Tottenham versus Arsenal: is this the tipping point in the battle of north London?

Gunners face rivals on Sunday knowing that defeat may end 18 years of league superiority

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The Independent Football

It has been a long shadow that the Arsenal created by Arsène Wenger have thrown across their neighbours Tottenham Hotspur for the 16 years that the Frenchman has been in charge.

In that time the Premier League head-to-head tells you that only one team has really mattered, even before you peer in the respective trophy cabinets. Arsenal have won the fixture 15 times out of 33, with only four going Spurs’ way.

There have been some crushing blows for Tottenham, like that occasion at White Hart Lane in November 2004 when Spurs scored four, only for Arsenal to get five. Wenger’s side had secured their last Premier League title there the previous May in a game they would have won were it not for Jens Lehmann pushing Robbie Keane and conceding a penalty. It took Spurs more than 10 years between 1999 and 2010 to win a league fixture against their rivals.

On Sunday, however, there is a very different flavour to the game. Wenger has been under pressure many times in the last five years or so but this one is different. He faces a Spurs team four points ahead of his own in the league and with Gareth Bale, the in-form player in the division, in their side. It is a Tottenham team winning matches in style. Of course, this is the same Spurs who blew a bigger advantage over Arsenal last season, but no one could ignore this year’s threat.

Perhaps it was those factors that caused Wenger to make the kind of mildly dismissive comments about Bale at his press conference yesterday when he questioned how long the 23-year-old’s current form might last. Over the years he has been  accustomed to the talk being about the exceptional players in his own side, certainly in the north London derby, rather than being quizzed on how he plans to cope with the star of the opposition.

The point that is almost too painful to make in the presence of the Arsenal manager is that Bale looks every inch the kind of player that his club once signed as a matter of course, the prototype that Wenger made a virtue of bringing to the club: a remarkable physical specimen with a very high skill level and an ascetic dedication to his craft. If Bale was an Arsenal player then his recent performance would be drawing comparisons with the best of Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie.

Instead, today, Wenger was forced to build an argument that in the absence of an exceptional stand-out talent in his current team – and that is not to say that Jack Wilshere cannot reach a similar level one day – he was content with goals coming from all over the pitch. He said, not for the first time, that Arsenal have scored more goals than they had at this point last season and were not at the mercy of one individual to score them.

If only it was that simple. Things can change quickly in a league where only four points separate the three teams chasing the leading pair but, all the same, Arsenal look further from flourishing into a coherent, consistent side than Spurs. Wenger’s problems tomorrow are just as likely to be in defence as they are in attack, especially against Bale.

There is no Bacary Sagna in the team with the Frenchman regarded as something of an expert in coping with Bale. In Sagna’s absence, Wenger bridled at the suggestion that he might do something different to handle the Welshman’s threat. “We don’t plan for anybody,” he said, a remark that reads a little more devil-may-care than he intended. What it seemed like Wenger meant was that he was not going to change his formation to deal with Bale.

Even in the bad times, Spurs’ league record at home to Wenger’s Arsenal has been robust. In 16 games, the record is three wins each with the other 10 draws. In that period Wenger has seen off eight Spurs managers, not including the six caretaker interregnum. But this time it is not a case of them breathing down his neck. Rather, Wenger is up against a young manager in Andre Villas-Boas who is as hungry to begin an era of his own at Spurs. Indeed, he may even be the first Tottenham manager to outlast Wenger.

“He has done well,” Wenger said of Villas-Boas. “For the rest, I don’t know how life is on a daily basis. It is very difficult to assess that. They play well. They are a good side. They have renewed a lot their team and they are doing quite well.”

That is about as high as the praise goes from Wenger and certainly he has been more lukewarm about the achievements of others in the past. As ever with Arsenal, they are capable of pulling off a result – they have won the last two league fixtures against Spurs 5-2 – but it is the bigger picture that matters and whether Spurs can finish above their rivals in the league for the first time since 1995.

That record sprang to mind when Wenger was asked yesterday whether the half-yearly profit that Arsenal announced on Monday would have been better spent on a team that could have won trophies. “There is only one trophy and that is the championship [Premier League],” Wenger said.

 “The real value of the team is where you finish in the championship. If it was just sorted out by the numbers [financial power], you would always have Chelsea or Man City champions every year. Chelsea finished sixth last year, what people forget, and that’s the real value of the team for me.”

Were Arsenal to finish behind Spurs this season in fourth, with a Champions League place, it would not be a disaster. They could still confidently embark on that rebuilding programme in the summer. But you get the impression that Wenger’s record of never having finished behind Spurs is one of his benchmarks of excellence at the club that he really does not wish to give up. He has been forced to accept a fair few indignities in the past few years and this one would be particularly hard to take, but the threat has never been quite so real.