Arsenal's derby victory shows North London is red once more

Posted by James McNicholas

 

The seemingly prosaic rhymes and rhythms of a football chant can occasionally be wonderfully eloquent. As Arsenal saw out a comfortable 2-0 victory over Tottenham in the FA Cup third round, the supporters taunted their rivals with the following raucous ditty: "How does it feel to be Tottenham? How does it feel to be small? You sold Bale -- We signed Mesut Ozil!"

In four lines, the Gunners fans neatly summarised nine months that have seen the respective trajectories of Arsenal and Tottenham reversed. Spurs fans who once cruelly warned their neighbours to "mind the gap" will be alarmed at the gaping chasm emerging between the two teams.

It's remarkable to think that in March of last year, Andre Villas-Boas declared that Arsenal were locked into a "negative spiral".

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Speaking after Tottenham's 2-1 victory over Arsene Wenger's team at White Hart Lane, the Portuguese manager said: "We are on an upward spiral in terms of confidence, and they are in a negative spiral in terms of results. To [get] out of that negative spiral is extremely difficult."

That win took Tottenham seven points clear in the race for Champions League Football. However, Villas-Boas' hubris would come back to haunt him. Less than a year on, he finds himself out of a job, and Spurs lie in sixth position in a table led by a resurgent Arsenal.

Last season, after dispiriting results against the alliterative trio of Bradford, Blackburn and Bayern Munich, the derby defeat saw Arsene Wenger at his nadir. His rise since then, and that of his team, has been akin to that of a certain regenerative pyrophile bird.

Arsenal's very next game saw them travel to the Allianz Arena to face Bayern Munich. Searching for a solution to his side's defensive woes, Wenger reshaped his team, dropping Thomas Vermaelen for Laurent Koscielny and taking Wojciech Szczesny out of the firing line.

Arsenal responded with an impressive win -- and, crucially, a clean sheet. There was a newfound solidity to the side. The result may not have been sufficient to secure progress to the next stage of the Champions League, but it played a significant role in getting Arsenal back into the competition for the following season.

The Bayern win was the catalyst for change, injecting confidence and belief back in to the Arsenal squad. It sparked an 11-game unbeaten run that saw Arsenal pip Spurs to fourth position and a place back at European football's top table.

Missing out on Champions League football was a huge blow to Spurs, particularly as it all but confirmed that they would lose their talisman: Gareth Bale. The Welshman's protracted departure to Real Madrid cast a significant shadow over Tottenham's summer.

It's a situation Arsenal fans know only too well. In recent years, they have had to swallow the loss of the likes of Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie. However, those days appear to be over. In the summer of 2013, no major first-team player left the Emirates Stadium.

Arsenal are coming out the other side of a dark tunnel, which Spurs are only just entering: that of stadium development, and purgatorial transition. Much was made of Tottenham's £100 million outlay, but in truth their net spend was minimal. The fans yearn for progress, but Daniel Levy is insistent upon prudence.

When it came to the summer spending, Tottenham opted to hedge their bets. Rather than bring in one or two superstars, they sought to add depth and variety to their squad, making seven signings. So far, most of those players have disappointed.

On the other side of North London, Wenger will have been knowingly shaking his head. He has long warned against the dangers of bringing in too many new players. This summer, Tottenham upset their apple cart, and it did not take long for the rot to set in.

The instability eventually cost Villas-Boas his job. At a time when Spurs appeared to be suffering from changing too much too quickly, chairman Levy baffled onlookers by enforcing yet another change. Tottenham have since appointed Tim Sherwood as Villas-Boas' replacement. Although Sherwood's first few results seemed promising, his inexperience and tactical naivety was exposed in the cup tie with Arsenal.

The Gunners' progress, on the other hand, has been serene. Wenger honed a well-balanced squad, trimming it at the fringes and bringing in Mesut Ozil and Mathieu Flamini to add quality and depth to the midfield. In that stable environment, youngsters like Kieran Gibbs and Aaron Ramsey have flourished. Arsenal were the Premier League's most successful team in 2013.

The recent cup tie was a striking illustration of how these teams' fortunes have reversed.

The most noteworthy thing about Arsenal's FA Cup win over Spurs was the degree of comfort Wenger's team enjoyed. In recent seasons, North London derbies have been hotly contested and tightly fought. However, in this particular iteration of the fixture, Tottenham appeared outclassed.

Arsenal did not even need their best XI to sweep Spurs aside. Sherwood would doubtless point to injuries, but it's worth pointing out that Arsenal started the game without Szczesny, Gibbs, Per Mertesacker, Ramsey, Ozil and Olivier Giroud.

Football moves fast. Nine months after lagging behind, Arsenal are accelerating beyond their rivals and disappearing into the distance.

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