Derby Days Are Back
By: Cody Gehlhausen (@SquidsPicks)
Honestly, my two favorite days of the year are when the North London Derby rolls around. It’s early morning; I’m belly up to the bar, already a few beers deep. My ritual for the match – a shot of Jameson pre-match, halftime, and each Arsenal goal scored. Some days I depart in much better shape than others. Looking around the pub, half is filled with Navy Blue, the other Red, and White. Each goal scored fills the air with a bit of tension, dagger eyes from the lad in the Alli kit across the way as Aubameyang flips through the air. “Fuck off” bounces of the walls as Kane runs toward the corner flag. I savor all ninety-plus minutes. Sunday morning derby football returns to North London.
Arsenal and Tottenham seem to be heading in opposite directions at the moment. While Arsenal still has their issues, they seem to have found light in the darkness with Mikel Arteta holding the flame. Operation Youth has been a massive success this season for The Gunners as they are picking up points at a more rapid pace led by the revelation of Bukayo Saka. The eighteen-year-old has eleven assists and four goals this season and is a key cog in the Arsenal machine. He’s a jack of all trades playing at fullback, #8 midfielder, attacking midfielder, left-wing, and right-wing. Anywhere he is placed, he is rarely caught out positionally, and the Gunners find a way to work the ball through him.
It’s exceptional what Arteta has managed to pull out of other players in the squad, front to back. Shkodran Mustafi was the perennial whipping boy for all Arsenal fans. The German center half didn’t have anyone in his corner until Arteta took over in late December. The Spanish skipper made it known that all players would have a blank slate to work with. The starting eleven and bench would be based on merit and merit alone. Some took advantage, and others didn’t (Ozil). Mustafi was one of the fortunate members of the team that grabbed this chance by the horns. He is notorious for working hard on the training ground, that was never a doubt, and a few injuries in the squad granted him playing time quickly. What Mustafi had issues with, in my opinion, was a lack of coaching and a clear tactical objective while he is on the pitch.
When in a one on one situation, running back to goal, he would often go to ground as a first option defensively. He now stands his ground, positionally working the ball away from the ball carrier or holding the attacking player up until he receives some cover. Ability is not the issue when it comes to Mustafi; he’s always had it. His problem is the six inches between his head, which looks to be worked out since Arteta’s arrival. Sure, he is still suitable for a mistake or blunder, but he recovers from them exceptionally well and at a minimal cost. Since Arteta took over, he has relied on Mustafi in most of Arsenal’s matches. Faith from the manager has paid off dividends as Mustafi has been involved in five clean sheets since February.
Players around the squad have completely bought into what Arteta has been preaching. You see this in the water breaks that have been installed since the return. Players huddle around focused intently. Body language is up, smiles across the training ground have once again come to light. Arteta came into Arsenal to first and foremost restructure the mindset around the club. His last match as an assistant with Manchester City was against Arsenal, where City cruised to a 3-0 victory at the Emirates. Arteta commented on the attitude and objective defeat on the Arsenal players’ faces even as the match was in progress. He knew there were deeply seeded changes that needed to be made. The manager is following through with this philosophy as he had outright shunned highest-paid player Mesut Ozil who has a history of a lackadaisical approach to training, as well as highly rated prospect Matteo Guendouzi.
The young Frenchman had logged more minutes than any other player for Arsenal under former boss Unai Emery and now finds himself training alone at London Colney, Arsenal’s training ground. Matteo came from the newly promoted Ligue 1 club Lorient where he found himself in the same situation he is in now. Lorient legend Mickael Landreau, who managed at the time, expelled Guendouzi from the first team for three months due to a similar falling out between the two. Arteta spoke with Guendouzi after the Brighton match, one where he mocked Brighton players about wages in a match Arsenal lost and told him to apologize for his actions open to the team. There was a falling out, Matteo refused, and now he is on the fringes of the squad. Famously Arteta spoke to the media about these situations and stated, “If they want on the boat, they are more than welcome, and that’s always my mindset.” To me, that is a statement of intent, a line in the sand if you will. Arteta’s mindset has been key to their current run of form, winning four of their last five matches. Arsenal fans who are typically a moaning bunch that will wade through a river of shit to find something to moan about, find it hard to be cynical these days. Sure, there are issues in the squad, players that are not up to standard to compete, but that’s for another day. Building blocks are in place, and the future looks bright for now at the Emirates.
In Madrid just over one year ago, Mauricio Pochettino led his Tottenham Hotspur side out of the tunnel in the only ever Champions League Final in the club’s history. Of course, they lost the final to fellow English side Liverpool, but it was the best season Tottenham had produced in decades. Spurs were on the up and up and further boosted their squad in the following summer splashing over £110,000,000 on the likes of Lo Celso, Sessegnon, & Ndombele. Ask any Tottenham fan where they thought they would finish the season, and exactly zero of them would have told you any place below sixth. Currently, Spurs sit ninth after a disastrous display against Bournemouth, where they failed to register a shot on target against the doormat of the Premier League. Where and how did it all go wrong?
