Tottenham's stakes high vs. nemesis Arsenal in North London derby

Tottenham has sights on a Premier League title, but first things first: Gaining separation from North London nemesis Arsenal, writes Jonathan Wilson.
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This was the season when precedents ceased to matter, when all those unspoken inviolable rules lost their meaning. It’s a season that sees Leicester top of the table less than a year after it was bottom, that has seen Chelsea produce the worst start of any champion in England, that has seen Liverpool putter along in mid-table and Manchester United scrabbling for Champions League qualification. It might also be the season that sees Tottenham Hotspur finally finish above Arsenal.

Spurs have greater ambitions than that, even after Wednesday’s defeat at West Ham, but first things first. Victory in the North London derby on Saturday lunchtime (7:45 a.m. ET, NBCSN) would leave them six points clear of Arsenal with nine games remaining. Not since 1994-95 have they finished above their North London rivals. To put that in context, that was before Dele Alli was born.

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Not only that, but victory would lift Spurs above Leicester City on goal-difference, top of the table at least until Leicester plays at Watford in the tea-time kickoff. That in itself is significant.

Spurs have not been top of the table after February since 1965. Mauricio Pochettino, who wouldn’t be born until seven years after that, has already taken them into new territory.

The contrast with Arsenal, living out the same old season once again, is clear. In terms of equivalent games (that is, comparing what it did against, say, Swansea at home last season to what it did this, and replacing the relegated teams with the promoted ones), Arsenal is actually a point better off than last season. It’s averaging 1.82 points per game this season, as opposed to 1.92 per game over the past decade. It might be playing the wrong notes in a different order, but the outcome is the same.

Yet again, frustration at Arsene Wenger is mounting among Arsenal fans. What is most galling is that Pochettino seems to be succeeding precisely where Wenger has tried and failed. Wenger has complained about “financial doping” in football and it’s true that his model for success was significantly compromised by the arrival in English football of Roman Abramovich. The oligarch took over Chelsea in 2003 and Arsenal’s last title came in 2004. That is not a coincidence.

The move from Highbury to the Emirates was necessary, Wenger said–rightly, surely–to enable Arsenal to complete with the elite, but paying off the mortgage on that hampered him in the transfer market. That meant he was forced to focus on developing young talent which, inevitably, or so it seemed, couldn’t quite compete with the very best.

All that sounded reasonable–it is reasonable–and yet Pochettino has made a profit of £6.3 million in transfer dealing during his time at Tottenham (which doesn’t even include the one-off distortion of the sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid). A putative Spurs first team includes seven players who are 25 or under (Kyle Walker/Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose/Ben Davies, Eric Dier, Alli, Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela/Son Heung-Min, Harry Kane–and that’s without counting Kevin Wimmer, who has been deputizing for Jan Vertonghen).

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​Tottenham, too, has a move to a new stadium to negotiate, something that should bring it closer to parity with Arsenal, but Pochettino’s apparent disdain for big-name signings, and his seeming lack of need of them, should make that an easier transition. Assuming that is, that he stays.

It’s been one of the quirks of the past couple of months that with Chelsea seeking a new manager for next season and Manchester United perhaps considering one, Pochettino’s name has barely been mentioned by anybody other than journalists asking whether he’s in the running.

Pochettino has done things in a very old-fashioned way, creating a powerful team ethic and disposing of those who threatened to disrupt it, something seen most obviously in the offloading of Andros Townsend to Newcastle following a touchline argument with the fitness coach. He’s created a ferocious unit that plays to his plan–an advantage of younger players who tend to be more biddable. In a football environment that has become increasingly individualistic and celerity-driven, it’s a welcome throwback.

There are still concerns, of course, highlighted by Wednesday’s defeat. Pochettino’s sides, at Espanyol, Southampton and last season at Tottenham, have seen a drop-off in the final third of the season, probably a result of fatigue brought about by his intense pressing. Tottenham is still Tottenham, historically prone to fragility at key moments (which shouldn’t matter, and yet does, as thought the players absorb the culture of the club from the fans and media discussion around them).

But a win in the derby against a faltering Arsenal, who will be without the injured Petr Cech and Laurent Koscielny, would go a long way to securing North London supremacy, and that would be a significant landmark. If they can do that, who knows what may follow?