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Arsenal vs Tottenham: Local pride on line but north London rivals have been cast adrift from top four

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Mingled with the outpouring of revulsion and fury at the European Super League proposal in April, there was a flicker of incredulity at the identity of two of the rebel six English clubs.

Six months ago, Arsenal were on course for a fifth consecutive season out of the Champions League and, as it turned out, a first year without any European football for over a quarter of a century.

Similarly, Tottenham were heading for the dubious honour of being England’s first representatives in the Europa Conference League and had just passed 13 years since their last trophy.

The two north London clubs appeared lucky to count themselves as part of such an exclusive club of 12.

As they prepare to meet at Emirates Stadium on Sunday, the heavyweight status of both clubs remains in doubt and their positions in the Premier League’s so-called ‘big six’ feels increasingly uncertain.

The make-up of the breakaway cartel of European clubs owed more to financials than football, and in pure money terms the “big six” is still a thing.

The lowest annual revenue among the big-six clubs last season, Arsenal’s figure of £289million was still more than £100m higher than the Premier League’s seventh top-earner, Everton, on £181m, and the return of fans to grounds should see the north London pair propelled further clear of the chasing pack.

On the pitch, however, the gap between the top four and the rest is widening, and Sunday feels less like a meeting of the Premier League’s best than a scrap for local pride between two middling sides.

Whereas Champions League football was once on the line, the match feels as much about restoring fragile confidence and building momentum than any tangible prize.

The same clubs have finished in the top four in the past two seasons and it is hard to look beyond another year of Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool safely ensconced in the Champions League places.

City, United and Chelsea all added big-money signings to already glittering squads over the summer, while Liverpool, whose place feels most at risk due to the threat of injuries, were boosted by the return to fitness of key players.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

By contrast, Arsenal and Spurs are clubs in transition, both attempting to kickstart new cycles of success but still in the midst of difficult rebuilds, disrupted by the pandemic.

Both flexed their financial muscles over the summer, Arsenal spending roughly £142m and Spurs agreeing to spend more than £100m, albeit with around half deferred to next summer when loanees Cristian Romero and Pierluigi Gollini are expected to sign permanent deals.

The north London duo are operating in an entirely different wage market to the top four, though, and spending with a view to returning to the top in future, rather than challenging in the immediate term. Arsenal signed five players aged 23 or younger, while Tottenham’s only signing aged over 23 was back-up goalkeeper Gollini.

The road back to success looks long and arduous given the resources of the competition but both clubs hope they have already begun the climb.

The Gunners are banking on stability through Mikel Arteta to reverse years of steady decline, while Tottenham are still coming to terms with the abrupt end of a brief spell of overachievement, and hope Nuno Espirito Santo can replicate the success of Mauricio Pochettino.

After contrasting starts to the campaign, the neighbours go into this weekend on a relatively even footing after Arsenal responded to three straight defeats with 1-0 wins over Norwich and Burnley, and Spurs’s early-season optimism burst with back-to-back losses to Crystal Palace and Chelsea.

The rivals share a lack of clear style and identity —more understandable for Nuno’s Spurs given his newness in the job — and problems across the pitch. Their similarities extend to unsettled star strikers, injury-prone midfield engines and an expensive new centre-back, still finding his feet.

They even targeted the same players over the summer, and Takehiro Tomiyasu could easily have been playing for Spurs on Sunday, while Emerson Royal might have joined Arsenal.

Arsene Wenger and Pochettino typically played down the significance of coming out on top in the north London derby, making the case that their clubs had loftier ambitions.

At present, however, pretending the result is insignificant in the grand scheme feels like less of an option for both managers. Neither side is naturally superior enough to brush off the significance of a defeat, while both are in a fragile enough state to need a win to kickstart their season.

Chelsea have already reminded Arsenal and Spurs of where the power in London truly lies this season, with comfortable victories over both, while West Ham are capable of finishing as the capital’s second team for another year.

If a place in the top four is temporarily out of reach, which seems the case, north London superiority takes on more importance and could ultimately been one of the more positive elements of the clubs’ seasons.

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