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Arsenal, Tottenham Wandering Into Parts Unknown

Coaching changes were supposed to take each of North London’s teams in new directions. Is it working?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The North London derby, usually one of the most anticipated occasions of the season, rolled around once more last weekend. It was—at times—an uncomfortable watch, with Arsenal and Tottenham playing for stakes far lower than in recent seasons. The biggest possible reward for a victory? One step closer to Europa League qualification. However, even that seems further out of reach after Manchester City’s Champions League ban was overturned on Monday. Arsenal and Tottenham are each navigating troubled times while trying to forge new identities under very different new coaches in Mikel Arteta and José Mourinho, respectively.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The bragging rights that should have followed Tottenham’s 2-1 win were noticeably absent this week. For Spurs, there was euphoria, of course. When you win a derby with a late winner, there always will be some form of collective euphoria, but it was small and fleeting. No fans were there to roar when Toby Alderweireld’s header won the game, or to fill the beautiful South Stand and celebrate along with the players. The first North London derby in Tottenham’s new stadium came without Champions League qualification on the line, neither rival in the other’s shadow, no gap to mind, no talks of a power shift, just eighth or ninth place in the Premier League standings at stake.

Once the smoke had cleared from the Twitter explosion of introspection and jubilation, all that remained were the shattered fragments of dreams both clubs had sold their fan bases. At the start of the season, Tottenham’s trajectory resembled Arsenal’s of a few years past: a state-of-the-art new stadium fueled grand ambitions, while also serving as a reminder of the enormous cost of competing with Europe’s commercial heavyweights. Spurs were coming off of a Champions League final loss, led by Mauricio Pochettino, tipped to be a long-term dynastic manager, who brought Spurs the promise of a sustained pursuit of silverware, a top-four Premier League finish, Champions League qualification, league titles, and dominance over its North London rival. But the reality was anything but; Pochettino was fired in November and Spurs have spent most of the season stranded from the top-four promised land and drifting further away.

Arsenal’s demise has been slower and steadier than Spurs’, following the realization that a model designed to turbocharge them into superclub territory was almost out of date by the time it was delivered. Arsenal’s project coincided with the arrival of new money via Chelsea and Manchester City, as the Premier League was becoming unfathomably richer. If someone had told you, in 2006, that 14 years later, Arsenal would finish behind Wolves, Sheffield United, and Leicester, with one of those sides having more Premier League titles to their name during that period, you would be forgiven for thinking they may not be a trustworthy source. That Manchester City would have multiple Premier League titles and become one of the world’s financial powerhouses may arguably have been even less believable.

Arsenal’s decline has been several years in the making; that Spurs’ dream took just months to die is even more heartbreaking. The club had the benefit of knowing all the things that those on the red half of North London did not when embarking on their move to a new stadium. They witnessed the shifting culture of soccer in England and Europe, benefited from the influx of television money, and were smart with it, selling well, signing well, and tailoring their plan accordingly. Spurs really did seem to have it all: one of the best coaches in the world in Pochettino, leading one of England’s most consistent sides into the most beautifully constructed new-era stadium in Europe. It became so normal for Spurs to finish above Arsenal and to secure Champions League qualification that even the most tribal of rival fans found it hard to resist cutting envious glances their way. Sure, there had been no trophies to show for their impressive, decade-long development, but Spurs were easily the North London club that seemed ready to consistently challenge at the very top.

Unlike Arsenal, Spurs did not need to commit to a model of selling key players each season to repay the stadium debt, and they were not moving to their new home after the most successful period in their history. When Arsenal moved from Highbury to the Emirates in 2006, they were three seasons removed from winning the Premier League unbeaten. They had Thierry Henry captaining a side that had been one of the best in Europe for multiple seasons. Arsenal had already achieved greatness by then, with Arsène Wenger already its most successful manager.

Spurs, on the other hand, were in a different era, on a different course, and yet to fully cement themselves as a dominant force in the Premier League. Pochettino had taken them to one of the greatest nights in the club’s history: a fairy-tale Champions League final that was completely unthinkable at the beginning of a season when no new signings arrived. Many threw the lack-of-silverware argument at the club and the Argentine, but it didn’t matter; Spurs had everything they needed.

Dismissing Pochettino blew a huge hole in the carefully cultivated Spurs identity, as well as its sense of unity. Pochettino’s five years at the club had continued to show progress. It was a perfect balance of manager and club growing together and navigating difficult circumstances, such as a lack of major signings and more than a season spent playing home games in a stadium that was not their own. Despite the difficult start to the season—Pochettino left Spurs 14th in the league—the dismissal was jarring and disorienting. Spurs chairman Daniel Levy replaced him with José Mourinho; Levy never hid his desire for the club to achieve the stature to attract a manager with Mourinho’s pedigree. These are not the Spurs of a decade ago, however, and neither is Mourinho the same manager as then. Tottenham has improved its position in the table by seven places, but Mourinho’s appointment remains a jarring and disorienting appointment, derby win or not.

A year after the heartbreak of losing 2-0 to Liverpool in the Champions League final in Madrid, it should be unthinkable to suggest that Arsenal have a brighter path forward than Tottenham. The post-Wenger era that was supposed to be a new dawn has had to get much darker before showing any glimpse of light. Right now, it may be at its darkest, but there’s at least some form of hope in Arteta, a former captain who retired while at the club and served an apprenticeship under Pep Guardiola. In six months in charge, Arteta has challenged the players and the club with an authority that Unai Emery did not possess, firing a warning just this week to the board about how critical a lack of transfer activity this summer could be.

Yet, even with muddled seasons and muddled identities and a muddled game, Sunday’s edition of the North London derby still contained some of the familiar magic. Alexandre Lacazette’s strike for the game’s first goal packed just as much punch as Tomás Rosicky’s did at White Hart Lane six years prior. Arsenal’s predictable failure to win a match they led condemned them to their fourth defeat in the last six league games away at wherever Spurs have called home. Much like your favorite film franchise, no matter how far it may stray from the original, there will always be fan service. But after a decade in which the stakes became so high and the outcome of the derby meant so much, eighth versus ninth will never send fans home happy, win, lose, or draw.