How the north London derby highlighted the diverging paths of Arsenal and Tottenham

How the north London derby highlighted the diverging paths of Arsenal and Tottenham

Martin Odegaard’s goal, which ultimately settled Sunday’s north London derby, went a long way to distilling the approaches of Arsenal and Tottenham.

Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who had already gifted Arsenal the lead with a calamitous own goal, had the ball in his hands in the 36th minute, but none of his team-mates wanted it.

Exasperated, Lloris launched a punt towards Harry Kane, but it was easily won in the air by an Arsenal defender. Thomas Partey recycled the second ball with two slick touches, taking out three Spurs players, and suddenly Bukayo Saka was on the charge up the right, with pace to burn and space to eat up.

Saka picked out Odegaard, who had already tested Lloris with a sighter and this time made no mistake with an arrowed shot into the bottom corner.

Arsenal’s dominant first half was full of these incisive, purposeful, technically-stunning pieces of play, as they outclassed their rivals to open up an eight-point lead at the top of the table.

Given their history at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium (three straight defeats before yesterday) and this fixture’s record of home superiority (Arsenal are the first away winners since March 2014), the result goes down as another hurdle seamlessly navigated by a side who look every inch like champions in the making.

By contrast, hopeful punts upfield were a feature of a miserable afternoon for Spurs, who produced their now-customary second-half rally but could have few complaints about a defeat which leaves their chances of returning to the Champions League next season looking increasingly tough.

They were booed off at full-time, more in apathy than anger by a crowd who are getting used to this type of performance.

Really, the game only confirmed what has long been obvious: that Arsenal have moved to a different level to their rivals since their 3-0 defeat at Spurs in May, which helped the hosts to a top-four finish at the Gunners’ expense, while Antonio Conte’s men have regressed.

 (PA)
(PA)

Eight months ago, Arteta’s side were bullied by the crowd and a more physical opponent, but they have since been transformed, and even as Aaron Ramsdale made a string of saves, they were assured in holding Spurs at arm’s length in the second half.

There is still a question of whether they can hold their nerve — in-form Manchester United come to the Emirates next weekend — but Arsenal look mightily convincing, magnificently coached by Arteta, who has benefited from unflinching backing from a club which has fully bought into his vision.

He has built a superbly-organised team, even greater than the sum of its impressive parts, and they swarmed around white shirts. In possession, every Arsenal man, from Ramsdale to Eddie Nketiah, played through Spurs with swagger and purpose.

While there is collective credit to dish out at Arsenal, there is more than enough blame to go around for Spurs’ increasing sense of drift. Conte deserves a considerable share, after another game in which the head coach’s stubborn inflexibility and selection decisions were costly.

The story of Spurs’s 3-1 defeat at the Emirates in October was Arsenal’s midfield superiority, but Conte, seemingly, had learned nothing. His two-man midfield of 20-year-old Pape Matar Sarr, making his full Premier League debut, and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg were outnumbered and outclassed by Arsenal’s three of Odegaard, Partey and Granit Xhaka, who were frequently joined by Oleksandr Zinchenko or Nketiah.

Conte’s refusal to commit creates an uncertainty, in their market dithering and jittery displays.

Conte’s counter-attacking system also felt predictable and outdated, and while there is no doubting the Italian’s pedigree, it is telling that the four clubs above Spurs are all coached by managers who play a progressive, possession-based game.

Conte’s refusal to commit to the club beyond the end of his contract is also significant, creating an uncertainty which is reflected in their dithering in the transfer market and unconvincing, jittery performances on the pitch.

This was also a result, however, which also shone a light on the two clubs’ long-term strategies.

Had Daniel Levy, the Spurs chairman, heeded Mauricio Pochettino’s warnings about the need for a “painful rebuild” and backed, rather than sacked, the Argentine in November 2019 — a month before Arteta’s appointment at Arsenal — perhaps Spurs would also be primed to take advantage of wobbles from Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea this season.

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

Instead, Levy sought a quick fix in Jose Mourinho, and now Conte, neither of whom appear a good fit for the Spurs squad, or a club which will never match their rivals’ spending with the current business model.

While Arsenal have been building for three years with a clear, mutually-agreed vision, Spurs are, according to Conte, still at the start of that process, although there is little reason to be optimistic that the Italian will stick around to see it through to the end.

Three years wasted, and possibly the best of Kane’s and Heung-min Son’s careers.

Next up for both clubs is an opponent from Manchester, with Arsenal aiming to take another step towards a first title since their Invincibles season, and Spurs fighting to remain in the top-four picture and with a chance to do their rivals a favour with a visit to City on Thursday.