Tottenham are in crisis, if only they realised it

A VERY TEPID Champions League exit, coming shortly after a FA Cup defeat at the hands of Championship side Sheffield United, a big money signing hitting-out at his lack of game time and a manager who hints that he’s leaving at the end of the season. The morning after losing to AC Milan 1-0 on aggregate, Tottenham have a few issues to deal with. If they win a trophy next season, the barren period would have been 16 years long.

Spurs remain one of football’s great underachievers; 16 major trophies, just two league titles and the last FA Cup won more 33 years ago. They’re won three European prizes, but the last of those was almost 40 years ago. In the Premier League era, Spurs have lifted just two, and they were both the Football League Cup. The last time Tottenham’s fans experienced such a dry period was between 1921 and 1951 and if you factor in the lost war years, it was a 23-season wait.

There is talk of Antonio Conte leaving, either via the chairman’s black cab or his own choice and Mauricio Pochettino returning to the club. Since the popular Argentinian left in 2019-20, some fans have longed for his return as if it was a utopian era. Pochettino had a decent and exciting team that helped England build Gareth Southgate’s nearly men, but he did not win a solitary bauble. His teams were attractive and competed but the Champions League final of 2019 represented the peak and since then, Spurs and Pochettino have looked a little lost. But is it wise to go back?

Second spells are rarely as interesting or as successful. José Mourinho, Malcolm Allison, Hellenio Herrera, Terry Venables, Howard Kendall, Kenny Dalglish and Carlo Ancelotti have all returned to clubs where they enjoyed considerable success in their first stint. It is very seldom the same experience, for a number of reasons.

Antonio Conte was always going to be a short-term hiring, because that’s the way he works. Like Mourinho, there’s a short cycle that ends when he decides the job no longer fits his requirements – at least that’s what it looks like from the observation platform. We live in a football world where players and coaches decide their own future and announce they are leaving, even if they are in contract. Conte is out of contract in the summer, so Tottenham are unlikely to offer him a new deal when his track record suggests he won’t be hanging around for much longer. It is almost inevitable that Conte and Tottenham will be parting company very soon. He seems to be sending signals to potential employers and he has, after all, had a rough time recently.

Where does this leave Spurs? Even without a lengthy contemporary honours list, the job is still one of the top assignments in European football. They have a spectacular stadium that is packed with 60,000 fans, they have stability, they still have some good players and they also have something of a blank canvas to offer – any form of trophy will be seen as success. 

Spurs need Champions League football to consolidate their position and to drive revenue generation, so the remaining weeks of the season are going to be vital. Conte and Mourinho were never going to work at Tottenham even if they possessed two of the strongest managerial brands in world football. If there is a football entity that still hangs on to the myth of a “club style”, it is Spurs. But they should have known how managers like Conte operate, his risk-averse approach is well known and it is what has made him successful. He was never going to change that. The same applies to Mourinho, and Nuno Espirito Santo, the other coaches since Pochettino left the club.

However painful it may be, it may also be the time to acknowledge that the Kane-Son years are coming to an end. Kane elected to stay at the club but two years on, he’s still without a medal and he’s approaching 30. He has netted 20 goals this season, but how much longer can he keep the current rather limited team afloat? Son, who is slightly older than Kane, is not the player he was. Most importantly, can they keep Kane, who the fans continually refer to as “one of our own”, as the club examines why they have failed yet again?

North London clash is still the capital’s biggest derby

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR play host to Arsenal on January 16, a clash of two teams still trying to find their most comfortable place in the third decade of the 21st century. Both made hard work of their FA Cup third round ties, Spurs sneaking through against Morecambe by 3-1, but Arsenal were knocked out by Championship side Nottingham Forest. For Arsenal, it means their last chance of silverware will be the Carabao Cup, but for Spurs, the FA Cup may be their sole hope of a major prize if they fail to turnaround their semi-final against Chelsea in the same competition.

Spurs versus Arsenal is, arguably, the top London derby. It’s not the closest meeting as Chelsea and Fulham are just 1.6 miles apart and West Ham and Leyton Orient, who are unlikely to meet in league competition, have 1.7 miles between them. Tottenham’s new stadium is 4.1 miles from the only marginally less impressive Emirates. But there’s real venom in clashes between the two North London teams, regardless of how they are faring.

