Heart Of Football

Heart of Football: Spurs' ambitions eclipses derby intensity this time

The managers of Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal are trying not so much to rewrite local history as to pretend that it does not matter.

Senor Mauricio Pochettino and Monsieur Arsene Wenger are talking gibberish.

The Spurs versus the Gunners, the last ever North London derby at White Hart Lane, is more than a football game - with all the history, rivalry and special intensity between clubs that have co-existed within about 6.5km of each other for the past 104 years.

The Lane has a capacity of 36,284, and it is no exaggeration to say that every seat could be filled twice over.

This is the penultimate game at the old stadium; Manchester United will bring down the final curtain before the demolition crew move in next month.

But United do not have the importance of the neighbourhood feud that has existed ever since the Gunners moved from the old Royal Arsenal garrison south of the River Thames in 1913 to N17, Tottenham territory.

When Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey are the fulcrum of your midfield inspiration, you are short. Xhaka can certainly pass a ball, but he is just as likely to get a yellow, or even a red card, for his intemperate tackling.

"It is no extra motivation," insisted Pochettino ahead of today's 183rd derby. "It is no distraction. Our focus is to try to win this game, we are not only thinking to be above Arsenal.

"Our challenge, our ambition, our mentality is bigger. Our dream is the title."

Quite right.

Spurs are the last real challengers for Chelsea in this season's Premier League table. If Chelsea were to falter at Goodison Park, where Everton have won their last eight home games on the trot, then Tottenham, kicking off two hours later, could close the gap to a solitary point.

Pigs don't fly, but roosters can. And the Spurs' badge boasts a cockerel. They haven’t flown this high since 1960-61, when they last won the old English Football League title. 

Now, with Harry Kane and Dele Alli, and with Christian Eriksen and Son Heung Min hunting for goals, the new Spurs are all but impregnable at home.

Tottenham are the last unbeaten home side in the top flight. They have won their last 12 games at the Lane, spurred by the proximity of fans to the pitch. Those fans, regardless of what Pochettino or Wenger say, circle the date of the Arsenal game on their calendars the day the fixture list is drawn up.

Many of them live for the North London derby, and not just because they remember the breathtaking 2004 edition which finished 5-4 in favour of the Gunners. That game had nine different scorers, and another foreign manager, Jose Mourinho, described it as a hockey score, not a soccer score.

If the new Arsenal 3-5-2 (or 3-4-2-1) holds as firm as it has over the last three games, maybe today is going to be a much more miserly affair.

It astounds some of us that, after 21 years, Wenger has abandoned his free-flowing pass-and-move style to attempt some solidity at the rear. Yet it has worked. It arrested the worst run in Wenger's era, and stemmed the stuttering nervousness of the team.

It took Arsenal to Wembley, where they beat Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final. But whether it can stop the Spurs, whose home run has pulverised opponents to the tune of 43 goals against eight, we wait to see.

The managers may be right. The bigger picture is not local rivalry. Pochettino is building the best side Tottenham fans have witnessed in 56 years - a lifetime to many.

So when reporters mention "St Totteringham's Day" to Pochettino, he responds by saying the aim is to finish above 19 teams, not just the neighbouring one.

St Totteringham is the mocking name that Arsenal fans use to note the day when the Spurs cannot finish above the Gunners in any one season. It has happened with metronomic regularity throughout the Wenger reign, to date.

Today will be Wenger's 50th North London derby. His team have won 22, drawn 20 and lost only seven to the Lilywhites. However, Arsenal have won just once on their last eight visits to the Lane.

So form and logic and confidence favour the home side. History looks the other way. But the striking power is heavily on Tottenham's side. Not only are the Spurs 14 points above their neighbours, but they also have a goal difference this season of plus-47 compared to Arsenal's plus-24.

Arsenal, for all the noise at their gates where some fans still bay for Wenger's retirement, still have one statistic that should concern Pochettino. The Gunners have scored 32 goals away from home, second only to Man City.

If, however, there is one area that points to why this has become Wenger's biggest struggle in attempting to nail down a top-four position, it is central midfield.

This, for the first time during Wenger's tenure, seriously lacks creativity. It doesn't help that Santi Cazorla, the pocket dynamo, has missed the entire campaign with a knee injury, or that Jack Wilshere has been loaned out to try (unsuccessfully, it appears) to cure his incessant ankle weakness.

When Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey are the fulcrum of your midfield inspiration, you are short. Xhaka can certainly pass a ball, but he is just as likely to get a yellow, or even a red card, for his intemperate tackling.

And Ramsey? Fine player, willing soul between midfield and attack. But in truth, Ramsey has not been the same fearless, lung-bursting, thrilling counter-attacker he was before his leg was so badly broken against Stoke City. And that was seven years ago.

Tottenham are strong at the back and potent in attack. They are also powerful in midfield, though they await a late fitness test on Mousa Dembele, who injured an ankle at Crystal Palace last week.

Derby history doesn't matter? Pull the other one.


TOTTENHAM V ARSENAL

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Correction note: In our earlier story, we said the Spurs haven't flown this high since 1960-61, when Jimmy Greaves shot Tottenham to the old English Football League title. Jimmy Greaves was actually not in the title-winning team. He joined only in the next season. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 30, 2017, with the headline 'Spurs' ambitions eclipses derby intensity this time'. Print Edition | Subscribe