Once the butt of every joke, now Tottenham are laughing at complacent Arsenal's expense

Jeremy Wilson
Arsenal were comfortably beaten by a rampant Tottenham team - EPA

The joke might have been delivered with tongue firmly in cheek but to understand how the football hierarchy in north London has been so decisively and unexpectedly rearranged, you would only have to recall Arsenal’s annual general meeting during the 2013-14 season.

Gareth Bale had just been sold to Real Madrid and Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis felt sufficiently confident about his club’s long-term prospects to note that the Welshman “doesn’t play for Tottenham, he now plays for one of our rivals”. 

Chairman Sir Chips Keswick had earlier also been no less bullish when he was challenged over whether change was needed at Arsenal. “It’s like a lady having a new hair-do… often, it’s no better than the one you’ve got,” he said. 

It all reflected a feeling that the hard years of paying back the Emirates were over and Arsenal were poised to move decisively clear of clubs such as Spurs in their pursuit of Europe’s heavyweight elite. Three years on and the most persuasive argument for change was staring up at the Arsenal directors from the White Hart Lane dugout.

Mauricio Pochettino, a manager almost identical in age to Wenger when he arrived in England 21 years ago, was doing exactly what the Frenchman once did. With a £100 million wage bill – almost half that of Arsenal’s – he was inspiring his team to another performance that defied their natural resource. Confirmation that Tottenham will finally finish above their great rivals for the first time in 22 years was not just a cause for ecstatic celebration in this last derby at the old ground but also shone an uncomfortably bright spotlight on Arsenal’s failings.

Pochettino’s team here looked more tactically organised, physically imposing and individually certain of their roles. They also seemed hungrier and played with a purpose, intensity and mental strength that Arsenal have lacked so alarmingly at too many critical moments this season.

Collectively, Tottenham had run fully 10 kilometres further. “When you run more, you have more options to your team-mate when you are in possession,” Pochettino said. “When you don’t have the ball, it is to run to try to recover as soon as possible.”

Frank Lampard put it more bluntly: “Tottenham have no passengers; Arsenal do.” 

The difference was also psychological and the 74 seconds that decided the game were especially instructive. Arsenal had suffered a setback in falling behind and their response, in briefly becoming even more vulnerable and disorganised, was in keeping with so much of their season. 

A 2-0 final scoreline was more flattering to Arsenal and especially damning in the context of what had been a subtle but significant pre-match shift. Chelsea winning amid dropped points for both Manchester clubs had potentially presented a greater opportunity for Arsenal than Tottenham. Victory would have reignited their top-four hopes, but what followed only underlined how the scars of that nightmare sequence of seven defeats in 12 games were not erased by three moderately more productive performances. 

Spurs vs Arsenal shots on goal

So does all this amount to a power shift in north London? Of course. The league table’s answer is emphatic, even if the wider debate about the permanence of this change is still very much live. Joyous chants of “Arsène Wenger, we want you to stay” might have been ringing out here but it is worth also remembering that his Arsenal reign has inspired structural changes that will make Spurs’ new-found ascendancy hugely difficult to sustain. 

For all Pochettino’s brilliance, what was only an eighth defeat in Wenger’s 50th derby is likely to remain the longer-term exception rather than the norm. The balance sheets tell us that. And yet all this only underlines how Tottenham have earned their moment. Their salary spend is closer to that of a Championship club than Arsenal and yet they have constructed a team so clearly superior. It is a testament to a relentless improvement which Arsenal, for all their past confidence, simply have not matched.

Arsene Wenger cut an exasperated figure on the sidelines Credit: Getty Images

Most clubs would suffer just now in any comparison with Tottenham but the reality for Arsenal is that a 17-point gap is a chastening reflection of their respective work in recruitment and on the training ground. Both clubs have pursued a policy of identifying and developing young domestic talent but there is a chasm in how the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker have progressed in comparison to Kieran Gibbs, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere. 

Tottenham’s title challenge both this year and last has been achieved against the usual financial norms of football and, after so many years of feeling superior, it is time for Arsenal to learn from their bitter rivals.

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