Arsenal versus Tottenham: a rivalry moving sidewards

Arsenal versus Tottenham: a rivalry moving sidewards

A TIMID BITTERNESS PERMEATED THE GLORIES Ossie Ardiles chose to speak of in Ossie’s Dream, the 2009 autobiography of a Tottenham Hotspur legend. A World Cup winner before leaving Argentina’s ‘interior’, his professional life appears to peak at too soon a juncture. Although his subsequent time with Spurs allows for an early insight into the concept of inter-continental footballer movement – cataclysmically disturbed when Ardiles’ Argentina became embroiled in a war with the host nation England – one senses that, more so after Argentina’s disastrous spell at the 1982 World Cup, he is aware of the upper limit his 1978 success capped on all that followed. Closing out the text with an influx of refined, short chapters, each one usually signalling a fresh managerial endeavour, the physicality of Ardiles’ recognised genius – that of being a footballer – undoes the managerial savvy he yearns to appear in possession of.

That Ardiles seems at such retrospective ease with his October 1994 managerial departure from Spurs is perhaps then, a touch facetious. Success with Swindon Town and West Bromwich Albion enabled his Spurs appointment by Alan Sugar in the summer of 1993. Yet, following his dismissal only shortly over a year later, the following two decades brought a spate of managerial globetrotting as he attempted to remedy the sad conclusion of his managerial shot with a top club.

Truthfully, a decade of Sugar’s chairmanship (1991-2001) would witness the acquisition and disposition of quite a few innocent managers. The irony of Ardiles’ situation is that he, once the notable foreign import to the English club game, would be unable to conjure instant success from the imported stars Sugar had acquired on Spurs’ behalf. In lieu of the financial rambunctiousness that aligned itself with the burgeoning Premier League, Jürgen Klinsmann, Ilie Dumitrescu and Gheorghe Popescu signalled the beginning of a wider – but well-founded – arrogance in terms of what standards the ‘new-money’ clubs could hope to acquire in the transfer market.

Though it would take the appointment of one-time Arsenal manager George Graham in 1998 to yield breakthrough success for Spurs in the Premier League era – namely the League Cup in 1999 – the departure of Graham’s Arsenal replacement Bruce Rioch in August 1996 allowed Arsenal to develop a capable disposition in dealing with players foreign to the English game.

Due largely to Arsène Wenger’s appointment, the challenge of the Premier League would be met in a manner that still leaves Arsenal in a position of noticeable superiority to their North London rivals. In what had been a fairly joyless decade in the wake of an all-conquering Liverpool, moving into the 1990s demonstrated a genuine starting point where the temptation of acquiring and selling players was heightened in alignment with the increased wealth being spread around the strikingly elite Premier League clubs.

For Arsenal – akin to Manchester United – success would be wrought from consistency; possessing the best players and opportunities to acquire other players of equal or superior calibre becomes a fairly locked in system of advancement. Contrarily, Spurs, despite some noticeable highs in recent seasons, have never delivered on their fan’s wilder fantasies.

Being ‘foreign’ myself (Irish), it would be facetious to discuss this rivalry with what would certainly be a contrived intimacy. My proposal, as an outsider, is to view this rivalry as it has developed in the Premier League era. With specific concern for the very ‘otherness’ that permeates London’s vastly differential smorgasbord of cultures and people, I wish to consider – within the context of actual North London derbies – the impact that the sudden influx of foreign footballers had as this rivalry moved into an era of notable dominance for one, and a perennial barely-even-a-bridesmaid role for the other. In terms of constituting who is foreign, I’ll keep that to those players who’ve arrived from further afield than Ireland, Scotland or Wales. Similarly, in an effort to keep things from slipping into too vast a study, the presence of those players to whom their club and rivalry may have been irredeemably different had they never played will legislate my focus.

In managerial terms, Arsenal represents an aberration of Premier League normalcy. To Tottenham’s twelve or so, Arsène Wenger is but the third full-time manager of Arsenal in the last 22 years. Herein lays the primary difference between the clubs. The first foreign manager to lay claim to the top-flight English championship, from the very beginning in 1996 Wenger has excelled in his attempts to amalgamate the familiar stoicism of England’s footballing expectancies with the new, liberating possibilities that wider player movement has enabled.

