The illness that won’t go away

Something is rotten in the state of Tottenham. Yesterday’s north London derby doing little to quell the feeling.

The rap sheet now reads even more harrowingly: more points dropped from winning positions in Premier League games against Arsenal than any other side has against another in the competition (40); only two league wins achieved away at Arsenal since the Premier League’s inception in 1993; the Gunners scoring at least once in each of their past 23 north London derbies at home.

Fans who had coaxed themselves into believing Arsenal were there for the taking yesterday hadn’t read the script. Even the normally-placid Gary Neville on co-commentary had been suckered into this dream state of rash thought, remarking at 4-2 that Mauricio Pochettino would be feeling “surprised” at how the game had panned out.

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Really, Gary? The same Mauricio Pochettino who has never won at the Emirates managing the same Spurs side burdened by a wretched record on their enemy’s home patch? Maybe Gary and those of a similar inkling still hold hope the boat will circumvent the iceberg when they re-watch Titanic.

So how do we dissect this loss and, beyond that, diagnose this lurking illness? It’s natural to conclude Arsenal players simply “get it” more than ours. In his piece for The Players' Tribune recently, Ian Wright revealed that after signing for Arsenal in 1991 he was kept up until 4am by David “Rocky” Rocastle lecturing him how important it was to win the north London derby.

Perhaps there’s something in that. Having moved from Woolwich to Highbury in 1913, the desire to prove themselves worthy of a place in north London is undoubtedly embedded into the very fabric of Arsenal. From this, the club no doubt impresses on new players how important it is beat Tottenham. You saw it yesterday from players hailing from Uruguay (Torreira), Gabon (Aubameyang) and Bosnia (Kolašinac). You see it still when their players have departed the club: Wilshere, Podolski, Szczęsny et al.

Yet it was another record Arsenal goal-scorer who pulled back the curtain further when analysing the derby. Speaking alongside Ledley King in 2017, Thierry Henry felt that no matter how good a run of form Tottenham were on prior to playing Arsenal, the Lilywhites always seems to “freeze” when they see the red shirts on the same pitch.

Was this a convoluted way of calling Spurs “bottlers” or a solid grasp on Tottenham’s derby woes? It’s difficult to dissuade against Henry’s way of thinking: a vastly-improved Spurs are no closer to beating Arsenal away from home now in the Premier League than they were with the likes of Taricco, Poyet and Sheringham (while back then at least the consolation was Arsenal had Adams, Viera, Henry and co).

Despite being vastly superior to Arsenal over the past two seasons, Tottenham still make the unusual point of firing blanks during derby days — especially at the Emirates. And even when they do emerge victorious, it’s never convincing; take last season’s 1-0 at Wembley as an example, a comprehensive pummelling could have ended 1-1 had Lacazette taken his chance in the dying moments. Yet when Arsenal are on-top in the derby — as they were yesterday afternoon — the scoreline reads three, four, or even five in their favour.

Contrary to popular opinion, yesterday’s loss wasn’t down to Pochettino’s reluctance to make substitutions, nor was it down to Juan Foyth’s ruinous display, Unai Emery’s “tactical masterclass” or even the notion of “desire”. To come to these deductions would be to misdiagnose the disease entirely.

Mirroring our woeful record in FA Cup semi-finals as well as our previous barren runs at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge, our derby distress is something that goes beyond players, managers, tactics and performances: it’s a problem deeply rooted inside the football club — and one that can’t be cured overnight.

It’s an issue with no immediate solution, which makes it an alarming concern for Pochettino and fans alike. Why haven’t the talents of Kane, Alli, Lloris, Vertonghen, Son and Eriksen ever tasted victory away at Arsenal? The answer, like bragging rights at the Emirates, continues to evade us.

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