It’s amazing how quickly perceptions in football can change. In the first two games after lockdown, Arsenal looked almost farcically bad, the defeats to Manchester City and Brighton a distillation of all the problems that have plagued the club for much of the past decade. First there was the timidity away at a high-class opponent, studded with defensive ineptitude, then there was a collapse following a moment of controversy that led to accusations of arrogance and entitlement. Yet three weeks later, Arsenal goes into Sunday’s North London derby not only above Tottenham in the table but with a distinct sense of optimism.
Although it only drew against Leicester on Tuesday, the first-half performance was as sharp and focused as anything Arsenal had produced in years, and it followed four straight victories in all competitions. Mikel Arteta may be inexperienced as a manager, and the issues he faces at Arsenal are enormous, but there is at least the clear sense of a plan. He has learned from Pep Guardiola, knows the sort of football he wants to play–which is a discernibly modern form of the game–and has the steel to make ruthless decisions, such as ostracizing Matteo Guendouzi after the debacle at Brighton.
Tottenham, by contrast, having finished above Arsenal three seasons in a row and even reaching last season's Champions League final, is in a steady decline. This week’s games against Everton and Bournemouth may have yielded four points, but they were largely unwatchable. The Cherries are sinking fast and had lost 17 of its previous 22 league games, yet on Thursday Spurs became the first side in four years to fail to have a shot against them. Jose Mourinho increasingly feels a relic from a previous age when creativity could be left to the intuition of forwards.
Nobody doubts that the squad needs refreshing. For two years before his dismissal last November, Mauricio Pochettino had pointed out its shortcomings and the danger of stagnation. He saw the new stadium going up, with its cheese room and tunnel club, and he saw how at the same time the playing side of the club was being neglected. There could be sympathy with the chairman Daniel Levy there – weighing necessary investment in infrastructure while maintaining the competitiveness of the squad is a tricky balance to strike, as Arsenal is well aware. But appointing Mourinho compounded all of those problems.
It is hard to see a way out. Mourinho is paid a reported $18 million a year and has a contract that runs to 2023. He cannot easily be dismissed. The stadium, designed to inflate Tottenham’s profits, may as well be a public playing field in a park for all the revenue it generates while fans and corporate activity remain absent. If money for attracting new players and keeping existing stars was tight before, it is far more restricted now. There’s not even a booming transfer market to sell a couple of prime assets in order to raise the revenues to begin an overhaul–besides which, there has been no evidence in at least 15 years that Mourinho is a coach capable of operating within a narrow budget and enacting such evolution.
A combination of awkward financial necessity, mismanagement and ill fortune has brought the revolution Pochettino began to an end. Perhaps when fans return, Spurs, with their increased revenues, will be able to begin the ascent again, but who knows what state the squad will be in by then? The fleet of young talent Pochettino broke through, the core that seemed like it would be the future of the club, has now either left, is considering leaving or has plateaued.
Nobody should be misled into thinking Arsenal’s situation is good. Its squad remains a mess. It barely has a central defender worthy of the name. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette have both been linked with possible moves away. Mesut Ozil, with his huge contract, seemingly disillusioned (and understandably so) by the way he was treated after his protest against China’s persecution of the Uighurs, remains at the club but hasn’t played since March. There are major concerns both about recruitment and the influence of agent Kia Joorabchian.
But it also has a raft of young talent led by Bukayo Saka. And it has a manager who at least seems to know where the high ground is, however difficult the path may be. Both North London giants have their problems. Neither looks likely to challenge for a league title in the near future. Both may have to get used to Europa League involvement, but Arsenal at least has hope.