Spurs head to the Emptyrates on Sunday in buoyant mood after wins over Aston Villa and Anderlecht, and are hopeful of making it a hat-trick of victories in a week against teams beginning with the letter “A”.
It has been a rare old start to the season for Spurs, unbeaten in the league since the narrow opening-day defeat against Manchzzzzzzzzzzzzz United and with Mauricio Pochettino finally getting his young team playing like a Pochettino team should. There is a sense of calm and direction enveloping the club and fanbase, which is producing weird side effects such as a belief that we may actually beat the Gooners on Sunday.
Adding to the sense of giddiness, Arsenal are embarking on their annual injury crisis a touch earlier than normal, and endured an absolute walloping by Bayern Munich in midweek.
However, one look at the Premier League table can restore the equilibrium — Arsenal are joint top with Manchester City, and aside from a silly defeat by West Ham and Wenger’s annual debagging by Jose Mourinho, they are looking very good indeed. They may have been embarrassed by Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup, but, typically, they got there by beating us.
This is the way with Wenger. Regardless of what he achieved with the Invincibles, the sustained Champions League football, and whatever success he brings to the club in the final few years of his tenure, he will be ultimately be credited by Gooners fans with one thing above all: He has always ensured Arsenal finish above Tottenham.
It is now 19 seasons and counting, which is an awfully long time. It is longer than Joshua Onomah has been alive, for instance. Pochettino is the 10th Spurs manager to try and find a way to get ahead of Wenger, and despite us being on our longest unbeaten run since Gareth Bale and Luka Modric were running riot in the Harry Redknapp era, we are still below bloody Arsenal in the table.
This sustained success has added piquancy to the rivalry, making those (rare) wins against the Gooners even sweeter for Spurs fans. But if there is one thing worse than accepting that your fiercest rivals are better than you, it’s admitting that a small (and reptilian) part of you admires them for it.
It feels deeply illicit, dirty even, to say it out loud, but admit it: What Wenger has achieved has been incredible.
Just look at how hard it has been for Spurs to crack the Top Four, especially since Manchester City struck oil, yet every bloomin’ season Arsenal have found a way to do it. On top of that, they play highly attractive and technically excellent football. I need a shower, but I’ve said it. If Spurs had somehow appointed Wenger, rather than nobodies like Christian Gross, Jacques Santini and Andre Villas-Boas, would we be talking about St Woolwich’s Day, rather than St Totteringham’s Day? Like most Spurs fans, I’m firmly in the #WengerOut club — sacking him would be the craziest thing Arsenal could possibly do.
To add one further heretical thought to this: I’ve long felt Arsenal’s success has helped Spurs. While clubs like Villa, Newcastle and Leeds have stumbled, Spurs have doggedly hung in there and remained a strong Premier League club. The need to at least compete with Arsenal, even if we’ve never found a way to best them in the Wenger era, has helped drive Spurs on. We’ve repeatedly bounced back from terrible managerial appointments, constant shifts in strategy and huge transfer mistakes, desperate to make sure that Arsenal, while sometime out of reach, were never out of sight. We’ve almost always given them a hell of a game, even if we’ve lost more than we’ve won, which is why the North London derby is the fiercest derby in the Premier League.
A similar dynamic exists between Liverpool and Everton, with the blue half clinging on to the red half’s coat tails, just about. But Everton’s performances against Liverpool in derbies have always betrayed a sense of inferiority and disparity that has never existed in North London.
And so here’s the weird thing, which I think is at the heart of the buoyancy gripping Spurs fans at the moment, far more than merely the good league form. For the first time since Wenger took over, the dirty and heretical feelings of admiration may actually be flowing in the other direction.
Yes, Arsenal may have more money, a bigger stadium and Champions League football. But Spurs, with local boys coming through and the crowd singing “he’s one of our own” while Harry Kane bangs in the goals, have discovered an identity that Arsenal fans crave.
Over at The Fighting Cock, Bardi wrote wonderfully about how, while he hates Jack Wilshere, at least he understands who Wilshere is. I completely agree with his views on the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil — big, expensive names but with no connection to Arsenal aside from the turns of events at bigger European clubs that forced them there. These stars are as lacking in identity as the stadium they play in — the Emirates may be a giant, revenue-generating machine, but are the fans any happier there than they were at Highbury? It is an identikit stadium, watching an identikit team. No wonder it is so bloody quiet.
Meanwhile, Arsenal’s production line of talent has ground to halt. For years, they have sought out exciting foreign teenagers as a workaround for homegrown registration rules. It looked smart with the likes of Fabregas coming through. I watched, chortling gently throughout, the shambles at Hillsborough when Sheffield Wednesday turned them over. Wenger even had the temerity to blame his young players for not being ready. But who where they? Of the four, only one, Alex Iwobi, could be considered homegrown. The other three, Glen Kamara, Ismael Bennacer and Krystian Bielik, were all talented teens snapped up from overseas.
Where is the emotional connection going to come from? It’s the same with Adnan Januzaj at Manchester United — these young imports never get the same patience and support as a truly local lad. Football is an emotional game, being a fan isn’t logical — most of us start young, hero-worshipping players while kicking a ball around in the garden, and never properly grow out of it. So when you see someone out there who, sorta kinda possibly, could have been you — a Harry Kane, a Ryan Mason — it fulfils something that is deep inside.
Arsenal are still better than us, on the field. I suspect they will win on Sunday, and I’m almost certain they will finish above us in the table. The bookies certainly think so. It will hurt like hell, as it always does.
But this derby comes at a fascinating moment. For the first time in a very long time, Arsenal fans are having to, grudgingly, admit to themselves that maybe Spurs fans have something that they don’t. It’s a weird feeling.
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