Spurs fire back at their North London neighbors
By Daniel Rubens
It’s been 20 years since Tottenham Hotspur finished above Arsenal in the Premier League. Two decades. The fiercest rivalry in English football has been so one sided, Arsenal fans created a new holiday called “St. Totteringham’s Day” in 2002 to celebrate the day Spurs can no longer catch the Gunners in the table.
Since the “holiday” was created, Gooners (as Arsenal fans are often known) have enjoyed it every year. The gap in talent has been shrinking over the past few years, with two of the past three years going down to the final day as to which side would finish higher. But Arsenal prevailed both times before clinching with two games to spare last season.
In each of those two seasons the race came down to the final day, Spurs held a lead on Arsenal during the second half of the season before being caught by their tormentors in red. Fans on both sides have gotten used to seeing Spurs ahead of Arsenal in the winter months, and most expect the Gunners to find a way to sneak back ahead of Tottenham by the end of spring.
They could be in for a shock this year though, as Spurs are looking stronger and more unified than they have in a long time. The team that showed up on the pitch at White Hart Lane on Saturday for the North London Derby looked nothing like the Tottenham of the recent past. But the group that took down Arsenal 2-1 appears to be one capable of ending whatever voodoo has cursed the Lane for so long.
By far the biggest difference about this year’s Tottenham team is that you can’t count them out if they fall behind. In previous years, Spurs would wilt in many games when hit with a momentum-killing goal by an opposition. Last season when they hosted the North London Derby, Spurs gave up a second-minute rocket to Tomas Rosicky and barely threatened Arsenal’s goal after.
But this season, Spurs have won more points from losing positions than any other in the league (and 12 points in the final five minutes of games), and they found a way to pull it off again on Saturday. Mesut Ozil’s early goal against the run of play might have crushed past Spurs groups, but not this one. Tottenham ramped up the pressure, threatening David Ospina in Arsenal’s goal time and again over the first half and first 10 minutes of the second.
Then, Spurs got their well-deserved breakthrough, with Moussa Dembele redirecting a header on goal, which Ospina parried to an open Harry Kane at the back post. The 21-year-old local lad in flying form made no mistake, scoring his first derby goal and igniting a massive celebration as Spurs completely and permanently seized momentum.
The next half hour was an absolute frenzy, with Spurs constantly pressing, Arsenal occasionally counter-attacking, and both goalies sporadically coming up huge. Five minutes from time, Tottenham finally got their reward, as who else but Kane leapt above Laurent Koscielny to reach a fantastic cross from Nabil Bentaleb and sent a terrific header looping back over Ospina for the winner.
As Kane did his customary full lap around the Lane, he had tears in his eyes as the fans belted out his name. He personifies everything that is different about this new Spurs group: youth, hunger, energy and passion.
Kane was terrific as usual and deserves every piece of praise that comes his way. At 21, he’s strong, though not particularly fast. His best attributes are finishing, positioning, and desire, three traits which were on display on each of his goals. He’s positioned beautifully and finishes with pinpoint accuracy on the first, then shows off his heading with a fantastic jump and perfect contact on the second.
But he’s only part of the difference. This Spurs group has a newfound energy, which has been on display prominently in first-year head coach Mauricio Pochettino’s high-pressing system. Everyone in the side works to win it back when they lose it. Bentaleb and Ryan Mason — 20 and 23, respectively — swarm opposing players in the midfield, with players like Erik Lamela (22), Christian Eriksen (22), and Nacer Chadli (25) ready to bring it forward after the two holding mids win it back (not to mention track back and try to win it themselves).
This team is young, and Pochettino has them fully fit and able to run for 90 minutes. That’s why this team has been so successful late in games: Spurs press the ball the entire game, and they have energy to keep doing so and working hard late in games.
That has never been more evident than it was on Saturday. Every time Tottenham lost the ball, they worked hard to win it back. They kept fighting after falling behind, and ratcheted the pressure up after they tied the score. Arsenal simply were overwhelmed. Spurs were the better side, and not by a small margin.
At this point, Arsenal fans probably aren’t feeling much different than they usually do. Yes, their side is now trailing Spurs by one point, but this Arsenal and Tottenham, and Arsenal always finish above Spurs.
However, Spurs fans are feeling a bit different. There’s a bit more optimism around. This Tottenham team is young, academy-driven, and has a real passion for the club. What was supposed to be something of a transition year has turned into another top four battle. Yes, their side always finishes below Arsenal, but Tottenham fans have every reason to think that this year could be different. Their team is, their collective belief is, and, if the results keep trending up, maybe the trash talk in North London this summer will be different too.