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The globe teeters on its axis and the thought occurs that not only has the balance of power Arsène Wenger famously saw shifting from the north-west of England to north London veered west to Chelsea, but also that the scales even within north London are perhaps tipping from Highbury towards Tottenham.
It is six years and 12 games since Spurs last beat Arsenal, but if they were to do so at White Hart Lane on Saturday afternoon there would be few Tottenham fans not dreaming of finishing above their rivals for the first time since George Graham was sacked in 1995.
Martin Jol, the Tottenham head coach, still speaks of Arsenal in a group of four – with Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea – that remains out of reach, but with Wenger’s side having taken just one point from four away games this season, that is increasingly looking like a tactic to deflect attention and minimise pressure.
To play up his side’s progress while simultaneously damping down expectations has been the Dutchman’s method in the year since he took charge, but he did seem to acknowledge that the gap between his side and Arsenal was narrowing. “If we could identify a Vieira or an Henry in the future,” he said, “we would probably be the same [level as them].”
Patrick Vieira, of course, has left, while Thierry Henry, having suffered a recurrence of his groin injury, is ruled out on Saturday afternoon. By Jol’s logic, if he is absent, the playing field could be level.
“It’s hard to judge if the gap has closed,” said Michael Carrick the Tottenham midfielder. “It’s early in the season – wait till Christmas. Arsenal are a fantastic side, but we have the belief in our camp that we can get three points from every match. But this will be a tough game. I’m certainly not going to take it lightly because Vieira isn’t there.”
The absence of Vieira, though, does give opposing teams a psychological fillip, and that is significant in light of the statistic that, under Jol, Tottenham have yet to beat any of the big four.
“They [Spurs players] believe they can do it,” said Jol. “We are on the fringe. We have played four games against Liverpool and we have had four draws, so we are close. Sometimes you need a bit of brilliance and I think that [Aaron] Lennon should give us that on the flanks.”
It was similar thinking that led to Erik Edman being sold to Rennes and replaced by the South Korean full-back Lee Young-Pyo. “People said he [Lee] was not an English type of player,” Jol said. “Erik was a solid defender but you need someone who can overlap.”
Yet Jol also lamented Tottenham’s lack of cover down the left, raising the obvious question of why, if that were true, he allowed Reto Ziegler to join Hamburg on loan. That is just part of a series of contradictions in what Jol said this week.
“You see strength in depth,” he went on. “I see too many players.”
His point seemed to be that although the squad is big, it is bigger in certain areas – most notably central midfield – than others. There was perhaps an implicit criticism of Frank Arnesen, the director of football who initiated an unprecedented round of wheeling and dealing before moving to Chelsea in the summer, but Jol himself has sanctioned 13 transfers in his time as head coach.
As Carrick said, they are not short of cover for the suspended Edgar Davids. That begs the question of why, when Tottenham seem so well placed and his players speak of his insistence on a positive outlook, Jol is so ready to highlight his squad’s deficiencies.
He has a point that Spurs cannot afford off-the-shelf stars, and so have to sign young players and try to develop them into such, but these days, that hardly makes them any different to Arsenal.
Perhaps it is merely apprehension, for the truth is that Tottenham have reached the precipice. The time for easy excuses is gone. Arsenal’s apparent slide, coupled with Tottenham’s development, means that for the first time in a decade they enter the derby on an almost equal footing. The only question is whether, having come so far, they have the resolve to make the most of their gains.
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