Gareth Bale was moving from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid. Mesut Ozil was travelling in the opposite direction to Arsenal. The Emirates was largely paid for. Tottenham were not even settled on a definite location for their new home. Andre Villas-Boas was in the dying days of his Spurs reign. Arsene Wenger would soon win the FA Cup and sign a new three-year contract...
It was September 1, 2013, and Arsenal were also completing the first in a hat-trick of head-to-head wins that season. So how are Tottenham now 17 points clear of their bitter rivals and what lessons can Arsenal learn?
Finding one of the best young managers in the world
The first step was identifying and then hiring Mauricio Pochettino. He might have spoken little English when he first arrived in England at Southampton but you could still instantly sense something of an X-Factor. There was snow in Hampshire that day but warmth radiated off him as soon as he walked into the room.
A connection was instantly forged with the players and the high-pressing style of football that is now so associated with Spurs was evident. Pochettino is now almost identical in age to Wenger when he first joined Arsenal in 1996 and stands as an alluring advert for those advocating managerial change.
It is still not such an open and shut case. The chances of unearthing another Pochettino are slight and Wenger could point out that, as well as besting all previous 10 Spurs managers, he has still finished above Pochettino’s teams two out of three times.
He could yet also add a third trophy this season in the time the Argentinian has worked in England without silverware.
The foundation for Tottenham’s current success was the decisions that Pochettino made over the transitional summers of 2014 and 2015.
Gyfli Sigurdsson, Sandro, Lewis Holtby, Ezekiel Fryers, Kyle Naughton, Michael Dawson, Paulinho, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Etienne Capoue, Younes Kaboul, Benjamin Stambouli, Jermain Defoe, Vlad Chiriches, Roberto Soldado, Aaron Lennon, Brad Friedel, Emmanuel Adebayor and Andros Townsend added up to an entire squad of players departing.
It was done with minimal fuss or public rancour but the message that had been sent regarding Pochettino’s expectations was resounding.
It was also not absolute and the likes of Kyle Walker, Jan Vertonghen, Christian Eriksen, Hugo Lloris, Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembele and Danny Rose formed a new core. The contrast with Wenger’s more indulgent approach has been striking.
Frank Lampard and Jamie Redknapp constantly highlighted on Sunday how Arsenal had what they called “passengers”. Wenger continues to show vast patience in his British core and persisted with the likes of Andrei Arshavin, Lukas Podolski and perhaps now even Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez beyond a point where their work-rate should have prompted more ruthless action.
What was once the biggest plus point in any discussion of Wenger has become perhaps the greatest concern. A manager who created diamonds from raw talents like Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka is no longer overseeing a training environment that improves players as it once did.
Hector Bellerin, Rob Holding, Alex Iwobi and perhaps Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain provide most hope among the current crop but it is hard to view the overall progress of players like Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Kieran Gibbs, Danny Welbeck, Francis Coquelin, Granit Xhaka and even Oxlade-Chamberlain with anything but disappointment.
Pochettino’s Tottenham are again the gold-standard here, with the entire squad – most notable Dele Alli and Harry Kane – testament to a training ground culture and set of methods that has been inspiring constant improvement.
In just about every financial comparison, Tottenham stand only sixth in the Premier League. Their success, then, should be prompting tough questions at Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City as well as Arsenal.
Credit here is shared across a team of staff but the arrival soon after Pochettino at Spurs of Paul Mitchell, who had also contributed to Southampton’s astute recruitment record, can hardly be coincidental. He already knew Alli well from their time at MK Dons and and his £5 million signing already feels comparable to the Gareth Bale ‘steal’ from Southampton for £8 million.
Ben Davies (£10 million), Eric Dier (£4m), Kieran Tripper (£3.5m), Toby Alderweireld (£11.5m), Heung min-Son (£18m) and Victor Wanyama (£11m) add up to a support case of extraordinary value.
Arsenal have been ponderous and sometimes wasteful in comparison. Last summer’s marquee signings of Granit Xhaka, Lucas Perez and Shkodran Mustafi for the price almost of Tottenham’s entire starting team on Sunday have done little to convince.
Creating a clear identity
We all know how Pochettino’s team play, regardless of the exact formation. They will press high up the pitch and all work with an intensity off the ball that requires a level of fitness, physicality and concentration that is non-negotiable.
The squad is deliberately lean and, although versatile players are actively sought, they clearly know their specific job in any given position. Fatigue and a possible lack of depth if there are key injuries is an ongoing concern but considered an acceptable trade-off for a tight-knit group involving few players with little chance of regular football.
Arsenal’s squad might be deeper but there is little coherence and certainty just now about the starting team. Change is frequent and, while a new cycle and transitional phase is clearly approaching, it is increasingly hard now to know how Wenger sees his team playing.
He talked of wanting more long balls against Liverpool recently and they were again often direct against Spurs on Sunday. Yet even amid past disappointments, the one constant under Wenger had been the technical quality of his players and his complete and unwavering conviction that his team would impose their passing style on any opponent.