Will the balance of power ever shift in north London?
Tottenham slumped to an embarrassing 5-2 defeat to Arsenal at the weekend, the second in as many seasons by such a scoreline, with Emmanuel Adebayor’s dismissal proving absolutely pivotal in turning the tide against the visitors, but how much can we truly glean from the two teams first meeting this season and will the balance of power ever definitively shift?
Make no bones about it, Arsene Wenger’s side so far this season have struggled at both ends of the pitch, and for a 2-minute period against ten-man Tottenham, shortly after half-time, they seemed baffled by Andre Villas-Boas’ brave and bold tactical shift, and an element of panic was clearly present. After a poor recent run of results, confidence and belief are obviously in short supply, but never has a game turned so much on one decision, with Tottenham in the ascendancy prior to Adebayor’s crazy and reckless red card challenge.
Praise must be attributed to Arsenal for the way that they went about their business after that point, though, and they were ruthless, persistent and clinical, driving home their man advantage, while Tottenham once again, and not for the first time this Premier League season, displayed a worrying tendency to capitulate under pressure.
That all three of the club’s summer signings in Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla all scored, on a day when a Robin van Persie-led Manchester United side slumped to a deeply disappointing 1-0 defeat away at Carrow Road is symbolic, and all three appear to be more than finding their feet in their relatively new surroundings. Cazorla was absolutely outstanding throughout, Podolski is an intelligent, unselfish, instinctive player, while Giroud has hit a purple patch of form in front of goal at a time when it was greatly needed.
We are often told that Arsenal are a team in decline, and they may well be, but performances like this one, with the added caveat that it was against ten men, must remind observers of the frightening attacking threat that they still possess. If only they could defend with even the slightest measure of conviction, then they’d surely be assured of a top four place.
That the club have clung quite so readily to the hope that Financial Fair Play (FFP) is going to be implemented strongly speaks volumes of the steady but gradual slide from the pinnacle of the English game that the Gunners have suffered in recent times. This current squad is vulnerable in several areas and mentally fragile, but the fact that they are still just four points off fourth place in the league points to two things – that the competition throughout the league is fierce but that the spot still remains up for grabs, and that despite their struggles at both ends of the pitch and failing to find their best form, they are still within touching distance.
Look at Tottenham and it’s clear that they were missing several key players and their inability to properly replace Luka Modric in the summer with a like-for-like player capable of dictating the tempo from deep has hurt them badly, as does the continued absence of the team’s driving force from midfield, the increasingly important Moussa Dembele, through injury.
Elsewhere, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Scott Parker and Younes Kaboul were all missing, which is pretty much the spine of the side, and when you approach it from that perspective, their start which sees them lie in eighth in the table, two points behind their rivals, isn’t that bad a start.
Villas-Boas’ assertion that they were the better team during the game was patently ridiculous and can be seen as little more than an attempt to deflect attention away from Adebayor’s terrible challenge on Cazorla. They are a team in transition, more so than Arsenal, still coming to terms with life after van Persie, and the change in style and formation will take time and lead to several more frustrating performances.
When you analyse both squads, it’s pretty much a dead heat in terms of quality and the two have certainly grown closer in recent years. When everyone is fully fit, Tottenham perhaps have a slightly better, more balanced starting XI but Arsenal have more deadwood but also more strength in depth and over the course of a long campaign, as it proved last term when Harry Redknapp’s baffling refusal to rotate his squad caught up with the side down the home straight, it can certainly play a part.
The 1994-95 season was the last time that Tottenham finished above Arsenal in the league, and quite how they threw such a big lead away last term to end that run beggars belief, but signs of progress are there for all to see. Nevertheless, while Wenger’s side are a declining force in terms of silverware, they still remain competitive and on their day, capable of beating almost anyone in the league.
It’s an extremely difficult question to come to a definitive conclusion with, as one club is at the beginning of a new cycle and another looks to be coming to the end of one. In terms of ability, there’s barely anything between the two teams, but it’s all about that crucial consistency against the other teams in the league, which both have struggled with this term.
You sense that any power shift over the next few years will be temporary and it may switch back and forth several times, but just so long as Arsenal retain bragging rights and a higher league finish, it’s hard to look anywhere else for the time being.
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