For Tottenham Hotspur it was a bittersweet day. Yet they have waited so long for this kind of one-upmanship against Arsenal, the team they always measure themselves against, it would be impolite to start with the negatives when, finally, they can remind themselves what it will feel like to conclude the season looking down on the old enemy.
It has been 22 years since the last occasion and, to put that into context, the scorer of their first goal, Dele Alli, had not even been born during that troubled season, 1994-95, for Arsenal when George Graham was sacked and Stewart Houston’s side came in 12th, five places below the team from White Hart Lane. Spurs have now won nine games in a row and, in the process, they have moved 17 points ahead of a side that have only five more matches to go. This season, there will be no St Totteringham’s Day. The schadenfreude belongs the other way round now and, though it has felt inevitable for some time, there is a neat symmetry for those jubilant Spurs fans that Arsenal happened to be the opponents on the day it was confirmed.
Against all that, the downside came in the form of what had happened earlier in the day and the message Chelsea obstinately delivered in their 3-0 victory at Everton, the game most observers reckoned might be the toughest assignment of their run-in. Spurs played like a team who still believe they can catch and overhaul the side at the top of the table and another win at West Ham United on Friday would close the gap to a solitary point. Yet Chelsea, once again, looked formidable opponents and it might not have been a coincidence that Mauricio Pochettino’s side took a while to get going, having started their latest victory shortly after learning the news from Goodison.
Once they shook their heads clear, however, they were so dominant during the second half that, in the far corner, Arsenal’s fans could be seen heading away in droves long before the final whistle. Once again, their team had come up short and another set of crowing supporters could be heard chanting “we want you to stay” in Wenger’s direction. The Frenchman will almost certainly grant them their wish at a time when many of his own club’s supporters are campaigning for precisely the opposite. These are the kind of occasions that will harden opinion against him – a fifth defeat in their last six league fixtures away from the Emirates Stadium, with 15 goals conceded – and the Arsenal manager must have been pained by his team’s inadequacies.
It could conceivably have been even worse if the referee, Michael Oliver, had not given Alexis Sánchez the benefit of the doubt after a handball in the penalty area during the period of second-half pressure when the home side repeatedly threatened Petr Cech’s goal and Wenger’s players seemed to be in the grip of a collective meltdown.
By that stage Harry Kane had already scored one penalty, courtesy of Gabriel’s naive trip on the striker, and there were the telltale signs that Arsenal had reverted to all their bad habits: flimsy at the back, short of leadership and not enough players taking responsibility. For Alli’s goal, there were half a dozen players in red and white shirts in proximity inside the penalty area. Not one made a challenge as Christian Eriksen weaved past Nacho Monreal and Laurent Koscielny to create the first shooting opportunity. The rebound fell to Alli and, again, the inaction of his opponents would have been staggering if this was not such a repetitive failure of Wenger’s sides in the modern era.
To begin with, Arsenal had looked reasonably competent, quick to the ball and hustling their opponents, with their front players under instructions not to allow Spurs to play out from the back. It was a clever ploy, forcing the home side into mistakes, but Spurs would still have been entitled to reach half-time believing they should have been in front. Eriksen had skimmed the crossbar with the best opportunity of the opening 45 minutes. Alli had headed another decent chance wide and Jan Vertonghen, letting fly with a diagonal shot from 20 yards, forced a fine save from Cech, one of the few Arsenal players to emerge with any credit.
It was not until the second half, though, that Spurs started to play with the authority that comes from having not lost a league fixture on their own ground all season. At 2-0, Vertonghen tried his luck again and Cech clawed away a curling shot that was heading towards the top corner. Spurs attacked with great purpose, accumulating 20 shots throughout the game, and there was never any genuine sense their opponents would save themselves after that three-minute spell when both goals were scored. It was only the second time Arsenal have failed to score on the last 37 occasions these sides have met in the league and, as has become the norm, Sánchez and Mesut Özil quickly faded once the game started to drift away from them.
Spurs have now won 77 points, seven more than they managed last season, with four games still to play and, as Pochettino pointed out, their ambitions are not restricted to finishing above Arsenal. His is a team that should be looking up, not down. The only problem is Chelsea – and the refusal of the league leaders to show any real vulnerability.TG