Tottenham, Arsenal and the derby that gave its all

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
March 2, 2019

Tottenham 1 Arsenal 1, Wembley.

Inside a north London vacuum – perhaps for the last time at Wembley, perhaps not – Tottenham and Arsenal contested a bitter derby full of bile and spite, which left everyone on both sides of the divide relieved, angry, happy and furious. And good that it did, because that’s the full rainbow of the derby’s intended emotional range.

Every region makes bold claims about its own game. As North London did on Saturday, as Merseyside doubtless will tomorrow. In the former’s favour though, is its balance: these are two evenly matched sides, who contest games on form and fortitude, rather than just insurmountable structural differences. Arsenal may have enjoyed supremacy for much of the past two decades and Tottenham have had the better of it in recent years, but the technical playing field is still level enough to make the small details matter. Details which often remain up for debate long after the whistle has blown and the game has ended, and which instruct conversations with all the wit and craft of a pillow fight.

Tribalism has a bad name in football and for good reason. At its worst, of course, it inspires the sort of one-eyed, paranoid nonsense which has made social media so unbearable. Sometimes, it’s part of the drama though. In the aftermath of this game, into which both managers carried legitimate grievances against a shoddy officiating crew, it was fascinating to see the interpretative range that a single game of football can produce – and how, actually, when a match is this much of a mess, all of that squabbling cancels itself out and becomes redundant.

No Arsenal fan would contest, for instance, that on second viewing, Granit Xhaka probably did deserve a red card for an ugly challenge on Harry Kane. Likewise, any Tottenham fan leaving the stadium on Saturday would happily concede that their side’s penalty was extremely generous. That Kane was offside at the time of Shkodran Mustafi’s push was actually incidental, a quirk of the laws which meant any foul should still have been penalised, but rarely is such minimal contact actually punished.

So what currency was there for those who like to disseminate and twist and who choose to spend their hours battling one phantom injustice or another. Not much. To make one point would be to have to concede another. To claim bias would be to recognise an advantage gained somewhere else. A perfect blend of flaws, then.

Anthony Taylor did not have a happy afternoon. Talking to the press afterwards, both managers welcomed the dawn of VAR in the Premier League – Unai Emery more enthusiastically, Pochettino with audible reservation – and one of the happy consequences of its introduction might be to remove the false economy of referees trying to atone for their own mistakes. Following the Kane penalty, Taylor officiated as if he knew he had ground to recover: whistle after whistle went in Arsenal’s favour and when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang tumbled under minimal contact from Davinson Sanchez, he was pointing to the spot before the forward hit the floor.

Was this a good game? Who knows. And how, actually, is that even answerable? There were bursts of admirable football – from Arsenal on the counter-attack, and from Spurs during their pursuit of an equaliser – but those soft themes were buried under the weight of a chaotic last twenty minutes. Erik Lamela flirted with a second-yellow card, Danny Rose might have earned a straight red and, by the time Lucas Torreira eventually was dismissed, for a shockingly high, late and reckless lunge at Rose, both sets of supporters were too dizzy to really know what they were seeing.

Of course, that might have been different had Aubameyang converted his golden chance to seize the points. Had he done so, His penalty was limp and tame, saved well but easily by Hugo Lloris, and when Aubameyang had a second chance for the rebound, right under the crossbar, Jan Vertonghen blocked heroically with his goalkeeper nowhere to be seen. Of course, Vertonghen was encroaching – of course he was! – but that should have been irrelevant. Sixteen minutes early, Kane had taken his deep breaths in the thin air and scored. When it was his turn, Aubameyang spluttered, coughed and, ultimately, choked.

The intellectuals and football-‘splainers will not be happy. The play sputtered throughout this game and, by the end, it defied any sort of tactical reason. There were no Five Things To Learn, no Big Three Conclusions. Instead, it simply left a bubbling residue of emotions and the part-seething, part-grateful response of an exhausted crowd who, at full-time, could have been forgiven for just slumping forward in their seats, rather than actually leaving the ground. Score artificial points and attempt to spin? No, nobody had the energy.

Tottenham will hope this is the last Premier League game they play at Wembley. That’s what the schedule currently says and, according to the support staff here, there are no plans yet for any more fixtures. If this is the last, then, what a crescendo. Not a game of any great quality, not even one with a satisfying conclusion, but still a desperate, socks-down, gloves-off fight – full of fury, mistakes, and nonsense – that did the rivalry proud and left everyone connected to it shattered.

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