If Tottenham Hotspur defeat Arsenal on Sunday, they will manage something they haven’t done since 1995: finish above Arsenal in the league.
The opportunity could not have presented itself more perfectly. It’s a straightforward scenario: beat Arsenal to finish above them and celebrate whatever their equivalent of St. Totteringham’s day is. It’s almost as if it’s written in the stars. This year is almost certainly the year it happens, whether that’s on Sunday or in the weeks after. Spurs would have to go the extra mile in their annual collapse for it not to happen.
Knowing that stirs a lot of emotions. Disappointment at how the season has gone, dread at the incoming banter, and, dare I say it, jealousy that Spurs have such a good thing going on and we don’t. Knowing that this is a genuinely good Spurs team who have amassed a whopping 14 point lead over us, and could extend that to an unassailable 17 points makes it all the more galling. This is no fluke; it’s a comprehensive demonstration of the gap between the two sides.
More than that, though, it’s sad that Arsenal have sunk this low. There are no excuses for it. Spurs’ rate of improvement has completely outstripped our own. While we grew complacent and failed to build, Spurs went about putting the pieces in place for something potentially very special. Where we spent big but failed to develop a cohesive team with a manager past his sell-by date, Spurs spent smart to develop a young, exciting team with a young, exciting manager. As we spent the season making the same mistakes, protesting against the manager and fighting amongst ourselves, they all pulled in the same direction. There’s only one set of supporters here happy with their club’s current direction.
People may ask why it’s such a big deal; why a club as big as Arsenal should be so concerned with their smaller, less successful neighbours. There was general bemusement and collective pointing-and-laughing at the way Arsenal fans celebrated finishing above Spurs last season. Everyone thought we had much higher aims than that. That we wouldn’t be so petty as to cheer something that’s so obvious. Of course, Arsenal finished above Spurs. When do they not?
Whether Arsenal fans liked to admit or not, Spurs had been closing the gap inch-by-inch to the point that they became a genuine threat. Those celebrations were more out of relief than anything. It was comforting to know that even with Arsenal declining and not winning things, they still had a better team that Tottenham’s supposed golden generation of players. For many, that said everything about the clubs’ status.
Now, though, we don’t have that comfort. It’s no longer “we’re bad but still better than Spurs”. It’s “we’re bad and nowhere near Spurs”. Tottenham were the punchline in this long-running joke. Now we’re the punchline and it doesn’t feel good, at all.
This feeling is intensified by the fact that there’s a bit of Arsenal reflected in this current Spurs team. Between 2008 and 2011, Arsenal had a young, developing team assembled for much less cash than their rivals. It was a team that excited fans with its vibrant attacking football. This was a team centered around the supreme creative talents of Cesc Fabregas. It had Samir Nasri, Theo Walcott, Emmanuel Adebayor and, when fit, Robin van Persie. This team constantly flirted with success but never scored. They were perennial choke artists, known for being a good watch but always lacking that extra something that would make them Champions. I look at this Spurs team and see the same things. It’s a team with young, exciting talents like Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Harry Kane. They play fast-paced attacking football that few clubs can handle. They didn’t spend a great deal of money to assemble this team. They’re even getting the choke artist tag after flirting with the Premier League trophy last season but stumbling at the very end, and failing to reach the FA Cup final this season.
When did we swap roles? 2014 must have been the turning point. Arsenal had suffered another late-season collapse that ended their title bid, and Wenger was clinging onto his job. Only the FA Cup success saved him. Meanwhile, Spurs blew the money from Gareth Bale’s on a group of duds and failed to secure Champions League football, which cost Andres Villas-Boas his job. They replaced him with Tim Sherwood, who provided great comedy to everybody. When Sherwood failed to convince, Levy brought in Mauricio Pochettino from Southampton. It turned out to be an inspired choice.
Pochettino instilled a work ethic in Spurs that had been missing for years. He booted out the players not willing to play for the team and refreshed the squad with younger and fitter talents. His team became strong, athletic and tough to beat, in stark contrast to the Spurs of old. Whether this was planned or they got lucky, Spurs found a competent manager for the first time in years. Arsenal passed up the chance for a fresh start by retaining Arsene Wenger, and since then things have stagnated. Compared to Spurs, Arsenal look weak, lazy and unorganised. The result is a 14 point gap between the clubs in May 2017.
Ultimately, finishing below Spurs represents more than just finishing below a rival. It reflects the trajectories of both clubs. It’s a punishment for Arsenal’s complacency and incompetence over the last three years. There are lessons to be learned that you can’t be sure Arsenal will learn. Above all, there’s a feeling that it was never meant to be like this. Spurs are where Arsenal should be. But we’re not. We’re down in sixth, on-lock for Thursday night football after years of mocking Spurs for the same thing. It’s almost poetic.
Any talk of power-shifts and whatnot will be premature. After all, one year in 22 hardly signifies that North London is white. Spurs will have to repeat the feat several times before they can claim that. The hope is, then, that Arsenal don’t allow that to happen.