* Tottenham’s success under Mauricio Pochettino will not be defined by their performance in comparison with Arsenal’s, but by trophies and trinkets. Yet for a group of supporters who have been taunted and teased for over 20 years about their inability to finish above their local rivals, this was a day of celebration.
Arsenal’s decline only makes Tottenham’s progress more pronounced. One of these clubs has embraced their battle against the Premier League’s financial elite, developing their own, buying young and searching for well-priced bargains. The other is an old dog that refused to learn new tricks, and the promises that their manager still can have come far too long after the fat lady cleared her throat. Arsenal are playing catch-up on catching up; Tottenham are leading the way.
The away support at White Hart Lane cheered as the news of Chelsea’s victory at Goodison filtered through, but that is all they have been left with. When your only refuge is celebratory relief that your rivals won’t win the title, the real battle has been lost. Tottenham were miles ahead, both on Sunday and this season.
“Arsene Wenger, we want you to stay.”
That was the soundtrack to the final 30 minutes, Tottenham fans delighting in the downfall of a once great manager who is now unable to halt the decline. After a positive seven days for Arsenal, this was another lurch backwards. It was Tottenham who won the game and Tottenham who missed the easiest chances. Only Petr Cech stopped Arsenal from losing by four or five. Wenger should feel humiliated.
* The main difference between Arsenal and Tottenham is not one of individual quality, but of coaching. Pochettino has a team created and styled months in advance, with a strategy that every player believes in. They run, hassle, harry and fight for each other and for the cause, and sniff out weaknesses in the opposition.
Arsenal are the opposite, a team far below the sum of their parts. Wenger has created a defence that cannot defend, an attack that relies on the excellence of one player and a midfield that has lacked bite and energy for years. And still he doesn’t learn.
Most importantly, Arsenal lack the mental resilience to take any fortitude from victory. Last weekend they were magnificent against Manchester City. Rob Holding was superb in central defence and Arsenal players broke up City’s play with a series of tactical fouls. They rattled Pep Guardiola’s team.
A week later, and it was as if City had never happened. Arsenal were meek in midfield, Rob Holding was dropped to the bench and the tactical fouling was entirely absent. Tottenham were allowed to merrily continue their way for the entire match, save for a 20-minute period before half-time. When adversity came, Wenger’s team did what they always do: Collapse in on themselves with the strength of a baby bird.
* Yet the biggest thing, and the issue that must really stick in the throats of Arsenal supporters, is that Tottenham have an identity. You could blur out the faces and change the colour of the kits and still pick out a Pochettino team from the style of play alone. With Arsenal, you’d only know who it was when they gave away a stupid penalty or allowed the concession of one goal to bring on an implosion. They played the north London derby like it were Wigan Athletic at home on the final day.
What is Arsenal’s style now? Are they a counter-attacking team? Not particularly. Are they are short, tiki-taka style team? Not really. Are they a safety-first team, that aims to keep a clean sheet and work from there? Absolutely not. Are they a team that looks to maximise set pieces? Nope.
The real answer, and a damning indictment of their decline under Wenger this season, is that Arsenal are a team that will win if their best players play to their full ability, and struggle to win if they don’t. It is that simple, and it epitomises Wenger’s diminishing impact.
That has one obvious effect. When those key players aren’t at their best, for myriad different reasons, they attract criticism individually rather than the system that relies upon them being questioned. The clear example here is Alexis Sanchez.
That is Wenger’s biggest crime. He is the Arsenal manager who has not only failed to make the club’s lesser players better, but made the best players worse. At any other ‘elite’ (and take that terms as you wish), he would have lost his job.
* The most obvious conclusion from the team news is that Kyle Walker’s time as a Tottenham player may be coming to an end. Manchester City’s interest in the right-back has been no secret over the last few months, and the rumours coming out from Tottenham is that Walker has been angling after the move.
In that situation, Pochettino has little choice but to be strong. He has engineered a positive working environment within his squad by promoting the message that the team is more important than the individual, and therefore anyone who rocks the boat needs to be managed appropriately.
Yet this is exactly why some Tottenham supporters may be apprehensive ahead of this summer. With a wage structure that pays players less than their Premier League peers, Spurs are potentially vulnerable to approaches from elite clubs at home and abroad. Walker is just one of those linked with a move away. Tottenham need to add players to their squad if they are to continue their sustainable improvement, but there’s no point pouring more hot water into the bath if somebody has pulled out the plug.
* If the pre-match question was whether Tottenham had a mental block about finishing above Arsenal, they did their best to prolong the agony of supporters. Spurs started the game dominant in territory and possession, but wasted two glorious chances to take the lead. In these matches, such generosity is generally ill-advised.
The first guilty party was Dele Alli, who caused home supporters to start their celebrations when he rose above Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at the back post to head into an unguarded net. You had to double take when realising that the net had not moved and therefore that the header had gone wide.
Oxlade-Chamberlain deserves credit for busting a gut and putting pressure on Alli, but that doesn’t give the Tottenham midfielder enough of an excuse to avoid serious embarrassment. His only task was to head the ball straight, and he failed it.
* Christian Eriksen’s miss was not as shambolic as Alli’s, for volleying a cross with your weaker foot is not easy for anyone, but the Dane should still have scored. The excellent Heung-Min Son did superbly well to leave Oxlade-Chamberlain for dead, before his pass deflected up into the air. Eriksen attempted a cushioned volley that grazed the top of the bar.
