One of the surest ways to judge a manager is to count the players who have improved under his care. At Spurs this would take too long. The easier path is to enumerate those who have not improved under Mauricio Pochettino.
Watching any team, week to week, month to month, you look to see weaknesses being cured and strengths enhanced. By that measure Christian Eriksen’s late winner at Crystal Palace on Wednesday night was a classic case. Eriksen has added consistency and a destructive edge to his game, which was too often merely decorative. An in-and-out kind of talent, Eriksen can now be relied upon to hurt the other team often enough for him to be considered a fully mature Premier League star.
As Arsène Wenger’s 50th North London derby looms, it wouldn’t take long to recite the Arsenal players who are better now than they were 12 months ago, or two or three years back. This Arsenal squad is a litany of stagnation, regression and brilliance too intermittent for the team to be title contenders. Which is why they are 14 points and four places behind Spurs: doomed seemingly, to finish below their local enemy for the first time in Wenger’s 21 years in charge.
The ‘improvement’ test works remarkably well. Paradoxically the only two big names Pochettino has failed to shift much further forward are last summer’s major signings, Vincent Janssen (£17m) and Moussa Sissoko, whose sale for £30m remains a source of mirth in text messages at Newcastle.
Any club who made two such underwhelming signings after finishing third in the table with 70 points, as Spurs did last year, would be accused of blowing a wonderful opportunity. Instead, Tottenham are stronger pretty much across the board because so many individual players have progressed. This can only be the product of good coaching and culture, for which Pocehttino must take the credit.
As the former Tottenham defender Erik Edman said on the eve of Sunday’s derby at White Hart Lane: “They are doing a lot of things right with their own young English players, and a coach that feels red-hot. Tottenham are the most exciting team in the league in many ways.”
Stick a pin anywhere you like. The two full-backs, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, have improved. Kieran Trippier, Walker’s deputy, is primed and ready to graduate. In central midfield, Victor Wanyama has moved up a notch and Mousa Dembélé is in his prime. Dele Alli, meanwhile, has scored 16 times in the league and is coveted all over Europe. Harry Kane has reached 20 league goals again, while Son Heung-min, a somewhat erratic talent, has added 12. Further back, nobody would accuse Eric Dier, Toby Alderweireld or Jan Vertonghen of regressing.
The story of this Premier League campaign is that two expertly coached sides are fighting out the title race ahead of rivals who spent far more money last summer. Chelsea and Spurs are lording it over Manchester United and Manchester City (though Chelsea did post a net spend of £90m).
For Tottenham to be in this company after spending only £47m and shipping out players worth £35.5m points to remarkable husbandry of developing talent.
Arsenal cannot make that claim. It becomes a struggle to name more than a couple of Wenger’s players who have followed an upward trajectory - but very easy to list those who have not. Shkodran Mustafi was a reasonable signing and Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have had their moments (you would not pitch it higher than that).
In the ‘stagnant’ or ‘regressed’ category would come Aaron Ramsey, Lucas Pérez (who cost £17m), Granit Xhaka (£35m), Francis Coquelin and Mohammed Elneny. The full-backs, Hector Bellerín and Nacho Monreal have also begun to struggle. Millions of words have been expended on Mesut Özil’s mercurial talent, and there is no desire to add to them here.
Part of the joy of watching football is to see players developing and improving. Which is why watching Kane, Alli, Dier and Eriksen is so pleasurable. Arsenal used to be synonymous with personal development. But not now.
Hair police brutality
Marouane Fellaini must have a purpose, otherwise Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho would have run him out of town. But his role at Manchester United seems to be to disrupt, get in the way, clatter about and add physical menace.
The bull-in-a-china shop approach pleases his managers, but what about the cost? Fellaini will miss the Swansea game after butting Sergio Agüero on Thursday night: a crime we can add to his elbowing of Emre Can and Robert Huth last year, after Huth had pulled his hair - an incident that drew this memorable observation from Van Gaal: ”It's not in the books that someone has to grab by the hair and then pull it behind - only in sex masochism."
In 10 years here and in Belgium, Fellaini has amassed 55 yellow cards and three red. In 2013, he said: “I ask myself why they get given to me. No doubt it’s because I am not someone who can pass by unnoticed. I am tall, and my hairstyle is easily recognised.”
Yes, that must be it. Referees are hair-ist.
Another dark turn at the London Stadium
West Ham are at Stoke, so there is no danger of anyone tripping over a tax man carrying out boxes of documents.
But the club’s already troubled move to the former Olympic Stadium in Stratford has taken another dark turn with HMRC’s raid on the club as part of a tax fraud investigation. However much you love football, it is impossible to escape the feeling that this is a largely unregulated sport with a pork barrel mindset.
Nothing could accentuate that disquiet more than a taxpayer-funded stadium being raided for possible tax offences (West Ham say they are cooperating with the authorities). The London Stadium remains one of the great public funding scandals.
A reckoning long in the making
Sunderland fans may be tempted to blame Sam Allardyce’s departure to manage England for their imminent relegation, which could be confirmed this weekend. Allardyce certianly performed a miracle in keeping them up last season. But there is no refuge in blaming the Football Association. In the past four years the club have finished 17th, 14th, 16th and 17th. This has been coming.
Pointing the (grazed) finger at Sanchez
Robert Huth’s excellent tweet showing a tiny graze on his knuckle with the message “just about recovered from the Arsenal battle the other night,” complete with ambulance emoji, was a dig at Alexis Sánchez, who went down clutching his face after being hit on the shoulder, and then circulated a fat-lip photo. The truth from Huth.