At the moment, both teams are performing reasonably well, probably better than envisaged last summer. Arsenal, after a grim first couple of weeks, found some rhythm and seem to have some talented young players – Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka, for example – who could form the backbone of the Gunners’ team for a few years to come. Being absent from European competition may have helped them, but they certainly look better than they have for a while. 

Trophy haul of the North London duo

LeagueFA CupFL CupEurope

Nevertheless, it should be noted that for all Arsenal’s progress, they still struggle to beat any of the top teams such as Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United. Of their six defeats, five have been at the hands of these teams, the only other defeat was at Brentford on the opening weekend of 2021-22. They did beat Spurs 3-1 at the Emirates.

Tottenham, meanwhile, are beginning a new era under Antonio Conte. Spurs have not been beaten in the league under the Italian, but five of his eight games have been at home. Like Arsenal, their record against the top clubs is patchy, although they did score a victory against Manchester City in the season’s first round of matches.

Spurs went into the season under Nuno Espirito Santo, who they hired from Wolves. The appointment didn’t work, unfortunately. They also endured a summer in which their star striker, Harry Kane, was being courted by Manchester City. Kane was persuaded to stay, but Spurs may now regret hanging onto him as the optimal time to sell might have been before 2021-22. Kane has had a mixed campaign and has scored just four Premier League goals. There are now renewed rumours about Kane’s future and it won’t be a surprise if he leaves Tottenham in the summer. They might not get the fee they could have commanded in July 2021.

Kane is considered to be “one of us” by the Spurs loyalists and he’s as close as the club comes to having a local lad in their line-up. Kane is from Walthamstow, which is closer to the Tottenham stadium than Arsenal’s ground. Spurs’ current first choice XI includes players from France, Brazil, South Korea, Denmark, Wales, Argentina and Welwyn Garden City. While some might claim this is a symptom of the modern game’s globalisation, it is often forgotten that the Tottenham double winners of 1961 included only three players who came from London. Similarly, Arsenal’s double side of 1971 only had Charlie George who could be considered “local”. And way back in time, the Preston North End league champions and cup winners had two Preston-born men in their line-up, along with a third from nearby Fulwood.

These examples go someway to diffusing the argument that the current model of elite football has driven any feeling of genuine local rivalry out of the game. Can teams comprising hired guns from all corners of the globe feel the same way as home-grown players who live within a goal-kick’s distance from the stadium?

Recent past meetings

2021-22   31
2020-2120 21
2019-2021 22
2018-1911 42
2017-1810 20
2016-1720 11

What makes local derbies special is not necessarily the players, it is the fans. It matters to them to beat their local rivals and at grounds like the Emirates, songs like “stand up if you hate Tottenham”, seem to be more important than ever before. It does seem to define the fans love for their own club as much as their “hatred” of the opposition.

The fact is, Arsenal need Tottenham more than they will ever care to admit, and vice versa. Local rivalry is a cause for motivation, it keeps clubs “on their toes” and acts as a form of competition outside the normal terms of engagement.  Would Tottenham have built such a statement arena if Arsenal had not constructed the Emirates? Is it not a case of keeping up with the Jones’?

Fans rarely forgive players who defect from one side of North London to the other. Sol Campbell’s transfer is a case in point, Spurs fans will now spit on the floor at the mere mention of his name. Only seven others have played for both clubs, including legendary goalkeeper Pat Jennings, William Gallas (also Chelsea) and Emmanuel Adebayor.

For the past five seasons, Tottenham have finished above Arsenal, but since the Premier League was formed, Arsenal have been on top in 22 years to Spurs’ seven. Chelsea, whose rise pushed Arsenal off their London leadership perch, have finished ahead of both clubs 14 times, including the past three years.

Tottenham have won both league meetings with Arsenal at their stadium, but they have an awful record at the Emirates. There’s plenty at stake in the 2021-22 clash as places are still up for grabs in the race for a Champions League spot. Arsenal are currently in fourth position, four places above Tottenham. One thing is certain, whatever the outcome, the game will be dissected afterwards and the outlook for both sides will be closely examined. Both desperately need a good result, so there will be shortage of passion and that’s why Tottenham versus Arsenal is an attraction for the neutral.