Of his 45 games or so in charge against Spurs, Wenger’s Arsenal has lost only seven. Though the formidability of such statistics can be deceiving, his near 50 per cent win-rate in the North London derby over an almost twenty-year period of games – draws constitute roughly 35 per cent – gives credence to Arsenal’s superior stature, no more so when stood beside their undeniably broader successes in that period (three Premier Leagues, six FA Cups to Spurs’ two League Cups).

Of the Spurs managers he has stood against, the Harry Redknapp years proved the most fruitless for Wenger (three wins, draws and losses against Spurs). Yet, given Arsenal’s consistency in surpassing the best league efforts of Spurs regardless of the occasionally head-to-head mishap, 2008’s League Cup semi-final second leg tie with Juande Ramos’ Spurs side perhaps best indicates a rare moment of sincere futility for Wenger at the hands of a direct North London rival.

A 1-1 draw at the Emirates was supplanted with a 5-1 hammering at White Hart Lane. Although 2005’s FA Cup win diluted somewhat the unquestionable barren spell of success that Spurs extended on Arsenal’s behalf, a comprehensive defeat such as this rarely occurred for Wenger in this irredeemable manner. In the grand scale, however, Ramos – despite going on to win the League Cup from this point – suffered a fate similar to that of Ardiles fourteen years before: he was sacked in October of the next season.

Of the imported players who came to demonstrate not only Arsenal’s superiority in North London, but England – and almost Europe – at large, one may refine the list of essentials to Thierhry Henry, Vieira, Bergkamp and Pires, with credible mentions to Petit and Overmars. In much the same way that Manchester United’s later ‘Ferguson years’ were blighted continentally by the presence of Guardiola’s Barcelona, it is fair to assume that Wenger’s three Premier League titles may well have been more had it not been for the dogged presence of the mid to late-90s Manchester United side, and subsequent to that, the emergence of a financially stimulated Chelsea and Manchester City. In North London terms, the foundation upon which Arsenal entered the new millennium afforded the rivalry an unappealing one-sidedness; Spurs would beat Arsenal once in the league over an almost fourteen year period.

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1413463193039_wps_17_Arsenal_celebrate_at_the_Arsenal winning the title at White Hart Lane marked a low point for Spurs fans in the history of the North London derby

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To briefly capture a degree of the prowess brought to these proceedings on the part of those aforementioned players, it is advisable to consider one match in particular. Although Henry’s solo derby goal at Highbury from November 2002 would demonstrate degrees of speed and incisive precision rarely witnessed in any footballer, it was from a similar position of the pitch at White Hart Lane on the day that Arsenal would claim the third and, as yet, final Premier League of Wenger’s period in charge, that a wider scope can be rendered of the devastating levels this team performed upon.

Picking the ball up on the ‘D’ of his own box, Henry simply swerves to the left of the field, manoeuvring for a free run into the Spurs half. Never looking to cut back inside, before the camera even has a proper opportunity to perhaps capture a broader understanding of what Henry intends to do, he has passed the ball so aggravatingly close to, but definitively beyond, three Tottenham defenders into the path of Dennis Bergkamp. Without breaking stride, Bergkamp needs but one touch. Passing the ball into the path of a marauding Patrick Vieira, the magnificence and speed with which Vieira confirms this goal is heightened in its impressiveness due to the fact that behind Vieira stood Robert Pires; an overlapping indulgence of talent and execution that would breeze past most teams.

Half an hour later, that same afternoon, a simply magisterial few moments of seemingly innocuous passing become possessed by an inexplicable urgency. From Pires to Bergkamp to Vieira and Pires again, Arsenal takes a two-goal lead. Although the second-half would witness a Spurs comeback and a 2-2 draw via a great strike from Jamie Redknapp and an eventual equaliser from Robbie Keane, Arsenal had known that a draw was enough to secure the league and maintain their run towards an unbeaten season. This was to be the final season before Jose Mourinho and his Chelsea side would ultimately come to continually frustrate Arsenal and their best Premier League efforts. Not quite a turning point in this rivalry, but that too was on the horizon.

In Redknapp’s managerial wake came André Villas-Boas, Tim Sherwood and Mauricio Pochettino. The latter notwithstanding, each manager’s contribution to Spurs will be measured in their imagined development of Gareth Bale. Perhaps not ‘materially’ successful enough to garner the adoration afforded to Hoddle, Jennings, Blanchflower, Mackay or even Ardiles, it would be hard to contest that Bale’s talent is not of generational regard at the very least. He is a global superstar indebted to Spurs’ careful consideration for his ability. Yet, an after-thought of the ill-fated Ramos era, it is perhaps more pertinent to consider the arrival of Luka Modrić when contemplating the bucked trend of Arsenal’s head-to-head superiority.

