Four months ago, when Arsenal hosted Tottenham Hotspur in the league, a thrilling 4-2 win for the Gunners carried them into the fourth spot above their city rival. On Saturday, they will have a chance to cut the deficit to a single point. If a win for Arsenal does come to pass at the Wembley Stadium, Spurs will be pulled back from a title race to a battle for a Champions League spot within the space of a week.
But, perhaps, the home fans need not be worried. As Pochettino claimed in the press after the defeat to Burnley last week, it is not the marquee contests which cause problems for his team. “I am only so surprised that we cannot build the feeling that the game is going to be the most important game. Is that what is holding us back? Yes, exactly. My worry is what happened (against Watford and Burnley) and to change that is not only five years’ work, maybe it is 10 years’ work to change that thing that happened here.
If the manager’s words were supposed to swing back his players to life, it was not a successful ploy. Instead, earlier this week, Spurs succumbed to another defeat at Chelsea. The pedigree of the opposition may lead some to believe it was not that bad a result, but the abject manner of Tottenham’s capitulation would not have gone unnoticed. Indeed, this project will take time.
So, in a season where Spurs have made a mockery of gloomy predictions, now lies a danger of not fulfilling the unexpected promises. The league title was expected to be beyond Pochettino’s men but a smooth finish in the top four was a reasonable ask. A five-point advantage over Manchester United in fifth is still comfortable, but another defeat will set the alarm bells shrieking.
Spurs fans, though, will not be fazed so easy. A slump by their team seems like a bimonthly preoccupation. In early January, back-to-back cup exits had fueled fears of a sharp slide, but they were unfounded, like many times before. The life of a Spurs fan, however, is defined by a commitment to insecurity, of constantly wondering whether they are good enough for the life Pochettino has made for them. Reality feels like a chimeric drama.
Fortunately for them, Pochettino has always managed to pull the team away from the brink. Many thought Tottenham may suffer like an Arsenal-esque slide this season due to the pressures brought on by the still to be renovated White Hart Lane. But Spurs lie afloat.
The palpable tension at the moment might be recognised on the red side of North London. But unlike Pochettino’s Spurs, Arsenal is a club that often feels overawed when facing major opposition. Under Unai Emery, the team’s relationship with consistency has been slightly repaired but there is still work to do. It has been more than four years since the Gunners won away against any of the ‘Big Six’ league teams; their last victory on the road against Spurs in the Premier League was in March 2014.
Despite the abysmal numbers, Emery has managed to keep Arsenal in the conversation for a top-four spot. In the current state, both the North London giants cannot aim higher. And a lower finish than fourth will be seen as nothing but a crushing disappointment. For clubs with relatively unlimited resources, Arsenal and Spurs have limited horizons.
In this case, local supremacy assumes even greater importance. When city rivals inhabit different realities, the rivalry loses some of its authenticity. But when the goals are the same, the incentive for one-upmanship multiplies exponentially. It is in these terms that we can cast the latest meeting of the North London rivals.
However, for global behemoths, even a victory on Saturday will arrive with a tinge of regret. For Premier League sides, the horizons seem to be forever expanding. The playthings of the rich keep finding newer shores to display their wares. But the cost of this global attention is undying scrutiny. Managers like Emery and Pochettino know that their departure may not be decided by actual failure, but by a fall from an exalted state which is surely impossible to sustain.
Spurs, obviously, are spared somewhat due to their relatively small historical pedigree and the imperilled financial status currently. In light of recent failure, Pochettino may relish the next stage of this challenge since it would be a waste to bring his team this far and not realise its true potential. The Champions League run may have already whetted his appetite. But a defeat against Arsenal will ensure the doubts will buzz in his ear too.
As for the Gunners, Emery’s reconstruction goes on. The lack of resources mean that it is unlikely a tectonic shift is about to take place in North London. But the Arsenal manager can hope his team will muster enough points to be a Champions League club again. An uncharacteristic win on the road against a serious rival, not to mention a neighbouring adversary, will feed his and the Gunners’ hopes well.