Derbies might well be contested across geographical lines, but increasingly their energy is drawn from their participants rather than their locality. That’s an unavoidable truth. As football becomes more global, so the relevance of community roots diminishes. Families may still be divided and school playgrounds may still settle into red and blue, red and white, but the teams attached to those colours have never had less to do with their original history.
Socially that’s irrelevant. Whomever you support, those games will always stand above all others and that will remain true for as long as the sport exists. But the reasons for that have changed: victory in a derby is no longer a political strike or statement, only very occasionally is it truly religious, and winning or losing now chimes with more basic instincts, like the right to point and laugh or the gathering of some worthless social media capital.
So now, these games draw their energy from the circumstances in which they occur: from the league table and the season’s objectives, and from the players involved and the managers who prowl the technical areas.
That puts this Sunday’s North London derby in a strange position. For the first time in 22 years, Arsenal and Tottenham will play each other without Arsene Wenger being involved. From a technical perspective, that’s rather incidental. All it means, really, is that Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs will be faced with a different set of tactical obstacles and the journalists in attendance will hear their questions answered in a Spanish rather than French accent. If football were truly two-dimensional, it would be an inconsequential difference.
But it’s not. With him now gone, it’s clear that Wenger had become one of this game’s emotional cornerstones. On a practical level, his own job performance often defined the size of the task for both sides. In his early years, Arsenal asssumed the identity of the game’s innovators, all new diets and innovative conditioning. Towards the end of the last century and for most of the following decade, the success he had overseen – and then the memory of it – gave his side a firm grip on north London and defined the battleground dynamic during an era when, home or away, they were always favourites. Finally, in those last years, the objective became to retrieve a supremacy which had clearly been lost.
In each edition of this match since he arrived, Wenger has been part of the prelude and the post script. Almost a 23rd player. That’s been essential in shaping fan behaviour. From the feelings fans wake with on the morning of the match to the songs they sing in the stadium itself, the modern relationship between the two sides has been instruced by a rise and fall which mimics Wenger’s career arc. His strengths and weaknesses were so consistent that, of course, they were tallied against whatever threat Tottenham were bringing and allowed to dictate the mood of anyone walking through a turnstile or turning on a television.
His place in English football clearly changed. Because of the money, because of Mourinho, because of his own refusal to adapt. While his reign doesn’t break into two equal halves, there was obviously a first and second act. Originally, he was a great force in this country, the perceived leader of a movement which would ultimately change the landscape forever. Then, the down spiral: the years of rising acrimony from within his own club and the metastasising frustration over his inability to evolve with the times. So, while Spurs faced the same opponent for 22 years, they have fought different incarnations of it within that time.
Wenger the unimpeachable evangelist, who seemed to conjure a different superiority twice a year. Invincibles era Wenger, who held them out of reach for so long and with such ease. And, lastly, the declining force, who looked increasingly vulnerable to Spurs’ resurgence and, finally, was surpassed by Pochettino’s new order.
Different Wengers, different Arsenals: one in the same.
The supporter response has reflected those changing circumstances. Over those two decades, the derby has gone from being a game Tottenham’s supporters hoped they’d win but knew they’d lose, to a fixture they now expect to win. Last year’s 2-0 defeat at the Emirates broke a run a run of draws away from home and was actually Pochettino’s first defeat to Wenger in the Premier League. Nevertheless, both of those prior draws, each ending 1-1, left a residue of disappointment. Fifteen years earlier, costing Arsenal points on their own ground and inconveniencing their title ambitions would have been cause for a street party. In the present day, though, it’s just an opportunity lost.
In April 2017, White Hart Lane hosted its last derby. Tottenham won 2-0 to the sound of a mocking joy and, while many other factors were complicit, that was really the point of no return for Wenger. Those three points confirmed that Spurs would finish above their rivals for the first time since 1995 and created a set of optics which he could never erase. He had inherited Arsenal’s superiority, embellished and extended it dramatically, but then allowed it to slip, disappear, and to ultimately become a deficit. There are certainly asterisks to that period, Spurs fans surely now recognise the burden of having to build a new stadium, but they aren’t significant enough to hide Wenger’s culpability.
