The privilege of the bigger club in a local rivalry is the ability to pretend they don’t care about the smaller one.
For years, that was the dynamic of the north London derby: Arsenal, since the early 1990s, had the upper hand in the power balance in their part of the English capital, and with that, they could make it clear that they had bigger things to do than worry about Tottenham Hotspur.
Something tells you, though, that Arsene Wenger rarely worries about other football teams anyway. Even now, when his side are often on the end of chastening defeats against top six rivals, it seems that the Frenchman puts out a side who worry only about playing their own game, and feel that attempting to nullify the strengths of the opposition is beneath them. As such, perhaps Wenger has never worried about Tottenham.
And yet, over the last few years, that balance of power has quite clearly shifted, at least to some degree. Spurs are no longer inferiors, locked outside of the top four for most of the 90s and noughties. Now, the question isn’t whether they are quals, but whether or not they have actually surpassed the Gunners.
That makes this, perhaps, one of the biggest north London derbies that Arsenal have had in a long time. They are in a strange position, and one they haven’t been in before. Last season’s final trip to the old White Hart Lane was probably the first game where it had felt the balance had actually changed, but that might have been mostly because it was a much bigger game for Spurs than it was for Arsenal. Already out of the title race, the Gunners didn’t have as much riding on it as their rivals did, and Mauricio Pochettino’s side even had the added emotion of the last derby at their old home.
This weekend’s game will tell us more.
Arsenal now have an entire season in which to wrestle the power back. It could well be a statistical aberration that Spurs finally finished a Premier League season above Arsenal, but it feels like more than that. And this game, coming closer to the start to the season when teams have everything to play for than the end, when some don’t, will see both teams on even terms in that regard. Even if Arsenal already appear to be out of the title race.
That, in a way, makes a mockery of Wenger’s comments from just the end of last season already. If the goal was always to win the league rather than simply finish above Spurs, last season – and probably this one, too – it seems as though to finish above Spurs is to win the league. That’s how close Pochettino has come to dominance not just in north London but in the Premier League as a whole, too.
That might force Arsenal into a rethink. Over the last few years, opposition to Arsene Wenger has been growing and it’s clear that the boss doesn’t have many years left, if his tenure can even be counted in years. Instead of a manager and a team who simply don’t consider the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses, perhaps being caught and surpassed by their north London rivals will force a change in approach.
Indeed, over the next few years, Chelsea and Spurs will both have moved into new or refurbished stadiums, whilst West Ham, too, will be playing their football in an iconic London location. No longer are Arsenal special because of their Emirates Stadium home, a modern arena which was supposed to give them a huge advantage in terms of commercial appeal, but seems only to have saddled them with debilitating costs at exactly the wrong time ten years ago when football’s boom years saw teams like Manchester City and Chelsea arrive on the scene in a blaze of money spending. And if they aren’t a special London club off the pitch, they need to make sure they are, once again, on it.
That’s why this north London derby could be crucial. If Arsenal can overcome Tottenham, they’ll do more than win three points for themselves, but they’ll stop Spurs from getting too far ahead. And by keeping them close in the league table, they’re also preventing their rivals from getting too close to a first Premier League title and wrestling the power away indefinitely.
Clearly, then, Arsenal can no longer claim to be interested only in themselves. They have to care about Spurs.