged the never-ending cycle of travelling in the same direction with no definitive endpoint. Wenger has been eating his last supper for so long now it's a miracle he still fits in the dugout. 

"It was a big disappointment to finish outside the top four. It was the first time in the history of the Premier League that a team with 75 points finished outside of top four," rued Wenger, per the Telegraph.

"I still feel it was very harsh on us. People forget we won the FA Cup in a very stylish way against City in the semi and Chelsea in the final."

Pochettino's thoughts on the type of "success" Arsenal have enjoyed over the past few seasons would be met with resistance by Wenger, if perhaps not so many of the club's supporters.

In September this year the Argentine suggested Tottenham are too big a club to let the pursuit of winning either the FA Cup or EFL Cup interfere with a desire for Premier League and Champions League glory. Wenger need not worry about the latter. Still, for a manager that has a trophy-less CV it's quite the ballsy proclamation.

"The project here at Tottenham is to try to win the Premier League or the Champions League," Pochettino said, via The Independent. "For me, that is the two big trophies.

"But Tottenham must build a project with the possibility to fight for Champions League or Premier League. If we are going to try to win Carabao Cup or FA Cup, and forget the Premier League or Champions, it's a big mistake.

"...I think, what it means for a big team to win trophies, is to win the Premier League or Champions League."

If Mourinho is a trophy magpie in claiming to have won a treble in his first season at Manchester United after counting the Community Shield as legit silverware (supporters are largely split on whether 1999 or 2017 was the greater achievement), Pochettino is his antithesis. If Spurs win either the Premier League or FA Cup this season (ugh, shudder), Pochettino would probably turn down an invite to play in the following campaign's curtain raiser. Ever the gent, Mourinho would no doubt offer to step in.

In fairness to Pochettino, taking a somewhat sniffy approach to domestic cups has definitely worked in terms of achieving a level of consistency in the league. Over the previous two seasons combined, Tottenham (156) have won 10 more points than Arsenal (146), 12 more than Manchester City (144), 13 more than Chelsea (143), 20 more than Livepool (136) and 21 more than Manchester United (135).

During the international break stories surfaced of Pochettino being courted by Real Madrid and Manchester United. Barely an eyebrow was raised at the suggestion he might be an upgrade on either Zinedine Zidane or Mourinho. To listen to his players speak of him recalls how Chelsea stalwarts would eulogise over Mourinho, or similarly Wenger's early adopters at Arsenal, when they came to the realisation the geography teacher urging them to ditch the pies and pints might have a point.

Pochettino is so in vogue right now the Zoolander film franchise will almost certainly compete for his services should he ever intimate an openness to leave Tottenham. If he keeps it up, it will be a toss-up between him and Marco Silva when the Brazil '70 job comes up.

In contrast, Wenger has been ruminating on the prospect of managing at a World Cup before he calls time on the most decorated of careers. Whereas Wenger contemplating semi-retirement in the relatively tranquil confines of international management elicited a sense of hope among many Arsenal supporters, Tottenham's were getting themselves tooled up with pitch-forks and working out rotas to ensure any cabals from Manchester or Madrid are run out of town before getting within spitting distance of Pochettino.

Continuity is key for both clubs. For Spurs it is all about keeping it. For Arsenal, it's perhaps more about breaking it. Eriksen, who has missed just five Premier League matches out of 125 under Pochettino, said as much earlier in the week.

"He has given stability not only to me but to the whole club," Eriksen relayed in an interview with Sky Sports.

"That's the main thing for a player. You feel comfortable, you feel aware of everything around you and you don't think about anything other than football when you're on the pitch. All the players have long-term contracts. They feel safe being here. It's why you commit your future to a place like this."

Fears of Pochettino having his head turned by either Real Madrid or Manchester United appear largely unfounded, at least based on how he was talking last week at an event to promote his much feted new book with Guillem Balague, Brave New World: Inside Pochettino's Spurs. According to Sky Sports' Adam Bate, after professing to being "in love" with his chairman Daniel Levy, Pochettino laid out long-term plans that made it sound as though he was not immune to the appeal of building something in his own image that spans decades, not years. 

"My commitment with the club and Daniel [Levy] is complete. It depends more on them than me if I am to be here for 20 years. Tottenham is a club with massive potential and after three-and-a-half years is growing and growing. I feel so well helping the club, the fans and the players. I am so happy here but you cannot guess what will happen in the future."

Sounds an awful lot like what Wenger did at Arsenal. Now all he needs are the trophies.

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