Premier League: Tottenham Hotspur pose veritable test for Arsenal in North London derby of little consequence

Will it be another superlative season in vain for Tottenham Hotspur? Indeed, Tottenham have enjoyed a supreme season, playing fresh, dynamic and high-pressing football under a thoughtful, developing coach, Mauricio Pochettino. For a third season running, Tottenham are living their best season ever, leaping forward in consummate fashion: Real Madrid were topped in the group stages of the Champions League, Manchester United were dispatched with ease and Harry Kane is proving to be an outstanding striker.

Still, in the era of mega clubs, inflated transfer fees and mass Premier League hysteria, does it all matter? This season the competitive edge has been non-existent in the Premier League, the world’s best league. In fact, four out of five European top leagues have suffered from the affliction: the procession of non-competition, luckily, all marketed as a brilliant product. Fans still fall for it, media love it, but there is more to ponder: is it still worth it? What can a Tottenham supporter still believe in? Can he still genuinely expect silverware, believe in the greater good as petrodollar-infused Manchester City line up a quick 50 million bid to replace an injured Leroy Sane?

Arsenal's Arsene Wenger (left) and Tottenham Hotspur's Mauricio Pochettino greet each other. AFP

Arsenal's Arsene Wenger (left) and Tottenham Hotspur's Mauricio Pochettino greet each other. AFP

A few ago weeks, Chelsea coach Antonio Conte wailed that he couldn’t spend enough. He didn’t wince, but some did: the Italian’s statement was deeply ironic as the West London club were the first entity to change from a local outfit into a mega club with the debatable rubbles of Roman Abramovich. Now, they feel undone by it all. This then is the world Tottenham has come to, and must, inhibit. They have developed and invested in youth and in infrastructure. Their shrewd chairman Daniel Levy has, by and large, run the club along sensible lines. The results were for all to see: for the first time in living memory, there was no St Totteringham’s Day last season. Arsenal, the rivals from North London, were trumped.

It’s all been praiseworthy and remarkable, but in the face of oppressive economic imperatives, Spurs may even struggle to qualify for the Champions League. That would be a genuine problem: what do Tottenham have to offer without participation in the European Cup? Little, bar hope and hopelessness for their fan base.

The theme of hopelessness is never far away in North London: at the Emirates Stadium, the Wengerocracy survives, but at what cost? Well, €63.5 million (£56 million) for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to be precise. By Wengerian currency that may be excessive spending, but in a market where inflation is the consequence of too much money at the top for too little talent, the Frenchman may consider that reasonable. The Gabonese recruit has many fine virtues, but his arrival is the cause of much introspection and renewed: is it the start of a minor resurgence? Can Arsene Wenger imbue his team once more with the delightful fleetingness and lethalness of his first seasons?

Arsenal, at their best, played football at high speed, the way the sport is supposed to be executed at the elite level — with precision and pace. Today, fast football has been replaced by much probing and poking, without penetration and purpose. Aubemayang can offer that speed and those goals, which have been lacking under a still adapting Alexandre Lacazette. High velocity is still no medicine for defensive frailties, but, even if the physicality, rigour and effectiveness of Arsenal’s modern prime is gone, Aubemayang, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil should still deliver that occasional fleetingness, that moment of awe and the titillation of the Wengerian game at its best.

This winter was not a revolution at Arsenal, but the lavish spending was uncanny, almost freakish, leading one to wonder ‘Has Wenger become the master-spender?’ The slow decline of Arsenal and the inflation of the market have somehow, almost inadvertently, almost ironically, freed, for that is the verb, the Arsenal coach, who, as his time and future at the club are in doubt, seeks redemption in the face of his growing army of detractors. Aubameyang is not the end-all solution. Arsenal will remain as frail and as porous as ever at the back; Granit Xhaka still incarnates a mad kamikaze midfield pilot, but the front players will be, or should be, daunting and menacing. Last week, Everton were brushed aside, with a debut goal of Aubameyang. In fact, Arsenal pulverised the meek Evertonians. The Gabonese was still settling down, adjusting to the new colours of his shirt and finding his feet in new surroundings, but, the 5-1 win was a spark.

At Wembley, Tottenham will be a veritable test for Arsenal. But, whatever the result in the North London derby, heroic struggle or an absolute stalemate aside, the 90 minutes of what could be under Pochettino or of what could have been under Wenger, an eternal promise for both, matters little. What matters now is the product, the money, at the very top of the game. In football, as in society, dreams are over — in North London, hopelessness is all that remains.

Updated Date: Feb 10, 2018 11:12 AM

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