Arsenal are top of the table. Arsenal are also second, third, fourth and so on because they occupy the first 17 places in it. Mikel Arteta has named the 16 youngest teams fielded in the Premier League this season. Technically, anyway, Albert Stuivenberg has named the side in 17th. It may be one competition that you can win with kids, albeit one that does not offer silverware.
Neither, of course, does fourth place which Arsene Wenger infamously insisted was like a trophy. In that, as in much else, the Frenchman may have been ahead of his time. Mikel Arteta and Antonio Conte may agree. Sunday’s North London derby forms part of a wider battle for fourth and, with both Manchester United and West Ham also involved, it would feel a considerable achievement for either to steer his club back into the Champions League.
Local rivals often define themselves by their rivals. They enjoy being opposites. There are ways in which Arsenal and Tottenham offer a contrast. Arteta’s youthful revolution seems to position Arsenal for the future. Tottenham may possess more proven stars who are in contention now (certainly with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang exiled) but they arguably only own three world-class players: a 35-year-old goalkeeper, in Hugo Lloris, and two forwards in their late twenties, in Heung-Min Son and Harry Kane. Spurs are entitled to point out that their squad contains fewer thirty-somethings (just Lloris) than Arsenal’s but while both managers’ contracts expire in 2023, Conte’s was the shorter deal. He can seem a short-termist manager and Tottenham feel more about the short term: if they do not return to the Champions League before Kane, Son and Lloris decline, their absence from it may extend for quite some time.
Arsenal spent much of the second half of Wenger’s reign sustained by the promise of a brighter tomorrow, only for it often to be postponed, so their supporters could be forgiven for feeling wary but there are reasons to believe they are better positioned for the mid 2020s. Arteta’s recruitment last summer consisted of two players then aged 21, two who were 22 and two at 23.
Three of Arsenal’s strongest defence are now 24, in Kieran Tierney, Gabriel and Ben White, with Takehiro Tomiyasu and Aaron Ramsdale younger again; the evidence of half a season together is that they may have a rearguard with the potential to remain together for years. Since they were first united in September, Arsenal have conceded 16 league goals in 17 games (and scored 33; the comparable figures for Tottenham in that time are 20 for, 20 against). There is no such sense of permanence in the Spurs defence, with Cristian Romero only on loan, a possible need for other central-defensive additions and a search for a new right wing-back.
Arsenal may have a second section of the side sorted for still longer. They are able to pick three of Gabriel Martinelli, Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard, aged 20, 20, 21 and 23, in the attacking-midfield positions; talents offer the potential of exponential improvement and the way they have developed a scoring streak – they have 16 goals between them in Arsenal’s last eight games – indicates that they can get better still.
It can suggest that Arsenal’s starting 11 perhaps only needs two players in the immediate future: a centre-forward, depending in part of what happens to Alexandre Lacazette, and a central-midfield partner for Thomas Partey. In turn, that allows them to concentrate their resources on fewer individuals and make bigger bids for higher-class footballers.
The opposite may apply at Tottenham: the chances are that a manager as demanding as Conte would probably want to upgrade the majority of his team. It is an understatement to say that some of the signings who were supposed to be cornerstones of the side for years, such as Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso, have not been. Many a buy in recent seasons lingers on the margins, as Bryan Gil, Steven Bergwijn, Matt Doherty, Ryan Sessegnon and Joe Rodon show. Only three purchases since Lucas Moura, who arrived in January 2018, feel regulars now: Sergio Reguilon, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Emerson Royal, who already does not look good enough.
Arsenal’s rebuilding job has accelerated in the last year after the ill-fated dalliance with short-termism was symbolised by Willian’s failure. Spurs have lacked the foundations to construct a side to take over from Mauricio Pochettino’s team. Like Wenger before him, Arteta can at least argue a young group with a high ceiling are upwardly mobile. If Tottenham are to climb back into the elite, it may have to be in the next 16 months, and not merely to keep a manager of Conte’s calibre and impatience.
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Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.
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