At the end of a typically frantic, fierce and fluctuating North London derby at White Hart Lane on Saturday, spoils were shared between Tottenham and Arsenal. So was the feeling of regret in the two camps. Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino spoke of a “missed opportunity” in failing to pull away from their bitter rivals in the league table, while opposition manager Arsene Wenger “regretted” the fact that his team went down to 10 men when they were “in complete control”.
Both clubs had the chance to go one better but neither seized their opportunity, culminating in a see-sawing match that ended two goals apiece. Former footballer-turned-commentator Jim Beglin aptly summed up the wildly shifting narratives in the context of the title race: “Arsenal were winning (at 0-1). Then Spurs were winning (at 2-1). Now Leicester are winning (at 2-2).”
In a chaotic derby, when level-headedness was the need of the hour, a lack of mental fortitude proved to be the bane for the two sides. This was perhaps expected of Arsenal, who were low on confidence and self-belief, but Tottenham joined in too, by getting caught up in the madness of a derby and losing their shape on the field to such an extent that, in the final quarter of the game, you could hardly make out they had an extra man on the field.
Pochettino will likely have nightmares about it for a few days.
Before the middle of May, things may change again. Today, however, this contest will be remembered as a game of blown chances. A game which begged us to, once and for all, reassess the title-race advantage we’ve afforded to London clubs and see Leicester in the same, if not greater, light. A game which begged us to give up all attempts at prophecy and view things with an open mind: free of bias and influence of yesteryears.
Because if there is one thing to truly come screaming out of the derby, it is that neither Spurs nor do the Gunners appear to be better than Leicester at keeping their nerve. Stature and experience are proving to be of little importance in a unique Premier League season. If anything, Leicester currently come closest to resembling a seasoned champion. A thoroughly professional away performance at Vicarage Road, to open up a five-point gap at the top,only emphasized this point.
Yet, heading into the derby, and even during it, several experts and journalists held a firm opinion that the winner of the match would go on to win the title. Tottenham had been installed as title favourites and Arsenal, even when in the midst of a major decline, weren’t ruled out. Sure, both clubs have far more experience than the Foxes in dealing with high stakes, but their theoretical superiority hasn’t been visible in practice.
Spurs were a goal, a man and plenty of momentum up midway through the second half. On 99 other occasions, they would’ve come away victorious. By scoring twice in three minutes, including a stunning Harry Kane curler, the home side had seized upon their man advantage in a manner worthy of championship-winning teams. Then they blew it. When Arsenal appeared to be down and out, waiting to be steamrolled, Alexis Sanchez, fed by the best Gunner on the day, right-back Hector Bellerin, managed to score an equaliser against the run of play – the second time in the day that Spurs conceded during a period of dominance. Pochettino will have nightmares about this too.
Arsenal, on the other hand, had weathered the early storm of relentless Spurs pressure and led at half time through a sumptuous Aaron Ramsey backheel. By deploying Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin as two aggressive holding midfielders, Wenger had somewhat successfully countered the opposition’s combative pressing even though the Gunners had been outplayed for a large period of the first half. Post their opening goal, however, the away side had wrestled control of the match and looked quite comfortable. Then they too blew it. Or rather, Coquelin blew it for them. The Frenchman needlessly and foolishly slid in on Kane by the touchline, thereby earning himself another yellow early in the second half.
Going down to 10 men is one thing. To concede twice in the next seven minutes is quite another. Three weeks ago, when the Gunners went a man up against Leicester at the Emirates Stadium at virtually the same time in the match, they were made to huff and puff right till the very last kick of the game to earn three points. It did not speak much of Arsenal’s resolve that they failed to regroup and succumbed to pressure immediately after the sending off though at least the away side’s late rally saved Wenger’s blushes.
What could’ve been a day for Tottenham and Arsenal to boost chances of winning an elusive league title and land a potentially decisive blow to the hopes of their bitter rivals, ended up being a day of what ifs. Leicester City may never have won the league before but, in remaining calm and resolute in testing times, they are succeeding where the chasing pack is failing.