Arsene Wenger, we want you to stay! Arsene Wenger, we want you to stay! (sung by Tottenham fans at the Lane)
Ah, the sweet sound of Schadenfreude ringing through the terraces on the occasion of the last-ever North London Derby at White Hart Lane. So loud I could hear it through the TV over the crowd in a packed bar on Sunday morning; so embarrassing for Arsenal fans that they must be questioning their very existence as they face gloating Tottenham supporters at work this week. I imagine the experience of having your rivals beg you through the beauty of a song to keep your failing manager is quite a humbling one, especially for a club and fan-base so smug in their belief of absolute superiority over their North London neighbors. For me, no chorus could be any sweeter.
Sunday’s NLD was an odd one for me. It was perhaps the first time in my life that I was never worried about Arsenal’s ability to beat us. Not once during Spurs’ completely dominant performance did I entertain the idea of the Gunners scoring, let alone running out of the Lane with even a solitary point. They were impotent, bereft of ideas, and tired-looking throughout most of the match. Spurs on the other hand played like they knew they were the better team the entire game, even squandering a handful of first half sitters and still running out comfortable winners. If not for the heroics of Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech, it could very easily have been a 4 or 5 goal rout. Was never a contest at all, really.
In the wake of Sunday’s result, there’s been much talk of whether or not a “power shift” has occurred in North London. It was a hot topic leading up to the NLD and will surely continue to be in the weeks and months that follow. Fans of the Gunners point to the overwhelming edge they hold in the history of the rivalry; after all, this is the first season in Wenger’s very long tenure that Spurs have managed to finish above him. While they have a point to some degree, it’s not so much the fact that Spurs will finish above Arsenal that matters in this case. It’s more about the manner in which this achievement has been realized that would suggest one side of North London is growing at the other’s expense.
Since Gooners are so fond of history, let’s look back at the last 10 seasons or so (starting with ’06/07). In each of those years, Arsenal have finished above Spurs. Their highest margin of victory in this time frame was 36 points in the ’07/08 season. 36 points! That’s essentially half a season’s worth of difference between the two clubs. In 4 of those seasons, their points advantage over Spurs was in double figures (’07/08, ’08/09, ’13/14, and ’14-15). Finally, their average points lead on Spurs over those 10 seasons is 14.5.
Fast forward to this season, where no matter what Spurs will be finishing above Arsenal. While the results aren’t final yet, if both sides win out their seasons the gap would be 14 points. If Spurs lose their remaining fixtures (unlikely) and Arsenal win all of theirs (super unlikely), the gap would be 2 points. If Arsenal lose all their remaining fixtures while Spurs win out, the gap would be 29 points. Realistically, I expect the gap to end somewhere in the 17-20 range, as I can see Arsenal dropping more points before season’s end. That’s a pretty significant difference between the two clubs, on par with the second-highest gap Arsenal have enjoyed in the last 10 years (21 points in ’08/09).
To suggest that the above math is not indicative of a change in momentum is to ignore the obvious. Ten years ago, Spurs lost out to Arsenal by half a season’s worth of points. But since the ’09/10 season, they’ve never finished more than 11 points back of Arsenal, and finished a solitary point behind them in 3 out of 7 of those campaigns. The days of Spurs being far off from Arsenal are gone for the foreseeable future, as the club’s trajectory is trending upward on all fronts. A talented young team is being developed under an ambitious manager, a new stadium is being built to increase revenue via ticket sales and contracts with giants like the NFL, and Champions League football has been achieved in back-to-back seasons for the first time in the modern era. With the carrot of Champions League in place, better talent will be brought into an already stacked line-up, and there’s nothing to suggest the team won’t be right back challenging for the title next year and beyond.
Arsenal, meanwhile, seem like a club on a downward trajectory. Their best seasons have long deserted them; indeed finishing above Spurs has really been the height of their success for several years now. They’ve got a chance at winning the F.A. Cup this month, sure, but if they lose that to Chelsea then this season will have truly been a waste by their standards. Unlike Spurs, who as up-and-comers haven’t been weighed down by the expectation of winning trophies every year, Arsenal are a club whose fans expect them to be competing for the highest honors consistently. Yet outside of the F.A. Cup, which they admittedly have a very strong record in (including back-to-back wins 2013/14 & 2014/15), Arsenal have struggled to seriously compete in the Premier League and Champions League for quite some time. They last ran the league close in ’07/08 when they finished only 4 points behind Champions Manchester United, and haven’t progressed past the round of 16 in Champions League since the ’09/10 season.
Arsenal’s struggles of late, and particularly this season, have put the club in a precarious position. If they fail to make top 4, a lack of Champions League football for next season could have a negative effect on recruitment of new players. This could prove disastrous for a squad that is in desperate need of reinforcement all over the pitch, especially up front (Giroud is not a title-winning striker) and at the back (Koscielny may be the only Arsenal CB with even a vague understanding of his job). Likewise, current players who are good enough to find regular minutes with a Champions League club may find it tempting to leave over the summer. It’s hard to see the likes of Sanchez and Ozil sticking around when either of them would be welcome additions to about a dozen Champions League clubs on the continent. Hell, I’d take Sanchez at Spurs in a second, no questions asked.
Some people look at the term “power shift” and try to describe it in tangibles. Titles won. Trophies earned. Number of seasons at the top. Although these metrics are certainly a way of demonstrating strength, they don’t tell the whole story. Sure, Spurs haven’t won any trophies lately, while Arsenal have won a couple. And yes, Wenger’s record of consistent Champions League qualification is the envy of anyone in a Spurs shirt. But at the end of the day, form and momentum matter too. Spurs showed naivety and immaturity in missing out on the title to Leicester last season and allowing Arsenal to pass them on the last day. This season, they’ve already hit a club record of points, are set to better the points total Leicester won the league with last year, and have buried any hopes their rivals had of catching them with 4 games still to play. While they probably won’t catch Chelsea after the results of this past weekend, the fact remains that Spurs are getting better with every passing season and Arsenal are getting worse. If that doesn’t constitute a power shift of some kind in London, I’m not sure what does.