Tottenham could use cup clash vs. Arsenal to show their homegrown class
Among the more incredible aspects of Arsene Wenger's 19-year spell in charge of Arsenal is the simple fact that he's never finished below Tottenham Hotspur. This dominance of north London is well documented and therefore somewhat taken for granted, yet it remains an astonishing, almost unprecedented, record.
There's an argument that Arsenal fans have focused too much upon this rivalry in recent years, almost as a substitute for the lack of honours they became accustomed to since Wenger's early days. But consistently finishing ahead of Spurs, a team who have enjoyed sporadic waves of promise over the past decade, shouldn't be underestimated. Equivalent patterns in Manchester and Liverpool extend to just two seasons, for example; in a sport obsessed with rivalry, this is a huge demonstration of power.
This week's Capital One Cup meeting won't be a defining match in terms of either side's campaign -- this competition simply isn't a priority although Tottenham enjoyed a good run to the final last year. But the nature of this rivalry means the game takes on extra importance for both sides and the two managers are likely to field stronger sides than if facing any other Premier League side. To the supporters of both sides, winning counts for more than simply progression to the next round.
Tottenham got the upper hand in last season's derbies, recording a 1-1 draw at the Emirates before completing a memorable comeback to win the reverse fixture 2-1 at White Hart Lane, with two goals from Harry Kane. His rise to becoming Spurs' new crowd favourite seems, subtly, to have emphasised the local rivalry, too; pictures emerged of Kane wearing an Arsenal shirt in his younger days, although he was a boyhood Tottenham fan.
It's here, interestingly, where Tottenham fans can claim to have the upper hand in this fixture.
Kane is what this fixture is all about: born 4 miles from White Hart Lane (in the exact opposite direction to the Emirates, as it happens) and a Tottenham youth product. He's leading a charge of young kids coming through and defining Spurs under Mauricio Pochettino. Ryan Mason is from nearby Enfield, Tom Carroll from Watford (some way away but still broadly north London), Andros Townsend from Leytonstone and Alex Pritchard is from Orsett in Essex, where Spurs vie with West Ham for support. Appropriately, Pritchard joined the club from the Hammers as a schoolboy.
Arsenal lack such identity. Kieran Gibbs is a south Londoner (with Wimbledon beforehand) while Jack Wilshere is from Hertfordshire. It's a bit of a stretch to call that Arsenal territory, and Wilshere has never shied away from admitting his West Ham roots either. Arsenal have lots of talented young British players but they generally grew up outside London and were signed when already professionals.
It's difficult to find a Kane equivalent at the Emirates, someone who is unequivocally Arsenal. This is why Carl Jenkinson proved such a popular figure at the club despite sometimes appearing out of his depth at right-back. He was a boyhood Arsenal fan, proudly showed off his old bedroom decorated quite grotesquely in Arsenal memorabilia and fulfilled a lifetime ambition by representing the club.
There was a nice moment in Arsenal's final game of 2013-14, a dead rubber against already relegated Norwich, when the Gunners were more concerned with the FA Cup final the following weekend. Jenkinson scored his debut goal for the club and instinctively ran away to the travelling supporters, who all responded with songs about how he was a "Gooner."
Moments like that mean a great deal to fans, especially in rivalries. There's a "second city derby" in this round of Capital One Cup fixtures, too. The build-up to Aston Villa and Birmingham's contest is being dominated by talk of Jack Grealish and Demarai Gray, the new beacons for each club because they grew up in the city, rose through the academy ranks and could become their respective side's technical leader over the next few years.
The question, though, is whether Tottenham's generation of youngsters is talented enough to help overhaul the Gunners and finally break their unwanted record of finishing behind Arsenal. Their contribution will be particularly important considering that Spurs' record in the transfer market over the past three summers has been somewhat underwhelming. If you can't buy players well, you have to develop them yourself.
Kane has already proved himself a fine Premier League striker although he still needs to confirm he's not simply a one-season wonder who will vanish from view. Townsend's lack of development over the past two seasons has been a concern, but he's looked lively this season. Pritchard is too young to judge properly but has impressed both on loan at Brentford and for the England U21 team.
Mason is also developing into an increasingly dominant central midfielder, breaking forward into attack to provide key contributions in the final third, rather than simply keeping his distribution simple in midfield.
Mason's match winner against Sunderland was a fine example and suggests he could evolve into a more attack-minded midfielder. Unfortunately, in the act of scoring, he collided with Costel Pantilimon and went off injured; he's expected to be out for another week. With Nabil Bentaleb also unavailable, Spurs are missing their regular midfield combination from the end of last season.
The likes of Bentaleb, Eric Dier, Danny Rose, Dele Alli and Kieran Trippier are all very promising youngsters too, suggesting Spurs could have the makings of a genuinely talented generation. It's not quite the class of '92 but it's one of the most promising developments at the club for a considerable period.
If Spurs can extend their unbeaten record against Arsenal to three games, it will help reinforce the belief that they can start to challenge the Gunners and shed the inferiority complex that has dogged Spurs of late. The Capital One Cup is often considered a tournament to develop youngsters for the future, but for Tottenham, it's about developing a mentality, too.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.