Pochettino, at the end of the 2019 season, was the hottest name on the market. He had taken a Premier League side that languished between fifth to eighth in the table to a team that was a force to be reckoned with. Poch’s Tottenham sides could compete with any team in the continent on their given day. He molded a powerful quartet of players in Eriksen, Alli, Kane, and Son into a lethal display of offensive prowess. How do you prepare for a team defensively when any one of these four can take matters into their own hands and beat you single-handedly on any given day? You can’t, and Pochettino knew that. His plan was simple: turn the ball over in the middle of the pitch, find Eriksen, and the rest bomb forward. I mean, this is a team that had not scored below sixty-seven goals in a single season since 2015. Once they paired together with the Belgian Brick Wall in Vertonghen and Alderweireld, Tottenham was nearly a complete team as it gets. But after that final in early June, things started to unravel.
Tottenham limped out of the gate in the 2019/2020 Premier League campaign and never really found their footing. Talisman and the embodiment of Tottenham, Cristian Eriksen, publicly admitted he wanted out of the club. Harry Kane had been run into the ground between his international duties to England and Tottenham’s deep run in Europe. As much as I dislike Harry Kane, it is a shame that Chairman of Tottenham, Daniel Levy, never backed Pochettino and Kane with a suitable backup to their star forward. When he wasn’t available, Spurs would have to convert winger Lucas to the central position or move Eriksen to a false nine role. They greatly missed him when he was out of the lineup. Therefore they overworked him and often rushed him back from injury. I think this season shows it more than ever as Harry has lacked sharpness and generally looks unfit at times on the pitch.
Everything came to an end for Pochettino as his final ten matches saw him acquire just ten points out of thirty. As controversial as this may be, I thought Tottenham should have weathered the storm with Mauricio at the helm. The players really let him down. Maybe it was again due to the number of fixtures they had played over the last calendar year? It is well-known Spurs had an extremely thin squad and would roll out the same eleven nearly every match foreign and domestic alike. Also, new transfers in Sessegnon and Lo Celso were not fit and essentially missed the entirety of the first half of the season. Their once prolific backline was aging and not the wall it once was. Hugo Lloris dislocated his elbow in a gruesome injury at Brighton. The cards were stacked against Pochettino, and he paid the price and got the sack.
With Poch gone, the market for good managers was not exactly ripe for the picking. The only real big-name managers that were without a job were Massimo Allegri and Jose Mourinho. Mourinho checked the most boxes. No need to rehash Mourinho’s accomplishments, he has Premier League pedigree. He was a manager that could walk into a side with talent, reshape them, and give you a reliable product. Hell, when I saw that Spurs hired him, I was terrified. My vision was that Jose would board up the defense and rework out the Spurs counterattack, which had made them so dangerous.
What Spurs got was more of the same, results-wise, as the previous manager. Is the defense a bit better than Pochettino’s? Sure, they have allowed fewer goals, but my god are they a disaster going forward. A team that was once as exciting as Liverpool and Manchester City are now playing football reminiscent of Tony Pulis and Neil Warnock. Harry Kane is sitting on the half-line for most of the match. If he played any deeper, he would fall off the pitch. Kane is a world-class forward who cannot get the football at his feet near or in the opponent’s box. Son is no longer making his runs through the lines to beat the defense. It has turned into a hoof it forward and hopes it falls into someone’s feet. The poor midfielders have no outlet to get ahead because Tottenham is playing such a low block and sitting in deep.
His world-renown lack of man-management has also found its way into North London. Record signing Ndombele has been essentially frozen out of the starting eleven. He is a box to box midfielder, and I would wager if he got the time he needed, he would be one of the best midfielders in this league. Frustrations are mounting among Tottenham supporters and rightfully so. They have seen this club fall off a cliff not just in results but in play style as well. Is Mourinho’s seat getting warm? No. They overpaid for the Portuguese skipper and literally can’t afford to sack him and pay both his and Pochettino’s wages.
Lastly, with no Champions League to be had at the end of their campaign and Corona Virus hampering everyone’s finances, how can Tottenham afford to bring in new players to their side? A brand-new stadium was unveiled this year, and that should handcuff Spurs financially, especially without the Champions League. Arsenal went through financial pains after we moved on from Highbury. The Gunners were financially throttled for years under Arsene Wenger because of the new stadium even with consistent Champions League money. It’s going to be difficult for Tottenham to maneuver their way out of their current financial situation without selling off one of their star players.
Two clubs that seem to be headed in opposite directions, bitter rivals, come head to head again. Football is a fickle game, and things can change on the drop of a hat. One constant that remains is me on that old wooden barstool, shot of Jameson at the ready with a Mille Lite opposite. Form thrown to the wind, cards in abundance, the North London Derby is back.