Arsenal should be the neutrals’ choice – but watch those London derbies

FURTHER EVIDENCE of Arsenal’s Premier League title credentials was provided at Stamford Bridge last weekend, the Gunners’ 1-0 victory demonstrating the progress of Mikel Arteta’s side over the past year. It was a clear case of a virile tiger marking his territory – Arsenal are in a far better place than any other London club, but the problem will always be Manchester City. Arsenal cannot afford a slip-up and they’ve not even reached the halfway stage of the season, it is too early to truly assess how durable this team is.

Football watchers in England should be hoping that Arsenal can last the distance. It’s important that Manchester City are not allowed to run away with the title and with other would-be challengers either in transition or simply unable to match City’s financial clout, someone has to push them. It may as well be Arsenal.

Appreciation of an opponent is not encouraged in the modern game, we are all either friends or enemies, a reflection of the state of the world at the moment, where adversarial politics are making cooperation for the the greater good unachievable. Football is often a mirror image of society, but today it almost seems as though society is replicating the traditional myopic rivalries of the game!

It is unlikely supporters of Chelsea, Tottenham and West Ham would delight in another London club winning the Premier League. Certainly, the north London rivalry would make that an impossible sentiment north of the river. In 2022-23, there are seven London clubs in the Premier League, meaning each team has 12 derbies, over 31% of their 38 fixtures. Sometimes, you wonder if these games have as much relevance as they once did – very few players are actually from London among the various squads and the days of born and bred fans have gone. In times when people fell out of bed and into their local stadiums, clubs like West Ham and Tottenham really did represent their community, but in 2022, football followers are largely commuter fans.

There is still some satisfaction from beating your neighbours, but it doesn’t mean quite the same. The mythical act of bragging rights, which belonged to an age where everyone worked in the factory and teased and taunted each other, no longer dominates the Monday morning tea break. But then why would it? Tommy the Tottenham fan, elated from beating Arsenal, probably goes home to Stevenage or Hemel Hempstead after the game, sharing the journey with supporters from Chelsea, West Ham and Queens Park Rangers, among other clubs. It is interesting that the top clubs in England (the big six), have the lowest number of local season ticket holders. Part of this is due to the development of inner London and the creation of new towns after the second world war, which removed large portions of the population from intensely crowded neighbourhoods.

There was a time when we believed that too many London derbies were detrimental to the success of clubs, that the intensity of “cockney clashes” hampered their chances. This was largely nonsense and was an excuse for underachievement, although it has to be said that until Chelsea found wealth London’s record was unimpressive when it came to league titles – just 16 up to 2004, of which 13 were Arsenal’s.

London derbies 2022-23

4West Ham41126640
5Crystal Palace4112464-2

Aside from wartime leagues, there have been few opportunities for any club to claim they were London’s champions. West Ham, in their excellent Hammer programme of the 1960s and 1970s, always included an unofficial London championship, comprising the top division of the Football League.

Over the past 10 years, Chelsea have won this mini-league six times, but more importantly, they have been London’s top club in the Premier League on eight occasions. Invariably, the best London side by results among the capital clubs is also the top-placed in the overall league table. For the last four seasons, Chelsea have been top in both categories. Indeed, Chelsea enjoyed a 68% win rate in London derbies between 2018-19 and 2021-22.

Arsenal haven’t won the Premier since 2004 and in that time, they have mostly had to play second fiddle to Chelsea. They were last London’s top club in the Premier League in 2016 and they’ve not been “top ‘o London” since 2014. On the evidence of the 2022-23 season so far, the balance of power might be about to change as the Gunners have a 100% record in their five derbies so far and have beaten Chelsea and Tottenham. Chelsea enjoyed the top spot due to the stewardship – and generous wallet – of Roman Abramovich, but with the Russian gone and the club under new ownership, Arsenal have an opportunity to reassert their position in the capital. It will be an interesting sideshow in the remaining months of the campaign, but more crucially, can Arsenal maintain their form and take their title challenge into the post-World Cup period?

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