In North London, Spurs’ victory rings hollow

Toby Alderweireld (right) scored the winning goal for Tottenham against Arsenal on Sunday. But what is either club really playing for? (Photo by TIM GOODE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Toby Alderweireld (right) scored the winning goal for Tottenham against Arsenal on Sunday. But what is either club really playing for? (Photo by TIM GOODE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The 200th North London Derby was, amazingly, an edition of the old rivalry between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur that produced several firsts. It was the first time both teams were managed by men experiencing their first of these derbies. It was the first time Arsenal visited Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. 

But it was notable for another reason as well. For the first time in as long as just about anybody can remember, it was a game largely irrelevant to how the Premier League will shake out this season. Following Spurs’ late 2-1 victory, Arsenal’s first defeat in five games dropped it to ninth place while Tottenham leapt into eighth.

Yet neither team is a factor in the Champions League places — Manchester United sits three and four places above them in the table, respectively. With three games left to play, United’s 58 points are likely out of reach of the Tottenham’s 52 points and the Gunners’ 50. United has a game in hand and is in scintillating form. Besides, if Manchester City’s two-season European ban is overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport on Monday, even that fifth place won’t suffice. 

In fact, Wolverhampton’s sixth place and Sheffield United’s seventh spot might prove out of reach for the two North London clubs as well, given their tricky closing schedules. That means that all these teams are likely competing for is eighth place and a ticket into the Europa League qualifiers. It could just as well be that neither of these teams plays in Europe next season.

It’s a hell of a collapse from Spurs’ miraculous run to the Champions League final last season. And it’s a new low in Arsenal’s tortuous downward spiral. In that sense, one of those firsts is instructive. Unai Emery, a practical hire to succeed the legendary Arsene Wenger, was getting nowhere fast in rebooting a team with slipping standards and was replaced by Freddie Ljungberg in November and then the promising Mikel Arteta in December. Spurs’ implosion was so total that Mauricio Pochettino was, unimaginably, fired in November and replaced by the ultimate pragmatist, Jose Mourinho.

Under Arteta, the Gunners went from 10th, to 12th, to seventh and now ninth place. Under Mourinho, Spurs went from 14th to fifth, back down to 10th and now up to eighth. Then again, Arteta got his side’s attack ticking again, while Mourinho made an underperforming team utterly unwatchable. This was only the second time in six matches since the restart that Spurs managed to score multiple goals.

Still, they produced a broadly entertaining match on Sunday. Both sides took an eager approach with chances flying back and forth. Granted, that was also a function of some mutually dire defending, but that won’t have upset the neutrals much. It felt like neither team had a whole lot to lose but bragging rights, and that even those were diluted by the continued absence of fans due to the coronavirus

The first two goals were sumptuous and came in quick succession. In the 16th minute, Serge Aurier, the beleaguered Spurs right back, won the ball outside his own box and then quickly lost it with a signature heavy touch. Alex Lacazette, abetted by Granit Xhaka, loped to the box with the loose ball and lashed it into the near upper-90. 

Just two minutes later, Son Heung-min intercepted a shoddy pass from Sead Kolasinac to his fellow defender David Luiz, who was wrong-footed. The South Korean ran at goal and chipped goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez expertly to equalize.

Thereafter, both teams struck the crossbar so hard that it might have chipped some paint. At the half-hour mark, Tottenham’s Ben Davies hit an old-fashioned thunderbastard that the excellent Martinez, standing in for the injured Bernd Leno, only just tipped off his crossbar. And at the hour, Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang dispatched a missile off the same framework after the teams had switched sides.

Slowly, Arsenal’s defense came undone. For a time, Martinez managed to preserve a point for his side with key saves on Son and Harry Kane. But in the 81st minute, Toby Alderweireld rose highest on a corner kick and nodded it out of the Argentine’s reach for the winner.

With his backline fully unraveled now, Martinez was pressed into service twice more, parrying Kane and Son, who both opted to shoot when they had teammates open in better position — a selfishness that is perhaps a mark of the scoring malaise at Spurs.

Yet Spurs protected their undefeated league home record against Arsenal for a sixth year. The celebrations were muted though. There was no great bursting of tension, or an overt display of tribalism in front of relieved home fans.

In the end, it just didn’t feel like it mattered very much.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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