The North London derby last weekend was always likely to be a close encounter, and so it proved. The effusive way in which Tottenham players celebrated after beating Arsenal 2-1 perfectly illustrated the importance of their hard-fought victory.
It opened up a seven point gap between the two teams with just ten games left; a gap you would often declare to be conclusive in the race for Champions League qualification.
Recent history, however, curbs such confidence. At the beginning of February last year, Tottenham had carved open a thirteen point lead over Arsenal. It seemed certain they would finish third but a dismal run of form witnessed a dramatic change in fortune in the closing months of the season, with the Gunners catching and ultimately their overtaking their rivals with some ease.
Tottenham overcame their disappointing slump to cling on to fourth place but they were cruelly denied a Champions League slot when Chelsea finally secured Roman Abramovich’s European Holy Grail.
Now, with a tough run-in ahead of them, not to mention a titanic battle against Inter Milan in the Europa League, it’s understandable for Tottenham fans to temper their optimism. They appear to be, however, playing with a confidence and exuberance (currently typified to great effect by Gareth Bale) that suggests lessons may have been learned from the previous campaign.
Whatever happens, there’s been plenty of positives at White Hart Lane this season. Daniel Levy can probably afford to feel a little smug right about now. Castigated by many for dispensing with fans’ favourite Harry Redknapp at the end of last season, he then appointed André Villas-Boas, generally considered a bold move considering his recent and troubled tenure at Chelsea.
The gruff and circumspect Villas-Boas was never likely to hold affection with the media in the same way the vernacular Redknapp did, but the dogged manner in which they strived to ridicule him from the beginning was unmerited and excessive.
When he signed the excellent Hugo Lloris for instance, he mentioned in the subsequent press conference that he would not be guaranteed a starting berth; such was the current form of Brad Freidel. Certain tabloids gleefully leapt on this mundane comment and used it to portray him as a bumbling fool – sign a top keeper and then not play him? Madness! He hasn’t got a clue what he’s doing!
The truth was nothing of the sort – you will have to search far and wide to find any manager guaranteeing a player automatic selection – and reminding a new signing he’ll have to challenge for his place in the team like every other player is news hardly worthy of a passing glance, never mind histrionic headlines.
Villas-Boas had on-the field difficulties to deal with too, primarily the loss of Luka Modric, arguably Tottenham’s best player and the orchestrator of much of their play, in addition to the departure of Rafeal van der Vaart.
That gaping hole was soon filled with shrewd acquisitions: Gylfi Siggurdson and Clint Dempsey supplied good value and much-needed depth, Moussa Dembele provided a mobile and physical presence in midfield, and, more recently, the arrival of Lewis Holtby, who possesses the credentials and reputation to suggest he could become an impressive force in the Premier League once he has been allowed to settle.
Jan Vertonghen and Lloris are quality additions, while it also seemed an astute move to promote Sandro (when fit) to the first-choice midfield enforcer, although this was somewhat forced by Scott Parker’s early-season injury.
The biggest boon for Tottenham has undoubtedly been Gareth Bale. In recent months, he has attained eye-catching and world class form, powering past defenders, drifting elusively across the pitch, and scoring all manner of thunderous goals with a simple swish of his left leg.
Whether his advancement is a product of Villas-Boas’s coaching, or a natural development of the player is open to debate, but it would be churlish to entirely deny the manager’s influence on the young Welshman’s form.
Bale’s goal against Arsenal last Sunday was perhaps indicative of the two teams at the moment – the swaggering confidence of Bale apparent in his calm finish, while Arsenal, despite starting well, appeared to be the orchestrators of their own downfall: undone by hapless defending for the first goal, they then unforgivably made the same mistake again just minutes later for Tottenham’s second.
It was a blow for the Gunners considering the importance of their league finish. Their lack of silverware over the last eight years has been well-documented, and it now seems highly probable they will finish another season empty-handed, unless you count fourth place – and you get the impression Arsene Wenger will never be allowed to forget labelling it a trophy.
One thing that statement did do was at least highlight the importance of gaining re-entry into Europe’s premier competition.
In many ways, it’s been a typical season for Arsenal. There has been the occasional breathtaking performance, where the opposing team is obliterated by a stellar exhibition of slick passing, movement, and clever goals (their 6-1 demolition of Southampton being a perfect example), but they’ve suffered a few disappointing displays too, where the team looks disorganised and uninspired. Their 2-0 home reverse to Swansea was a particular nadir.
Saying that, their season (in the league at least) has been nowhere near as bad as the media have made out, illustrated by the simple fact they remain very much in contention for the Champions League positions, especially considering their easier run-in.
The negatives have been shouted far and wide by the written press, but the season has provided promise too: Cazorla, excusing a two month dip before Christmas, has been excellent, Walcott, fresh from signing his new contract, has stepped up a level and has added regular goals to his game, and Jack Wilshere has effortlessly eased back into top form. Giroud – if you remove the unfair Robin van Persie comparisons – has done well too, accounting for the fact it is his first season in a new league.
The true test of these two teams will be in the next two months or so. Between the two of them, it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s more important for Arsenal to finish in the top four. Perhaps it’s the appointment of a new, young manager but Tottenham feel like a team on the rise, and could survive the ignominy of fifth place, regroup and simply come back stronger next season.
That’s not to say Arsenal wouldn’t too – it’s simply with the tide of support perhaps starting to waver under Wenger, and a pressing need to recruit one or two top-class players, it somehow feels as though Arsenal’s need to finish the season strongly is even more crucial than their closest rival’s.
Of course, Chelsea currently lie fourth, and Everton and Liverpool may well have a say yet, so to say this particular battle lies solely between Tottenham and Arsenal is clearly untrue.
However, you sense only of these two will take the spoils, and it’s undoubtedly a crucial period for both teams – Tottenham to continue their progress, and perhaps keep hold of Bale, and Arsenal to maintain their consistency in the Premiership and attract quality players in the summer.
With Manchester United seemingly running away with the league title, and the relegation battle so far failing to ignite real interest, at the moment it seems the most intriguing and tense sub-plot of this Premiership season exists in North London.
The author of this article is Jon Wilmot.