Buried within that day was something trivial but also significant. When Harry Kane scored what was obviously going to be the clinching penalty, the cameras panned around a jubilant White Hart Lane and settled on a homemade sign proclaiming the cancellation of St Totteringham’s Day. In a sense, it’s exactly what anyone would have expected to see. From another perspective, though, it captured the change in mood. Spurs’ fanbase are notoriously twitchy, having heard the cackles of the sporting gods one too many times. Yet there, on the cusp of something significant and in plain sight, was a clear tempting of fate.
Pochettino’s team were admittedly very different from many of its predecessors, much more resilient and far less prone to catastrophe, but that was still a startling moment. Really, Wenger had sunk so low as to cure his neighbours’ neuroses? One isolated fan does not a fanbase represent, but there was a time when that kind of exhibitionism would have been shouted down at White Hart Lane and the culprit quickly subdued.
Almost a year later, in February 2018, Tottenham won again, this time 1-0 at Wembley. It was a wet, grey day and really not the best game. Kane was the difference, thundering over Laurent Koscielny to head the game’s only goal. The reaction should have been the home crowd at its most uninhibited, goals against Arsenal have always been celebrated like a catharsis, but the noise was tamer than it might have been. The surroundings doubtless played a part, Wembley is a strange sort of home, but the reaction was still oddly mild. There was happiness and relief, certianly, but more befitting a clinching goal in a 2-0 win than a decisive breakthrough in a game that notionally matters more than the rest of the season combined.
Three months earlier, in November 2017 at the last running of Sunday’s game, the senses had been sharper. Shkrodan Mustafi had given Arsenal the lead, Alexis Sanchez had doubled that advantage, and the Emirates had burst with joy each time. In those moments, the two halves of North London had swapped sides. The noise at Wembley reflected the extension of a status quo. The mess of limbs at Arsenal a reaction to the breaking of an unwelcome trend. It was a DVD moment, a highlight of the season; everything that such an outcome would have been to Spurs in 2005.
Wenger’s longevity mattered in this fixture because it always provided that context and made it clearer where each team stood. To play against Arsenal was to play against him. First, the younger, more viral idealist, then the ageing, weakening symbol who emerged just in time to be kicked down the stairs by Pochettino. When he was at his strongest, Tottenham were at their lowest point of the modern era. When he was most vulnerable, there they were to emphasise that fragility. It’s really been to the fixture’s great benefit that it has had that strange, binary relationship for over two decades and now, without him, it has a distinct lack of gravity and, in recompense, only a swirl of hypotheticals.
That characterises the significance of Wenger’s departure. Without him, the game resets to zero. All of the players we loved and hated as children are gone, even the stadiums have both been consigned to history. He was the rivalry’s only enduring symbol.
A glance at the table suggests that Tottenham should be considered slight favourites and any tactical analysis would be able to make a case for either side, but there’s still an uncertain framework. Wenger was associated with the fixture for so long that, inevitably, he became its main character. A hero to some, a villain to others. Unai Emery is neither; not enough time has passed for him to take any real possession of Arsenal and, having never taken part in this game, he doesn’t tweak the Tottenham conscience in any way at all. He’s disliked on account of the badge on his heart and the colours he wears, nothing more.
It’s a very strange situation. Most derbies don’t suffer this problem. Later on Sunday, Liverpool will play Everton at Anfield and, without an incumbent, dynastic figure looming above that rivalry or haunting its recent past, the respective purposes and roles in that game are all much clearer. But in North London such transience will be new for an entire generation of supporters. The specifics of what is being attacked and defended have never been more vague, and the question of what it all means, beyond the immediacy of the league table, the office kettle, and the playground, has never been more confused.