LONDON – The challenge facing Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur these days is the same – restoring their former glory – but Sunday’s massive 3-1 win for Arsenal suggests only one of these long-time rivals knows how they want to do it. In late September it is too early to make a final assessment of the limits of any team’s aspirations, but the way this one-sided confrontation has characterized has created a clear sense that Arsenal are looking to the future while Tottenham continue to cling to the past.
The Gunners’ £140m summer spending spree included six under-23 signings. Four of them started on Sunday in a team whose average age was over 24, a profile further enhanced by the inclusion of two top local talents – Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka – who scored and exemplified the club’s spirit and endeavour throughout.
They started with a goal that Spurs are completely lacking. Tottenham’s situation was exacerbated by a strange game plan in which they apparently tried to beat Arsenal without playing in midfield. Tanguy Ndombele and Dele Alli left the central district more often than not, leaving Pierre-Emile Hogberg completely overwhelmed as homeowners swarmed everywhere.
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Spurs found semblance of form in the second half, but the match had long since ended as a rivalry at that point, with Smith Rowe, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Saka taking Arsenal’s three-goal lead within 34 minutes – and it was as close as possible for both teams. Ever scored so many in the North London Derby. Son Heung-min made a consolation in the 79th minute to bring in little respect for the result during the half as substitutes Oliver Skipp and later Emerson gave them little momentum, but don’t be fooled: Spurs were almost completely absent during the match. Game periods that were really important.
Harry Kane finally appeared. Even as his shadow was his best, it was still an improvement over what came before, testing Aaron Ramsdale with a low shot from outside the box before hoisting another off-the-goal attempt after a superb first touch. However, his wait to score a Premier League goal continues this season.
The sight of Kane applauding an almost completely empty Spurs finish full-time sums up the current malaise: a player who doesn’t want to be at the club trying to admit to fans who have already left disappointed with the team’s approach. Kane was denied the summer move to Manchester City he wanted, but if his body is still there, it seems his mind is elsewhere.
It remains one of the most pressing issues that Nuno Espirito Santo has to address. Chairman Daniel Levy claimed in May that Tottenham would appoint a coach to replace Jose Mourinho who “will be back to playing football the way we’re known – free-flowing, attacking and entertaining”.
The confusion that followed – chasing several candidates to an advanced stage, including Hansi Flick, Eric ten Hag, Antonio Conte and Paolo Fonseca, to name a few, there was more – before settling on Nuno, he took to the field. Spurs simply don’t know what kind of team they are trying to be, caught between Mauricio Pochettino’s project and Mourinho’s pragmatism.
“A lot of things went wrong, starting with the decisions I made,” Nonoo said frankly. “The game plan didn’t work because we didn’t decide it well.”
The intrigues of boards aren’t always directly reflected in the results – the presence of Spotify owner Daniel Eck alongside Arsenal legend Thierry Henry at the Emirates Stadium was a reminder of the change of ownership that many attendees still would like to see despite Kroenke Sports & Entertainment (KSE) Summer spending – but the relationship at Spurs is clear.
The KSE maintained its confidence in Mikel Arteta after a dismal start because they believed in the Spaniard’s vision for the future. There are no guarantees this buoyancy will continue — confidence is more fickle in these parts than most — but Arteta can now signal a tangible return to validate his talk of “process” and “transition,” management buzzwords that could feel hollow without the offers to back them up. .
Arsenal won the FA Cup in 2020 under him, but this was achieved with a defensive setup based on safety first, designed to contain and face the best teams, specifically Manchester City and then Chelsea in the semi-finals and final. This victory over Spurs was just the opposite, beating their arch rivals with an irresistible combination of quality and control to raucous joy from the red-clad fans.
“When you’re trying to rebuild and trying to do the right things, you have to stick to your values,” Arteta told BBC Sport. “Now we are establishing contact with our supporters.”
However, there is a caveat from history. Arsenal beat Tottenham in March but won only once out of five, ending their hopes of qualifying for the European competition. Two years ago, they came back from 2-0 down to draw with Tottenham in September only to win four of the next 22 in a round that cost Unai Emery his job as coach.
Arsenal meet Brighton, Hove Albion and Crystal Palace on either side of the international break next month, before a home game against Aston Villa and a trip to Leicester City. It is a race that is not without risks but provides a path to further progress.
Tottenham have a Europa League conference to complicate matches against FIA, Newcastle United, West Ham United and Manchester United during the same period, and Nuno is already in a race against time to determine an identity for this team. He’s only managed Spurs in 10 competitive games and they finished an equally agonizing day with Arsenal even after 90 minutes of disciplinary action, but the pressure appears to have already started.
Neither of these sides were where they wanted to be at the moment, but only one side seemed ready to climb now.