Will Tottenham’s Bold Move Finally Spur Arsenal Into Action?
Over the balance of the last three decades, the battle for North London supremacy has been anything but a fair fight. Under managers like George Graham and Arsène Wenger, Arsenal did not simply outshine their neighbours domestically, but were catapulted on a meteoric rise to prominence and respect in the wider football world; a period of time that would include multiple league titles and FA Cup victories, as well as the 2004 squad that will forever be immortalised as “the Invincibles”for their unbeaten exploits in the Premier League.
Lately, however, the rivalry has become less a source of perpetual glee and banter for Arsenal supporters, as Spurs made rapid strides towards the sharp end of the table under the tutelage of Mauricio Pochettino beginning in 2014. Once the Gunners finally fell out of the Champions League following the 2016/17 season, it looked as though Tottenham would finally twist the knife and add that elusive first trophy of the decade to their already superior league position. And yet, for both Pochettino and Spurs, this was not to be.
On Tuesday, Tottenham announced the sacking of Mauricio Pochettino with three and a half years left on his contract to manage the club. Less than 24 hours later, Jose Mourinho was installed as the new manager at White Hart Lane. While “the Special One” will no doubt prove as mercurial and divisive a figure as always in his new post, the rapidity and decisiveness of the move will have the powers that be at London Colney shifting nervously in their seats.
In the Same Boat
On the face of it, Tottenham sacking their best manager in years while the team is languishing in 14th place in the Premier League should be cause for much merriment on the red half of North London, but such euphoria is in short supply these days as Arsenal face a similarly dire predicament.
Under Unai Emery, who was touted as the modern, analytical manager to take Arsenal out of the dark ages and into the future upon his arrival, the Gunners have instead fallen into rapid decline. The once ferocious attack has suddenly found itself stalling out long before arriving in viable scoring positions, and the defence that Emery was almost guaranteed to improve according to outside opinion, has become even worse still. There doesn’t appear to be a viable tactical plan for each match, or any consistent philosophy about how to solve match-critical problems as they arise.
Both clubs began the season hoping this was the year they would take the next step in their progression as title challengers and contenders in Europe, but both have seen fans turn their backs on the men who were once catalysts for such optimism. With Pochettino already gone, and Emery being pushed further toward the door with each lacklustre on-pitch performance, neither is likely to last the season.
The Slippery Slope
As news broke on Tuesday of Pochettino’s departure, Arsenal supporters were left to bitterly wonder why their rivals could act so decisively in an attempt to salvage the season, while the Arsenal board seemingly could not. Some in the media have speculated that part of Arsenal’s reluctance to part ways with Emery stems from a fear of repeating the same mistakes of another of their most hated rivals when they replaced their own managerial legend in 2013: Manchester United.
As most are aware, the years following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement from Manchester United have seen the English giants struggle to establish a new identity and sustained success, despite a near limitless transfer budget and annual revenue that would make Real Madrid blush. If Arsenal were to sack Unai Emery now, it would be a tacit admission that the club failed to properly replace Arsène Wenger at the first time of asking. Having backed Emery this summer with a £100m transfer window, the board clearly expected he would use this injection of talent to his advantage, but with a third of the season in the books, this has not been the case.
It is perhaps understandable that Raul Sanllehi, Technical Director Edu Gaspar, and the rest of the Arsenal hierarchy would be reluctant to go down the path to potential instability that has derailed so many clubs with more money than long-term vision. However, this fear should not take precedence above what is best for the club, even if that involves taking a step backward much sooner than expected to ensure the club is once again on the right path.
Making a Statement
Even after the initial shock of Jose Mourinho in Tottenham kit wears off, it is still striking just how strange a pairing it is between club and manager. Tottenham, the club who once fired the legendary Arsenal manager George Graham for lacking the flair and style that was once a part of the club’s identity, have seemingly turned to the most pragmatic, conservative (tactically speaking) choice they could make.
Of course, a CV filled to bursting with silverware and accolades is sure to be attractive to a club so devoid of such recent successes, but Mourinho hasn’t achieved his enormous success on the cheap. In fact, Mourinho is notorious for demanding sizable transfer budgets every season to bolster the ranks, and he is equally known for making his displeasure obvious when he doesn’t get what he wants. In nevertheless agreeing to bring Mourinho on board, Daniel Levy is signaling his desire to win trophies as soon as possible, even if it leads to more problems long-term.
In Levy, the Portuguese manager has found his egotistical match across the negotiating table, and any hope he has of bending the chairman to his financial whims should be dispelled before Christmas. The combustible nature of both men ensures that whatever happens, there is unlikely to be a dull moment at White Hart Lane.
A Proportionate Response
Unai Emery managed to survive the latest international break with his job, but multiple reports have suggested that the players return to work under a manager who now faces an ultimatum: turn it around in the next month, or face the sack. The club have yet to confirm this with any of their public statements, but having recently offered the Basque manager a public vote of confidence, they all but confirmed their awareness of the current problems.
Arsenal may never have held any real interest in Jose Mourinho as a possible replacement for Emery during the season, but should he find success in turning Spurs’ season around, the spotlight will only intensify on Sanllehi and the Arsenal board to respond with a bold change of their own.
In the meantime, and until both clubs find their way back into a fight for the top four, the battle for North London will just have to be played for much, much smaller stakes.