LONDON — Even though Arsenal have enjoyed the most success in north London derbies in the past and have a more cluttered trophy cabinet than bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur, the gap is closing.
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Faster than most believe.
On Sunday the rivals played out a tense, exciting 1-1 draw as Harry Kane‘s opener was canceled out by Keiran Gibbs’ late strike. In truth, a draw was probably a fair result but if Spurs would have held on to win, many Gunners fans wouldn’t have complained despite a deep feeling of melancholy sweeping over them during the two-week international break coming up.
Mauricio Pochettino‘s side bossed the first half, going ahead through Kane’s fifth goal in three games as he made the most of a defensive mix-up between Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker in the heart of Arsenal’s defense. Spurs dominated in midfield in the first half as Mousa Dembele, Eric Dier and Dele Alli swarmed Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla, the latter was taken off at half time after complaining of being dizzy. In the second half Spurs continued to attack and Petr Cech kept Arsenal in the game with saves from Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld, while Kane was razor-sharp in and around the box.
After the game, both camps aired their disappointment at not getting all three points after the game but it was perhaps Spurs who felt most aggrieved as they missed a chance to move just two points behind their rivals in the standings.
“My feeling is that it was not fair. I think we deserved more in the way we played first half and second half with the chances we created,” Pochettino said. “It’s true that we conceded some chances but my feeling is that we deserved to win the game.”
Spurs’ young side took the game to an injury-hit Arsenal who were missing Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, Hector Bellerin and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and after a grueling six-day spell, the Argentine coach was happy with the overall performance, even though he believes his side deserved more.
“I am very proud of my players and the way that we played, the character we showed and the level what we did in the game,” Pochettino told Pro Soccer Talk. “In six days we played three games and it is always difficult when you play Monday, Thursday and Sunday and the opponent plays Saturday, Wednesday and Sunday. They have the advantage. I am very proud and pleased with my players. The effort was brilliant and I think we showed great character in the way that we played. We deserved more but in the end we have to be happy because it was a very busy week and we showed character, maturity. We are a very young squad. I am very pleased.”
Spurs are starting to turn the screw on Arsenal’s dominance in north London as they have drawn 1-1 on both trips to the Emirates under Pochettino since he took charge and beat Wenger’s side at White Hart Lane last season. A League Cup win for Arsenal at Spurs earlier this season annoyed them at the time, and they were frustrated once again on Sunday. Youngster Alli, who looked mature beyond his years in his first north London derby in the PL, revealed that Tottenham’s squad was “disappointed” with the draw and felt they “dominated most of the game” at the home of their bitter rivals. Gibbs, who saved Arsenal to score the equalizer just 181 seconds after coming off the bench, also shared a feeling of discontent.
“Obviously it’s disappointing to drop points, especially when we’re in such a strong position in the league,” Gibbs said.
Wenger, who has guided his side to join-top with Manchester City in the table, didn’t have many arguments with the draw, even if he felt a more clinical streak could have seen his side rally to grab a comeback win late on with Olivier Giroud missing three good chances as his manager revealed the French striker was “very angry” in the dressing room after the game. Given that fact and Arsenal coming off a tough week that included a 5-1 hammering at the hands of Bayern Munich in the UCL, Wenger was happy enough.
“When you are 1-0 down it is a mixture of relief and regret,” Wenger said. “If we were really clinical then we would have won it in the last 15 minutes. Giroud had the chances to score but if I try to be fair, I must say that the point is maybe a fair result.”
As for Pochettino, he was asked about Spurs’ progress in his second season in charge, as they are now 11 games unbeaten and just five points off the top with a third of the season in the books.
“I can speak about today, not about the Tottenham you have seen before, but I am very happy with the way we have developed our philosophy and our way,” Pochettino said. “Today was a very good example to see how we believe and the way we want to play. For us and our supporters they need to feel very proud of our players.”
How far can Spurs go this season as they chase a top four finish?
“I don’t know. This is another question mark because it is too far until the end of the season,” Pochettino continued. “In the way that we played today and the way that we are, it is impossible to set the limit. But we are very ambitious, we are winning people and we always think about the next game and try to win the next game. After that, we will see.”
What we saw at the Emirates on Sunday is two teams who are closer than they’ve been in many years as Pochettino’s young Spurs side pushed Arsenal all the way and, on another day, they could have ruled north London. Progress is being made by Spurs, although overcoming rivals Arsenal and finishing above them in the league for the first time in 21 years will still take a monumental effort and a drop in standards from their rivals. With reigning PL champs Chelsea languishing just above the relegation zone, a place has opened up in the top four for someone to take. This could be Spurs’ season to return to the Champions League as they look solid, energetic and their offensive weapons are back in-form.
On current form, it’s tough to see either Arsenal or Spurs not being in the top four at the end of the season. That would represent a seismic shift in the power struggle in north London, as Spurs seem to be clawing back ground on their rivals at a rapid rate. Last season they finished fifth, 11 points behind third-placed Arsenal. The Gunners possess more experience and a great number of players of a higher caliber, but Spurs’ organization offset that on Sunday. The gap is narrowing.