The last north London derby at Tottenham propelled Spurs into the Champions League at their rivals’ expense and suggested Antonio Conte’s side were the better placed to challenge for serious honours this season.
Led by the Italian and forwards Harry Kane and Heung-min Son, who got the goals in a 3-0 Spurs win in May, Conte’s side appeared primed to kick on, while a costly implosion suggested Arsenal might never be rid of their soft centre under Mikel Arteta.
In the eight months since, Arsenal have stormed to the top of the table, passing almost every challenge in the manner of true title contenders, while Spurs have barely produced a convincing performance, with last week’s 4-0 thrashing of Crystal Palace only their second comfortable League win this term.
In hindsight, Spurs pipping Arsenal to fourth last season offered a false picture of the progress of the two clubs’ rebuilds under Conte and Arteta.
While no one at Spurs would ever care to admit it, Arsenal’s rise offers their neighbours an impressive blueprint to follow, proof that backing a visionary manager over several transfer windows can turn a side into contenders, even in a division containing Manchester City and Liverpool.
In a series of straight-talking press briefings, Conte has made it clear what needs to happen for Spurs to return to the top, admitting that his “challenge” this season is not to compete for the title or Champions League, but to build a “solid foundation” over several years.
After the 2-0 defeat by Aston Villa on New Year’s Day, Conte said: “To become title contenders, you need to have a solid foundation, which means to have 14 or 15 strong players, with quality, and the other young players to develop. [Then], every season, you can add two players, but two players priced £50million, £60m, £70m, who can improve the quality and the level. This is a process.”
That “process” is the approach Arsenal have taken under Arteta, who is in the midst of his seventh window at the club and has gradually built a new-look side in his image since his appointment in December 2019.
Just as Conte desires, Arteta has established a base of 14 or 15 players he trusts implicitly (he has only made 14 changes across the 17 League games this season) and is now aiming to add much-needed depth with big-money signings, such as Shakhtar Donetsk’s £80m-rated winger Mykhaylo Mudryk.
Arteta and sporting director Edu have shown an impressive long-term vision, with the latter laying out a five-year plan to the Kroenkes, the club’s owners, when the Spaniard was appointed, and prophesising that this was the season the project would click into gear.
The result is a team transformed and, with the exception of Granit Xhaka, the entirely of Arteta’s core have either been signed for the 40-year-old or come through the club’s academy. On Sunday, Xhaka is set to be the only survivor from the XI which started Arteta’s first north London derby as manager, in July 2020.
No one at Spurs will take any consolation from Arsenal doing well, but the Gunners’ progress does suggest Conte has the right idea
After the muddled approach under Unai Emery, Arsenal have barely put a foot wrong in the market since Arteta’s appointment, with Albert Sambi Lokonga arguably their only miss, and the additions of Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko from Manchester City helping to elevate the squad to new levels.
Conte, who has said Spurs must stop making mistakes in the market, does not need such a radical overhaul, given the quality already at his disposal, but wants the club to keep backing him to sign proven quality, following the additions of Rodrigo Bentancur, Dejan Kulusevski, Richarlison and Ivan Perisic over his two windows in charge.
From his very first press conference, Conte urged Spurs to establish a “vision” for the football side of the club and also spoken of the need to “accelerate” the rebuilding process, if possible. Given the restlessness of supporters, Kane’s contract situation and Son’s age, Spurs will be hoping their own rebuild comes to fruition more quickly than Arteta’s.
Sunday’s game comes at a crucial juncture. Spurs have built momentum with back-to-back wins over Palace and Portsmouth, but the mood among supporters remains fractious. Lose on Sunday and chairman Daniel Levy will face further pressure to spend this month, but a win would give Spurs confidence going into a double-header against City over the next three weeks and suggest they are primed for another strong second half to the season.
For Arsenal, who also face Pep Guardiola’s champions twice before February 15, one of the few remaining questions is over their ability to come through tests away from home at big-six rivals. They won at Chelsea, but their one defeat of the season was at Old Trafford in September.
The Gunners were the last side to win an away north London derby in the League, in March 2014, so to complete the double over Spurs would be another big step forward for Arteta’s young side.
The sense of frustration at Spurs over their form and the pace of Conte’s rebuild has undeniably been exacerbated by Arsenal’s contrasting form. No one at Spurs will take any consolation from Arsenal doing well, but the Gunners’ progress does, at least, suggest Conte has the right idea of how to turn the club into winners.