Gareth Bale’s claim that his side are now the superior force on the pitch when it comes to the matter of supremacy in north London wasn’t greeted with widespread dismay earlier in the week, rather a knowing nod of the head by most, which if anything signals a sign of the times, but does the evidence back up his point?
After delivering one of the outstanding performances of the season during the club’s 3-2 win against West Ham away at Upton Park on Monday night, Bale confirmed his status as one of the deadliest players in the world at the moment with another match-winning strike late on of stunning proportions to go on top of his earlier goal and assist which helped haul Tottenham back into the game. The debate about whether he is or isn’t world-class is a moot one for the most part, but what is clear is that he is now finally delivering the sort of devastating displays needed to become one of the world’s best players for the first time in his career.
With that in mind, who better to comment ahead of the eagerly anticipated north London derby on Sunday, with Bale telling The Sun: “I think five or 10 years ago Arsenal were always miles ahead of Tottenham. But that has changed in recent years. Over the past few seasons we have closed that gap and I think now we have overtaken them on the pitch. I think we have the stronger squad.
“Hopefully we can continue to do that as a club off the pitch as well, with the new stadium that is being built. But on the pitch and as a team now we are a lot more consistent and as a club we’re moving in the right direction. Arsenal may say they are still ahead of us. But whatever people’s opinions I don’t think anyone can deny we are up there fighting with them on merit now.”
Arsenal haven’t finished below Tottenham in the league table since the 1994/5 season when the Gunners finished 12th to the rivals 7th in the league. For those fans mollycoddled on the recent successes of the Arsene Wenger era, the early 90s were a dark period for the club in terms of competitiveness to an extent that they were considered little more than a cup side, and the Frenchman turned the rivalry on its head.
Under Harry Redknapp, the 5-2 defeat last season threatened to be little more than a blip on their way to finally finishing above them, but he somehow contrived to oversee a side that threw away a 12-point advantage to finish third, eventually missing out of Champions League football in the process which ultimately cost him his job. Of course, Redknapp’s version of events, as it always is, is spun a little differently to that, but in all honesty, nobody is really buying it, just as QPR are further adrift from 17th spot now than they were when he took over from the sacked Mark Hughes back in November and he’s a master at altering perception to forgive his flaws in the face of statistical information to the contrary.
Nevertheless, he had helped assemble a decent and at times thrilling Tottenham side to watch and while they may have at times been absolutely rotten during that run that saw them throw away third place, they were brilliant for a two-three-month period that saw them briefly talked about as outside title challengers. The pace of change that has taken place at the club since then, though – new manager, coaching staff, training ground, the loss of both Modric and Vand der Vaart, new playing style – makes their achievements this term seem all the more impressive.
They are far from the finished article now under Andre Villas-Boas, perhaps even lacking more in several key areas now than they did under Redknapp and many of last season’s best performers – Assou-Ekotto, Kaboul, Parker, Friedel, Walker, Adebayor – have barely contributed at all this term, yet the side are unbeaten in the league since December 9th and their last-minute capitulation against Everton, a run that stretches over 11 games and they still retain an outside chance of finishing second ahead of Manchester City.
What has become clear is that while they may have been a touch more enjoyable to watch under Redknapp at their best and less reliant on Bale to, for want of a better word, continue to bail them out every other game, they are a much more difficult side to beat this season under the Portuguese boss and that they’ve won nine league outings by a solitary goal speaks volumes for their mental strength and the sort of spirit that has become ingrained throughout the squad.
When looking at the raw data, the issue of belief becomes even more important considering that Tottenham have kept just seven clean sheets to Arsenal’s nine, they’ve conceded 32 goals to their 30 and scored 47 goals to their rivals tally of 52, while both teams have lost six teams in the league this campaign. However, it is Tottenham that find themselves with a crucial four-point lead ahead of Sunday’s big game at White Hart Lane having lost their last two derby games 5-2. It simply doesn’t add up.
Cast your eye around their squads and the depths of both are relatively comparable, with perhaps an edge to Arsenal’s, but it’s the quality of the starting elevens and the partnerships within the teams that matter most, while the approaches of the two managers could not be more opposed, with confidence fragile in one camp and high in the other. Wenger not only completely lacks a plan B, he plays it in games willingly knowing it won’t work, just as they did in the 3-1 loss to Bayern Munich at home in the Champions League, while Villas-Boas takes on an altogether more pragmatic style, picking his teams dependent on the opposition, not regardless of them.
In the end, the real difference between the two, rather fittingly, is that Tottenham have a game-changer such as Bale in the final third and Arsenal don’t possess someone with quite the same ability. Sure, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere are the envy of most clubs, but Bale could walk into any side in Europe on current form and he may just about be enough to drag the club back into Europe’s elite competition for next season while the Gunners continue to find it more and more of a struggle to continue their outstanding run of 17 consecutive years of participation.
It’s long been suggested that balance of power has shifted in north London, often rather prematurely, and while we may gauge more clearly by Sunday the real difference in quality, which looks paper thin at the moment, the momentum looks to be with Tottenham for the future not only because of their talismanic Welshman, but because of the respective visions put forward by the men in each dugout.