At the end of this vigorous but ultimately quite straightforward 2-0 victory for Mauricio Pochettino’s focused and muscular Tottenham Hotspur team a large knot of home fans refused to leave their seats, staying instead to dance and sing and hug, gorging themselves on the moment.
Half an hour later they were still crammed into the exit walkways of this disintegrating stadium and still singing, appropriately enough, about Dele Alli, who scored the opening goal, who was spiky and incisive when it mattered, and whose partnership with Harry Kane embodied, on the day and beyond, the striking gulf in personnel, recruitment and method between these two teams.
It will be tempting to portray this as a moment of baton-passing, power-shift and all the rest. In reality the most striking aspect of a one-sided game was the ease with which Arsenal were beaten, how readily the stitches burst, a battle that was won in the preceding details over the last three years of contrasting surge and drive.
Tottenham are a fearsome prospect at home, in every sense of the word. On a balmy day in north London, this skintight ground with its rattly, touchline-close crowd seemed to nourish their aggression and drive. Set against this relentlessly draining test of will and stamina there was a brutal clarity to Arsenal’s congealed status in the late-Wenger years, the end result a team without a centre, a sweet spot, an obvious functioning heart.
By contrast Spurs, of course, have Alli and Kane. Back in the days of mandatory 4-4-2 the orthodoxy in English football stated that all football teams are made up of partnerships, the pitch squared off into an old-style dance-hall of jitterbugging couples.
In Pochettino’s hard-running system partnerships are once again key, not just tactically but in intangible things such as spirit and verve and will to win. Alli and Kane do not just occupy the same areas; they carry this team forward from the front, embodying both that smothering style and the seductive youth and vigour of this group of maniacal workaholics. Alli has been the best attacking player in the Premier League over the last two months, a wonderful talent with room to grow and bloom and fill out from here. At his best he plays off the cuff and with a strut. Here he was quiet for long periods. With 55 minutes gone Alli had completed nine passes and touched the ball only 18 times.
No matter, as he was there lurking in just the right place to smack the ball down and into the corner after fine work from Christian Eriksen, who wiggled in and out of the tiniest pocket to find a shot that was palmed out by Peter Cech.
At which point enter Kane, who thrives in these derbies and is now the first player to score in five of them in a row. Three minutes after the opener Kane ran at Gabriel with the ball, issuing a formal paper RSVP invitation for the Brazilian to extend his leg hopefully inside the area, which was duly noted and accepted. Kane got up and spanked the penalty low into the corner. Alli-Kane: 2-0, game over – except there was still another half-hour of this, another half-hour to contemplate the contrast between the two teams. Arsenal’s own version of Alli-Kane here was probably Olivier Giroud and Alexis Sánchez, although it is hard to imagine a greater contrast on the day or two elite attacking players who seem less suited.
With half an hour gone at White Hart Lane Sánchez had wriggled his way past Kieran Trippier and produced a brilliant, zingy little half-volley back‑heel that fizzed through Toby Alderweireld’s legs to find Giroud on the left wing. Giroud took the ball, looked up and poked it straight into the middle of a small posse of defenders, who seemed surprised but grateful to have it returned. Sánchez turned and walked back towards the halfway line, fists bunched at his sides, with just a slight whitening of the knuckles. At times his exasperation is understandable.
Giroud was not just static here, he was inert, stopped, gummed to the spot. Arsenal’s first-choice orthodox centre-forward is often described as providing a “physical presence” but it is hard to imagine a less bruising, less imposing, more glossily soft-touch 6ft 3in professional athlete in a contact sport. For footballers of this standard, being shunted around the penalty area by Giroud must be a bit like being whipped senseless with a wet tissue or battered into unconsciousness with a fondant eclair. Giroud was signed to replace Robin van Persie, before Kane the last high-class centre-forward in north London. His continued presence in this team is an indicator of the decay and decline that Tottenham laid bare here, just as his opposite number’s consistent scoring under pressure has been decisive through the spring.
And so 22 years down the line Spurs’ quest to finish ahead of Wenger-era Arsenal is finally realised. Under Pochettino they have a better defence, better midfield, a better game plan, a more visceral sense of unity, more visible boardroom support, a plan – any plan – when it comes to recruitment and a more obvious air of desperation to succeed. Above all they have Alli and Kane, the most effective attacking duo in the division, visible emblem of a well-matched team and beyond that of a club whose rise is built on care in its component parts and finely wrought working details.