Arsenal’s title race anxiety heightened by terror at Tottenham nightmare coming to pass
Published 16/02/2016 | 12:21
Like Easter, Diwali or an FA Cup tie featuring Manchester United, St Totteringham’s Day is very much a movable feast. A concept pioneered by the online fanzine Arseweb more than a decade ago, it commemorates the point in the season when it becomes mathematically impossible for Tottenham to overtake Arsenal in the table.
It is workplace gloating, schoolyard swagger, the banterlicious emblem of a generation of supremacy: the one taunt that Tottenham fans are powerless to rebut. And understanding its powerful pull is of the utmost importance if we are to make sense of this most senseless of title races.
Since Arsenal gained a decisive ascendancy in the mid-Nineties, St Totteringham’s Day has been celebrated as early as March 9, as late as the final day of the season. But it always comes. This is the thing about the Arsenal-Tottenham rivalry: like an episode of The Simpsons, it has twists and turns and thrills, but in the end everything has magically reverted to the way it was at the start. Nothing, really, has changed at all.
And so in a sport defined by flux, where stars are made overnight and empires crumble in a twinkling, Arsenal have enjoyed the luxurious certainty of dominance. Around the turn of the century you would hear Arsenal fans quite openly discussing whether Chelsea, in fact, were now their real rivals.
For any fan under the age of about 30, beating Tottenham is not something that has required a great deal of imagination or willpower or even effort. It has just happened, as reliably as gravity, as inevitably as death. It is quite possible that there is not a single player in either squad who remembers the last time Tottenham finished ahead of Arsenal in 1995. That is not just a psychological edge. It is a pair of handcuffs.
Three times in the past decade, Tottenham have been ahead of Arsenal at this point of the season. Each time, they have been overhauled. In 2006 Tottenham were still a point ahead going into the final weekend.
Martin Jol’s furious touchline argument with Arsène Wenger towards the end of the season was interpreted as the symbolic defiance of a club who would no longer be dictated to. Ultimately, Spurs lost their final game at West Ham courtesy of a germ-riddled lasagne. Order was restored.
The reverse of 2012 was, if anything, more dramatic. Arsenal were 10 points behind going into the north London derby in late February, and when they proceeded to go 2-0 down at home, the curse of St Totteringham appeared to have been lifted at last.
Instead Tottenham’s midfield capitulated, Arsenal ran out comfortable 5-2 winners, and, as Harry Redknapp’s team waned, Arsenal ruthlessly swallowed up the ground between them. It was a similar story the following season, when Arsenal came from seven points behind with 10 games remaining to pip Tottenham to the Champions League yet again.
It is the sort of record that breeds certain expectations. The Wenger era has been underpinned by two non-negotiable rules: annual Champions League qualification for the board, and an annual celebration of St Totteringham’s Day for the fans.
The problem comes when you have a season that rips up the rules entirely and threatens to create an entirely new order.
The first objective may be pretty much guaranteed, but the second is more problematic. This is both the blessing and the curse of being Arsenal at the moment: bright, strident hope slow-dancing with dark, mortifying fear.
The most open title race in years is threatening to awaken Arsenal’s deepest, most repressed nightmare: the prospect that not only will they blow their best shot at the Premier League for a decade, but that they will hand it to Tottenham in the process.
Wenger, for his part, is too busy managing a football club to entertain his deepest, most repressed nightmares. “I am not obsessed by finishing ahead of Tottenham,” he said this month. “Spurs are always a threat. But we are not thinking about Tottenham. We just want to do well and are focused on our own performances.”
Tottenham and Arsenal have tussled for Champions League qualification before, but this is largely uncharted territory: the first genuine title race between the two north London rivals since 1952. And so, for the first time, Arsenal’s traditional primacy may be as much of a hindrance as a help. They have a better squad, more money, higher expectations, a virtual monopoly on title-race experience. They have far, far more to lose here.
Arsenal’s moment of greatest insecurity has coincided with Tottenham’s moment of greatest confidence.
For Arsenal fans, the sight of Tottenham looming in the rear‑view mirror and then sidling past them conjures all sorts of unwelcome thoughts. Losing the title to Leicester could be put down as a freak result. Losing to Manchester City would be disappointing but not unprecedented. Losing to Tottenham, on the other hand, is the sort of experience that scars a club for years. Arsenal fans still sing about winning the league at White Hart Lane in 2004, and they had only just stopped singing about winning it there in 1971.
Every time Tottenham beat Arsenal you hear pundits and broadcasters wondering if the “balance of power” in north London has shifted. It never has: not yet, anyway. Yet Tottenham have something Arsenal do not: freshness and froth, draughtsman’s drawings for a brand new stadium, the gleam of renewal.
Arsenal, meanwhile, have status, security, the solace of the known. They have world-class players, a manager they trust and a robust set of accounts for the most recent fiscal year.
They have enjoyed an era of stability that is virtually unmatchable in modern football. And for those same reasons, they are fearful in a way that few supporters of other clubs can really imagine. For two decades, St Totteringham’s Day has arrived as regularly as day follows night. What happens when the sun no longer rises?