Why Tottenham remain years behind Arsenal in battle for north London supremacy

Jonathan Liew
Arsenal's revenues have grown immensely since their move to the Emirates - Getty Images Europe

A few weeks ago, a poster called ‘Peter K’ on the popular Tottenham forum The Fighting Cock wondered aloud how Spurs fans should celebrate their own version of St Totteringham’s Day. For more than a decade, Arsenal fans have used the term to commemorate the point at which it became mathematically certain that they would finish above Tottenham. Now, the tables are turning.

Victory in Sunday's north-London derby will guarantee that Tottenham will finish ahead of Arsenal for the first time since 1995.

Immediately, however, Peter K was met with a volley of four-letter abuse from alarmed fellow supporters. “Delete thread NOW”, one respondent urged. Within minutes, the entire conversation was removed. And this fleeting episode offers just the merest insight into the Tottenham psyche at this time of the year. Even with a 14-point lead, even in the wide open space of the Internet, you do not tempt the Fates of north London.

Within the Tottenham dressing room, the prospect of beating Arsenal pales in comparison to the challenge of chasing down Chelsea and winning their first title since 1961. “I think there’s a bigger picture,” Harry Kane explained. “Of course, for the fans it would be a great moment. To actually do it by winning against Arsenal – that would be fantastic. But from our point of view, we’ve got bigger things to look forward to.”

For the wider public, however, this game and this season have begun to take on a seminal aura. The ‘power shift’. The ‘changing of the guard’. The fresh, forward-looking aggression of Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham against the conservative, monarchical stasis of Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal.

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Today’s game, then, is billed as the transition: the point at which the balance of power  swings from N5 to N17.  It is a seductive theory, with just one fatal flaw: it is probably wrong.

There is a balance of power in north London, but it is still tilted overwhelmingly in Arsenal’s favour, and is likely to remain so for years to come. Tottenham may very well beat Arsenal today. They may very well finish ahead of them this season. But their chances of repeating it on a consistent basis are minimal.

The reason – bluntly put – is money, and the things it buys you. At the highest level of the game, there is an irrefutable link between revenue generation, wage bill and performance. At present, Tottenham have the sixth-biggest wage bill in the Premier League, some way behind their rivals. Everything is falling into place for them at the moment. But the economics of football dictate that while a team like Tottenham or Leicester can fleetingly defy gravity, eventually things shake out. Football’s elite is an exclusive club, and while you can gatecrash it for a bit, eventually you have to pay up or leave.

Arsenal vs Tottenham Hotspur | Financial comparison

Wenger, who has first-hand experience of this sort of thing, outlined the difficulty of maintaining an elite club without an elite budget. “For a longer time, if the budget is too much different, it’s impossible,” he said. “At some stage, you get to a level when the best players want to be paid like the other players at that level. If the differential is too big, you’re never able to keep your best players.”

In the case of Arsenal and Tottenham, the differential is still significant. Since 1997, the last year in which Tottenham generated more revenue than Arsenal, the gap between the two has grown to around £140 million a year. That is extra money that Arsenal can spend, every year, on new players, new coaches, extra back-room staff, sports science, scouting, marketing, infrastructure. If historic revenues are any guide, then Tottenham are around eight years behind Arsenal in terms of financial development. The collective windfall from the new Premier League broadcasting deal has allowed them to keep pace, and slow the rate at which the gap is growing. But, crucially, it is still growing.

And over time, this has an impact in other areas. Arsenal’s wage bill of around £200 million is almost double Tottenham’s, allowing them to sign players of the calibre of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez. While the new deal being offered to Sánchez is believed to be worth £300,000 a week, Tottenham’s highest earners, Harry Kane and Hugo Lloris, are on roughly £120,000 with bonuses. They have done an excellent job of tying their best players to long-term contracts without smashing the club’s wage structure.But to add depth to a shallow squad, and establish themselves as a force in European football, they will need to sign world-class players on world-class wages.

There is also the gap in followings. Arsenal have four times as many Facebook likes as Tottenham, five times as many Twitter followers, eight times as many Instagram followers. This is not merely a matter of vanity: Arsenal’s immense global reach is what allows them to sign lucrative commercial deals along the lines of their rumoured £90 million a year kit deal with adidas. Tottenham’s new deal with Nike is the biggest in their history. But it will be worth around a third of that.

Tottenham are getting there. Their new stadium will rapidly close the gap between the two clubs’ match-day revenue – currently £100 million to £41 million. But as Arsenal discovered, the enormous expense and uncertainty of a new stadium can be a pair of handcuffs. Aside from the upheaval and alienation of giving up a cherished old stadium for an unfamiliar new one, Tottenham will be nursing nine-figure debts for a decade or more. 

It is a long game, then, and for now Arsenal are winning it hands down. It is to the enduring credit of Pochettino and his team that they are triumphing against overwhelming odds. But the notion of a power shift is a fallacy. “You cannot say that one year has the weight of 20”, Wenger said on Friday. And for all Tottenham’s achievements, you get the feeling the real hard work is only just beginning.

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