It is an unwritten rule of the Premier League era that north London’s two clubs can never be successful at the same time. When Arsenal won titles and admirers under Arsene Wenger, Tottenham Hotspur rattled through countless managers as they struggled for an identity. When Mauricio Pochettino gave them one and led Spurs to their first ever Champions League, it was Arsenal’s turn to suffer.
On the basis of Sunday’s derby clash at the Emirates Stadium, north London’s footballing power balance has shifted again. Arsenal are now the ones looking upwards while Spurs, toiling under new manager Nuno Espirito Santo, are wondering how much further they might slip.
This was a match that confirmed a lot of what we thought we knew about these two teams. Arsenal had shown signs of progress in back-to-back wins over Norwich City and Burnley and underlined that progress with a complete performance. Their first half display was especially accomplished.
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On the opposite side, the growing sense of malaise around Tottenham was compounded as Nuno’s team failed to impose themselves on their rivals. The visitors claimed the greater share of possession (53%), but failed to make it count for anything beyond a Heung-Min Son consolation goal in the second half.
Of course, it’s not so long ago that Tottenham, who won their first three Premier League fixtures of the season, sat at the top of the table with Arsenal, who lost their first three, at the bottom. Football is fickle. Landscapes can change in the space of just a few games, but what unfolded on Sunday felt like a true reflection of where the two teams are right now.
Arsenal fans have been told to trust the process over the last two years and it’s only now that this process is producing genuine results. With the majority of his squad fit and the transfer window now closed, Arteta has been able to build a balanced team that can control games in and out of possession.
Spurs, though, are struggling badly for any sort of incision. Their lack of creativity is compromising everything they do at the moment, with not one of their three starting midfielders against Arsenal - Dele Alli, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Tanguy Ndombele - able to register a single key pass. Their possession is without any purpose.
Perhaps this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given Nuno’s background as a conservative coach at Wolves. While Tottenham initially wanted their new manager to wash away the remnants of Jose Mourinho’s ill-fated tenure, they have ended up with a successor who shares many of the same ideas. Nuno just doesn’t have the winning track record to justify them.
Indeed, Spurs’ appointment of Nuno, a coach with conflicting principles to that of the club he now leads, is starting to look like a mistake. The same might be said of the decision to stop Harry Kane from leaving for Manchester City, such is the languid, uninterested body language of the 28-year-old.
One wonders if Tottenham will come to regret not cashing in on their prize asset when his market value was highest, when City would have considered stumping up over £120m for their top target. It was understandable that Spurs desperately wanted to keep hold of their top scorer and best player, but the Kane they have now is a shadow of the one they had before.
It might only be after Kane is gone that Tottenham can truly rebuild, with the funds reinvested in areas of the squad that badly need it. While Arteta has found balance at Arsenal through the signings of Martin Odegaard, Thomas Partey, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Ben White, Spurs have so far been unable to integrate their summer signings - Cristian Romero, Bryan Gil and Emerson Royal started the match against Arsenal on the bench.
If Nuno is to take any encouragement from Sunday’s match, it might strangely be found in Arsenal’s recent turnaround. As already referenced, Tottenham started this month top of the Premier League with their north London rivals bottom. However, Sunday’s derby outcome was the result of a more entrenched trend that has two clubs heading in very different directions.
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