Creating chances can never be sold as a negative, but in Tottenham’s case it did make you wonder whether each miss increased the sense that Spurs were faltering when it mattered most. They need not have worried.
* When the opening goal came, it demonstrated the brilliance of Alli not with tricks, flicks, dribbles or passes, but desire.
On Sky Sports, Jamie Redknapp showed screengrabs of Alli surrounded by four or five Arsenal players on two occasions in the build-up to the goal, and twice he burst into the position from which he could affect the outcome of the move. Twice Arsenal defenders were static, and thus unable to stop Alli.
The rise of Alli under Pochettino shames Wenger, for it is exactly these kind of stories that littered his own early tenure at Arsenal. Now the younger signings rarely make the first team, and the expensive purchases flatter to deceive. Ask yourself this: If you were a young player, which club would you rather join now?
* We need to talk about Oxlade-Chamberlain’s attempted clearance for the first goal. I understand that players have a preference between their right and left feet, because that is only natural. But for an international player’s instinctive reaction to be clearing that ball with his right foot indicates that not enough time has been spent practising on his left.
Oxlade-Chamberlain opted for the 10% chance over the 80% chance, all because he hasn’t got enough confidence in his weaker foot to kick a ball 30 yards. That is woeful.
* So rapid was Arsenal’s implosion that Sky’s cameras managed to miss most of the move that led to the penalty award. You have to be on your guard when Arsenal have just conceded. There were 146 seconds between the two goals.
For all the talk of Harry Kane diving, I didn’t see it that way. The striker planted his foot after nudging the ball forward, but not in a manner that made contact from Gabriel inevitable. It was the Brazilian who chose to plant his studs in Kane’s shin and, at that point, Kane has every right to go down.
There is no definitive measure of defensive incompetence, but the number of penalties Arsenal have given away is certainly an indicator. This made it nine in the league this season, a total ‘beaten’ only by Hull City.
* And what a penalty it was. Taking a spot kick invites are far higher level of scrutiny than even the easiest chances, and had Kane missed it would have been reflected upon far more than Eriksen and Alli’s first-half misses.
Pressure? What pressure? Petr Cech may not have dived – in anticipation of a shot down the middle, perhaps – but it would not have made any difference if he had. Kane could not have picked up the ball and placed it any nearer the bottom corner than his wonderful penalty.
* Knowing Arsenal as we do, that was that. There would be no glorious fightback, no stirring response to adversity that made supporters think everything might, some time in the future, be alright again.
Instead, as Arsenal shied away Tottenham attacked at will over the last 30 minutes. By the end of the game, Cech had made nine saves. No Arsenal goalkeeper has made more in a Premier League game since 2003.
* In fact, Arsenal could and should have conceded another penalty, when Sanchez handled the ball. Michael Oliver required help from his assistant, but between them they should have spotted the ball striking Sanchez’s arm as he lifted them into an unnatural position to stop the ball going over his head.
Sanchez appealed vociferously that the ball struck his side rather than arm, and was believed. It is the natural instinct of the footballer to lie in such scenarios, but it did make Sanchez look stupid when the replay showed up his fib within seconds. Video technology, anyone?
* I made Victor Wanyama the game’s best player, not least for accounting for the absence of Mousa Dembele. There have been better central midfielders in the Premier League this season (even if N’Golo Kante might be the only one), but there have been no better value-for-money signings than Wanyama. For all Liverpool’s raiding of Southampton in the last three years, how they must wish they had his positional discipline and tackling ability.
Like Dembele, Wanyama has the ability to come out of a duel with the ball when you cannot envisage a path out of trouble. He is then happy to play a short pass forward and let Tottenham’s attacking players take over. This is another player flourishing under Pochettino.
“I’d never had a manager who wants you to improve day-by-day like him,” Wanyama said last month. “He works on your weakness, he’s a good role model and he doesn’t just look at football, but life in general. He teaches you about life, how to live with people, and that was amazing to me. I’ve learned a lot of things through him and I don’t just see him as a manager but as a father figure.”
* It is that stewardship from Pochettino (and lack of it from Wenger), which acts as the only defence for Granit Xhaka’s wretched form. The Arsenal midfielder was sacrificed as his manager looked to try and rescue a point, but could hardly make a strong case for staying on the pitch. If Wanyama has proven superb value for money at £12m, Xhaka has been a pitiful waste at three times the price.
Yet it’s impossible not to wonder whether the blame lies with Xhaka or his manager. The real answer is probably a bit of both, but starting half of your league games alongside Francis bloody Coquelin can’t be easy. You wonder whether Xhaka is one Arsenal player who would be happy for another chance under a new coach.
* I understand that important football matches against bitter rivals brings out the angst in most, but imagine believing it was appropriate to march down the steps of the stand to shout abuse at an opposition player.
— Josh Harbourne (@theoneharbourne) April 30, 2017
Little tip: Behaving like that makes your own team’s players think you’re a dick as well and the opposition players.
* Finally, it’s worth reflecting on Tottenham’s form at White Hart Lane this season, with one game remaining before they move into Wembley and then back into the new stadium. The last time Tottenham failed to score at home in the league was January 13, 2016, and they have dropped four points at WHL this season. Only Juventus in Europe’s top five leagues have dropped fewer.
Tottenham also rank first in the Premier League this season for shots per home game (19.94), shots on target per home game (7.78) and chances created (15.0). They also rank first for fewest goals conceded per home game, and second for shots on target faced. This is a machine in perfect working order; Arsenal are a shell.