Supporters of Arsenal and Manchester United are sharing an unfamiliar experience this season. After a mixed campaign for both, a scenario has evolved where their traditionally less successful local rivals have a genuine claim at being the best side in the city.
I’m viewing the Manchester situation as an outsider, admittedly, but to me it’s City who look more likely to win the league and finish above United for the first time since 1991. But Arsenal’s precarious position within their own cross-city rivalry is of far graver concern, so to avoid any accusations of deflecting attention, I’ll leave the Manchester clubs to fight their own battle for supremacy. Gooners have much more to be worried about anyway.
I was asked by a neutral friend recently whether I would rather Tottenham won the league and Arsenal finish in the top four, or Tottenham finish inside the top four, but not top, and Arsenal don’t. Once I had finished comprehending the very sobering thought that Spurs are in fact in with a chance of winning the league, I chose the second option. Living in Stevenage, a town split roughly down the middle between Arsenal and Spurs fans, it would be unbearable to deal with seeing the novelty t-shirts, flags and car stickers proclaiming their success, not to mention the constant ribbing. I compared it to being beaten by your little brother in an arm wrestle – highly embarrassing, and with no defence.
Tottenham were unlucky to drop a couple of points at home to Wolves on Saturday, but the draw they gained ensured they pulled further clear of Arsenal, who were well-beaten by Swansea. Quite rightly, the Welsh club have received praise for the way they passed the ball as well as limiting Arsenal to just a few chances, but from an Arsenal point of view it was painful, and showed why an urgent recruitment drive is needed to hang onto the coat-tails of the top four.
In October, Arsenal fans revelled in the satisfaction of unveiling a banner when they played at White Hart Lane, which signalled the Golden Jubilee of Spurs’ failure to win the league title
The midfield, particularly, was stale. Aaron Ramsey, the Wales captain and former Cardiff player, was eager to make an impression in front of his fellow countrymen, and although he never shied from responsibility, he was outplayed by Joe Allen and Leon Britton. Ramsey is being asked to fulfil the same role as Cesc Fabregas did to a world-class level, and although talented, doesn’t yet have the quality or leadership of his predecessor.
With Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta and Gervinho all missing, creativity was in drastically short supply. Apart from his goal, Theo Walcott, who’s going through a spell of low confidence, was anonymous, while Yossi Benayoun struggled to get into the game. Andrei Arshavin, who I’ve criticised recently for his lack of product, was abysmal. Not even Thierry could save us this time.
At full back too, Arsenal struggled, but in this position there’s genuine validity in hiding behind the injury problems. With the three main left-back, and two main right-back options all injured any team would find it hard to contain Nathan Dyer and Scott Sinclair. It’s a frustration, as Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna are amongst the best in the league when fit, and Carl Jenkinson and Andre Santos had shown good things before their injuries, but short-term signings of quality are needed.
In comparison, Tottenham have their key players fit, and are playing some great football. Much like the Arsenal title-winning team of 1997-98, they’re slick, powerful and confident, and are entering unchartered territory with good momentum. It’s a new experience for most of Tottenham’s players, but for once, their fans’ traditionally over-optimistic and delusional stance looks justified.
If their dreams come to fruition, it could mean Arsenal’s first season out of the Champions League for 15 years. Financially, this wouldn’t be a disaster, but everything that comes with it could damage the team severely. There would be no shortage of takers for van Persie, Wilshere, Vermaelen and Szczesny, meaning another rebuilding process could have to take shape before this one has even got started. Also, Tottenham will be certain to clinch one of the top four spots themselves, and could strengthen further.
In October, Arsenal fans revelled in the satisfaction of unveiling a banner when they played at White Hart Lane, which signalled the Golden Jubilee of Spurs’ failure to win the league title. “61, never again,” the faithful proudly sang. There is a chance that drought may end this season, but even if it doesn’t, Spurs have their best chance of finishing above Arsenal for the first time since 1995. Quality must be added, or St Totteringham’s Day* will be cancelled this year.
*St Totteringham’s Day is when Arsenal can officially celebrate finishing above Tottenham in the league. Over the past 16 years it’s usually occurred around the 30th game of the season.
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