For as long as most of Arsenal fans can remember, the natural order of things within the North London football world has been clear: one team is more successful, part of the elite of the Premier League, playing in the Champions League on an annual basis, while the other perennially endeavours to play catch-up, living in hope that one day the tables will be turned and it will be their turn to take their place in the sun.
This season, for the first time since the early days of the George Graham regime, some thirty plus years ago, it feels as if the dynamic has truly shifted. It is Arsenal who are now the underdogs and Mauricio Pochettino’s vibrant young Tottenham side that are growing on a season by season basis and developing into a team that is starting to demonstrate its capability to challenge at the very top of the game.
Arsenal continue to stagnate, if not go backwards, hindered by the reluctance of its owner to invest at the requisite level to allow the team to be truly competitive, and continually undone by a manager whose ideas and philosophy are, if not completely outdated, certainly in need of refreshment.
Across North London on the other hand, something exciting has been stirring for a few years. It feels very much as if Tottenham are on the verge of something very special, and getting closer to the fulfilment of their long-held ambitions, albeit with the caveat that this remains reliant on them keeping hold of their manager and two undoubted star players, given the reported interest from Madrid, Manchester and elsewhere.
The last straw of consolation clutched tightly by Arsenal supporters is that this undoubted potential has yet to be turned into tangible reward in the form of silverware; yet we find ourselves racking our memories for the last time our team truly made the European football world take notice with a result akin to Tottenham’s 3-1 humbling of Real Madrid just over a fortnight ago?
A few seasons ago, misguidedly prematurely as it transpired, then Tottenham manager Andre Villas Boas predicted that Arsenal were in a ‘negative spiral’; although we laughed at the time after pipping Tottenham to the post and securing Champions League qualification yet again, it seems now that it wasn’t a case that he was wrong altogether, just that perhaps it needed a better manager to fully exploit the situation and to usurp Arsenal as top dog in North London.
Pochettino took up the reins at White Hart Lane in the summer of 2014 and has steadily set about building a squad that undoubtedly gets better each year. In all truth they should really have won the title in 2015/16 instead of ultimately capitulating in that oh-so-Spurs-like way and managing to finish third in a two-horse race. The progress however is plain to see as highlighted by last season’s second place finish in a much more genuinely competitive title race.
During his three season tenure, the Argentinian has crafted and styled a high energy team founded on players developed through the club’s youth system, combined with astute purchases and experienced players that balance the side perfectly. When they are at their best they provide a snapshot of the very essence of the modern game.
Their exciting high-tempo football embraces the ‘gegenpressing’ style that emerged following the famous reboot of German football which is so very much in vogue these days; but also has its roots in the philosophy of revered modern tactician and mentor to both Pochettino and Pep Guardiola, Marcelo Bielsa.
Admitting all of this as an Arsenal fan is a particularly bitter pill to swallow, after all wasn’t this supposed to be us? Wasn’t this why we left Highbury? Weren’t we supposed to be the team that were going to rule all before them from their shiny new home?
For the first time in a long time Arsenal go into the North London derby as the underdogs, despite the insistence to the contrary of both managers. Each of these fixtures used to be approached with a sense of trepidation from those of us in the red half, a fear that that lot would pull off a shock and bring us down a peg or two, but still reassured that even if the worst were to happen, we were the bigger club and had bigger fish to fry. It doesn’t feel like that anymore. Instead it is us that go into this match desperate to win in the misguided hope that it may provide the base on which the resurrection of our season might be launched.
Arsenal haven’t beaten Spurs in a league game since March 2014, a run of six fixtures without tasting victory in an encounter that they used to dominate; a win on Saturday would not only address that situation but would also draw them to within one point of their rivals offering some small crumb of hope to Arsenal fans that they are still in the hunt for the promised land of Champions League qualification. In reality though, I think the majority of us just hope not to be humbled and forced to face the bitter truth that the tide has well and truly turned in the North London Derby and until there are drastic changes within the hierarchy of our club we won’t be reclaiming our position of power any time soon.