Softly spoken, genial and relaxed, Mauricio Pochettino gave every impression of a man who had digested Tottenham’s defeat at West Ham United and moved on. Question after question at the club’s pristine steel-and-glass Enfield HQ was batted away with a smile on Thursday. Then he was asked if finishing above Arsenal, who visit White Hart Lane today in one of the most significant north London derbies for years, would be an achievement in itself, and if it would be a good season if accomplished.
The smile disappeared, replaced with an expression that seemed one part bemused and three parts contemptuous. “We don’t want to compare with them,” he said. “I think it’s not a good way to motivate our players. I think that our motivation is to be ambitious and win every game. That is difficult – we are not a machine – but it is the motivation, not to be above Arsenal. For me it’s important to finish well and try to be on the top and be ambitious.”
Pochettino is right. It is time Spurs stopped defining themselves by their neighbours, whom they have not finished above in 20 years. So great is this obsession it is suspected to be the reason why the rebuilt White Hart Lane is being expanded to 61,000 – the Emirates holds 60,272.
There is another reason 61 is significant: 1961 is the last time Tottenham won the league. This is an aeon ago in football terms. With the deaths in recent years of Peter Baker, Ron Henry and Dave Mackay there are more men alive who have walked on the moon than possess a championship medal won with Spurs.
In the intervening 55 years 13 different clubs have won the title, including Ipswich Town, Nottingham Forest, Blackburn Rovers and Derby County. Most pertinently, Arsenal have done so six times.
Jimmy Greaves, Pat Jennings, Ossie Ardiles, Glenn Hoddle, Gary Lineker, Paul Gascoigne and Jürgen Klinsmann are among the great players who have tried and failed to lift the Lilywhites atop the pile. Meanwhile, John Roberts, David Hillier and Gilles Grimandi have won championship medals with Arsenal. Since 1961 Spurs have won cups, at home and abroad, but never even finished runners-up in the league, with their last credible title attempt falling away in the spring of 1985.
Now, an astonishing three decades on, they are contenders again, the bookies’ favourites prior to the midweek slip-up. Measured against Arsenal – and, indeed, most Premier League teams – they are superior in a raft of departments. Spurs have scored more goals and conceded fewer, run further, sprinted more often, won more tackles and had more shots on target. Crucially, they have also won three more points. Victory today would double that advantage. Would that wipe Arsenal out of the title race?
Pochettino said not, while Wenger said, in that way of his: “The most gifted mathematician will have problems working out how this Premier League works.”
The Frenchman was speaking at Arsenal’s own glistening green-belt HQ, not 10 miles west along the M25 corridor from Spurs’. Though Wenger had also reviewed his team’s midweek defeat – to Swansea – and concluded, like Pochettino, that his team had played well and been “unlucky”, the mood was very different.
This was a fractious affair. When was asked if it was time for him to stand down, Wenger replied: “That’s a very good question a day before we play Tottenham,” adding, “I’m sorry to make you unhappy but I will go one day, don’t worry.”
Wenger then tetchily dismissed accusations that his team lacked character or needed a Patrick Vieira or Tony Adams-type, noting “with Tony Adams Arsenal also had bad periods”.
As for Thierry Henry’s claim that the Emirates’ atmosphere was toxic Wenger intimated his former star was in no position to assess 60,000 people as he “sits in the best seats”.
When it was suggested to him Arsenal “always lose at Old Trafford”, he replied: “We do not always lose at Old Trafford. We won championships at Old Trafford.” To the reply that more than 10 years had passed since this last happened Wenger said: “It is quick in life, 10 years.”
Maybe for a sexagenarian manager it is, but for a footballer a decade is the meat of a career. Thus Alexis Sanchez’s frustrated outburst after the midweek loss that Arsenal were letting the title drift away through a “lack of hunger”.
“You have to take these comments a bit into perspective,” replied Wenger. “Belief comes with results. Maybe our confidence has been a bit jaded, but we do 98 per cent of things right and we have to add the 2 per cent that are down to maybe finding back our collective qualities and even put more effort in.”
The last line was telling. Wenger rarely criticises his players’ effort.
Perspective was not a problem at Tottenham, and not just because their midweek loss seems a one-off rather than part of an annual pattern. Alongside Pochettino as he began his press conference was an eight-year-old fan, Luke Langton, a patient at Noah’s Ark. This is a north London hospice-at-home service for youngsters with life-limiting and threatening illnesses.
Spurs were launching a two-year partnership with the hospice helping to raise funds and awareness. In the circumstances a dropped point or three in east London seemed a minor irritant; even the north London derby took on a different hue.
Come 12.45 this lunchtime, however, Luke, like all Spurs fans and Arsenal fans, will be absorbed by the contest. For the first time in decades Spurs have to deal with the expectation that has been Arsenal’s burden for most of Wenger’s reign. Pochettino was dismissive of the theory that Arsenal’s experience gave them the edge, but if the Gunners win today the idea will gain currency in the minds of both squads.
The other doubt against Tottenham is whether, after a season of double training sessions, high pressing and hard running, they have the legs to finish the job. Their youth will help, but they also have the Europa League to contend with. Pochettino’s teams have a history of fading – as have those of his greatest managerial influence, Marcelo Bielsa.
So to a 90-minute contest with a century of history behind it and nine matches to follow. “Football is the present,” said Pochettino. “You can’t waste time thinking of the future.” The same applies to the past. For Pochettino victory today is not about finishing above Arsenal, but finishing above everyone.