Ten years of Arsenal v Tottenham

The rivalry between the two biggest North London football clubs has been a highlight of the Premier League throughout the last decade. Both top flight ever-presents during this period, the past ten years have seen Arsenal go from boasting the best team in the land to desperately clinging on to their status as a top four club, while Tottenham have doggedly tried to haul themselves above the Gunners and into the elite of English football. So far, despite employing a range of managers, and undergoing several revolutions on the pitch, this is a feat that Spurs have failed to achieve.

In response to these characterisations, Arsenal fans and enthusiasts will no doubt point to the great stability that the club has enjoyed under the long leadership of Arsene Wenger, and the consistency of performance he has delivered, contrasted against the more chaotic approach of Tottenham. For their part, Spurs’ fans will likely highlight the gradual decline of Arsenal as a trophy winning side, contrasted against their ambitious side, determined to progress up the league and graduate to being a Champions League side.

But where does the truth lie?

An overview of the last decade

Looking at the headline numbers, both sets of fans have a point. On the one hand, there can be no argument that Arsenal have represented a picture of calm serenity by comparison to their North London neighbours over the last decade.

arsspu circles

Seven full time bosses have come and gone at White Hart Lane since 2003 (including new incumbent Mauricio Pochettino), while Arsene Wenger has remained in post at the Emirates, only coming under anything approaching pressure about his job for brief periods since 2010. Incredibly, six of those Spurs’ bosses signed double the number of players Wenger did up to 2013, sold twice as many, and spent nearly seven times more in doing so.

But the period has not been without turbulence at Arsenal too. The club have had to withstand the loss of several key players to rival clubs, a comparative lack of investment in their playing squad compared to other title competing teams, and several trophy near-misses and late season collapses of form – perhaps most notably in losing the Champions League final in 2006, and their chance of the title in 2008.

Likewise, Tottenham have enjoyed some notable successes. In addition to a League Cup triumph in 2008, Spurs have enjoyed a number of strong European campaigns, including a run to the Champions League Quarter Finals in 2010/11, having dispatched Inter and AC Milan along the way.

arsspu league historyNevertheless, Arsenal finished the period in the stronger position of the two clubs. Mauricio Pochettino is the latest manager faced with the task of overhauling the Gunners, who are now the only English club to have qualified through their league position for the Champions League in every season since 2003.

But there are signs that Tottenham have stabilised and established themselves firmly in the top third of the Premier League. For example, since 2009, the club have not finished lower than sixth, and although the churn of players entering and exiting White Hart Lane remains a feature of life at the club, their net spend on transfer fees has declined and is now broadly in line with Arsenal’s. Now the challenge is to consistently break into the top four.

The North London Derby

It would be terribly remiss to review the rivalry between Arsenal and Tottenham over the last decade, and not examine the North London Derby. Matches between the two clubs have produced incredible drama during the period, with several high scoring games (two 5-2’s, one 4-4, and even one 5-4) producing some of the most memorable Premier League encounters of the last decade.

Nevertheless, Arsenal have undoubtedly had the upper hand in the derbies over the course of the last ten years, winning 11 times, and losing only four. This dominance has been particularly marked in their home matches, where Tottenham  have triumphed only once, 3-2 in November 2010. Games at White Hart Lane have tended to be tighter affairs, usually ending in draws – although Spurs have more regularly triumphed on home soil in recent years.

What factors have made the difference?

In understanding these contrasting fortunes, there are a number of factors that should be considered:

An unequal starting point

Arsenal entered this period with a number of hard-earned in-built advantages over Spurs. The Gunners’ boasted the best side in the land in 2003, with players like Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira operating at the top of their game – a fact demonstrated by the team’s incredible unbeaten record that season to take the league title.

By contrast, Tottenham were languishing in lower mid-table in 2003, and under Martin Jol’s leadership, climbed the table gradually to be genuine top four contenders by 2005. Such a difference in initial fortunes helps explain how Arsenal have been able to maintain their position of strength in the league and evolve their side gradually, and should make observers reflect rather differently on the scale of the achievements of Martin Jol and Harry Redknapp in particular.

arsspu transfersFor Tottenham, the challenge was (and remains) one of catching up to the elite sides in the division, something that will continue to require sustained season-on-season investment, and the hope that their star performers will not be poached by elite level clubs in the meantime.

Wages matter more than transfer fees

Also crucial is the continuing disparity in the wage bills of both North London clubs. Sports economists Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski demonstrated in their book “Why England Lose” that between 1998 and 2008, a Premier League or Championship club’s total spend on wages explained between 80-90% of the variation in its average league position come the end of the season.

And we can see this reflected in the relative performance of Arsenal and Spurs between 2003 and 2012, with the Gunners’ spending vastly more on player wages and achieving consistently higher league finishes.

Even when Spurs’ increased the amount they spent on wages when competing in the Champions League, the uplift was barely keeping pace with the rises taking place at Arsenal. According to analysis on the Swiss Ramble, between 2009 and 2012 Arsenal’s wage bill increased by £39 million (38%) to £143m. This compared to an annual spend on player salaries of just £90m at Spurs. This meant that as of 2012, Arsenal were spending £1m more on player salaries per week than their North London rivals.

Such a disparity goes a long way to explaining the difference in quality levels each side is able to attract and sustain on their playing staff, and why ultimately, Tottenham have struggled to overtake the Gunners in the league. Indeed, to get as close as they have could be viewed as remarkable.

The next ten years of Arsenal v Tottenham

As Arsenal finally begin to invest significant additional sums in their playing squad, and Tottenham begin yet another new era under their new Argentine coach, there is a real risk for Spurs’ fans that their hopes of finally overhauling their neighbours are as far from realization as ever.

Arsene Wenger will be expecting to see genuine progress from his team this year, and with new signing Alexis Sanchez joining a team that led the Premier League for much of last season, this could be the year that Arsenal mount a significant title bid that does not falter during the final third of the campaign. Barring significant injury troubles, there is a sense that all the ingredients are now in place for Wenger to ensure Arsenal do not have to wait another nine years for a further trophy success.

If it is, then that could set the tone for a further period of Arsenal domination in the North London rivalry. Spurs will ultimately struggle to close the wage spend differential that exists between the two teams in the short term, with their proposed move to a new ground a key part of the club’s growth strategy in the years ahead, but not due for completion until 2016.

In the meantime, their best hope is that new coach Mauricio Pochettino is able to demonstrate that his style of high tempo, pressing football can be deployed as successfully in North London as it was on the South Coast, and that he receives the consistent backing of Chairman Daniel Levy both in the transfer market, and in the boardroom. If he can, then Spurs may yet stand a chance of inching above Arsenal in the league table.

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