Although a league win over Arsenal for Spurs would not occur until April 2010, a 4-4 draw in October 2008, in Redknapp’s second game in charge, signalled an astounding resurrection on Spurs’ part. Stretching the limits of desire, spirit and the other incorrigible features that seem to win football matches, two late Spurs goals earned them a draw they were scarcely deserving of on the basis of play. Although Modrić would certainly have more productive afternoons under Redknapp, it was the audacious nature of what would become the assist for the final equaliser that tapped into something intriguing.

In possession of space that he and players of his sort just seem to find, controlling the ball on his chest, allowing a single bounce, Modrić hits the ball on the half volley from 25 yards out. That it rebounded off the post into Lennon’s path was pure coincidence at worst, a superb effort from the onrushing Lennon at best. Yet, keeping in mind the frailties of Arsenal’s goalkeeper Manuel Almunia, the apparent indulgence of Modrić shooting at such a time – roughly the 94th minute – from comfortably outside the box signified the confidence of an intellectual footballer.

Looking far too pedestrian more often than not in ties against Arsenal from years past, the emergence of and catering for Luka Modrić – keeping in mind that Chelsea were willing to pay £40 million to take him from Spurs before Real Madrid eventually acquired his services – demonstrated the ascension beyond any Spurs inkling of inferiority with relation to their rivals. Truthfully, nobody in the Premier League has played with the fluidity of Arsenal at their peak. However, as Modrić quickly became the central attacking threat for Spurs so too did their fortunes take their greatest turn in the Premier League era. Alex Ferguson’s Player of the Year in 2010-11, with Modrić in the white of Tottenham Hotspur, seven games started against Arsenal in the league returned three wins, three draws and a loss. In context, that is something quite special.

Of each side’s place in the shake-up of the Premier League, there appears to be a consistent deterrent to either club reaching where they believe they ought to be. Champions League quarter-finalists in 2011, Spurs would ultimately be unable to build upon this as the pressure to sell their top performers became overbearing. A financially robust club in their own right with a strong, passionate fan-base, a youth system that has aided the development of players like Gareth Bale and more recently Harry Kane, and the ability to allure players most mid-top level clubs in Europe would be thrilled to acquire, Spurs must realistically become Champions League regulars to be in anyway satisfied.

Arsenal, though they stand a fair few paces ahead of Spurs within the aforementioned context, they too are somewhat subjected to the stunted realisation that bigger clubs with more appeal and money can consistently gazump the purity of the footballing approach Wenger has engendered. In reality, this is not a very ‘joyful’ rivalry at the moment.

Though in recent seasons both clubs have been in looking – if not quite touching – distance of one another in terms of league finishes, the admitted intensity of derby day forever seems undercut by the bitter season ends suffered by either side. Within the confines of one city, London is more comparable in scale to many satellite cities within a grander whole. The financial capital of the world, the disheartening reality for two such immaculate clubs as Arsenal and Spurs is that the financially driven Chelsea – as yet the greatest Premier League ‘success’ story built on the back of one wealthy foreigner – was the first London side to cross that continental breach and secure Champions League glory.

For this North London derby then, it is not necessarily wrong to assume that the recent competitiveness between both clubs is perhaps indicative somewhat of an Arsenal regression. Neither side really looks capable of sustaining a significant Premier League challenge beyond Christmas.

Wenger’s eventual departure – he being so vital in facilitating the one-dimensional outlook of this derby for so many seasons – will signify a landmark for this tie, but it will scarcely harm Spurs’ chances of retaining a degree of dominance. One wonders what would have occurred if Spurs, and not West Ham United, were moving to London’s Olympic Stadium for the 2016-17 season onward. Would they, like Manchester City buoyed by the acquisition of Manchester’s Commonwealth Games stadium, have attracted the interest of an investor that would redefine what their ties with Arsenal constituted?

For the foreseeable future the North London derby will remain competitive, often feisty, aggressive yet beautiful, but ultimately a frustrating endeavour on each club’s behalf to break through limits imposed by an elite set neither one of them now belongs to.

By Arthur James O’Dea. Follow @ArthurJamesOD

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