Spurs must win derby if they're to shake underachiever tag
Tottenham Hotspur's big moment has arrived. For three years, Mauricio Pochettino's side have been England's team of the future but they've not fulfilled those expectations. Saturday's north London derby gives Spurs a chance to stamp their authority over Arsenal and keep up the pressure in the battle for the top four and Champions League qualification.
Yet the Tottenham team that finished third in the Premier League two years ago and second to Chelsea last season didn't expect to be in fifth place at this advanced stage of the current campaign. They remain in two cup competitions, the Champions League and the FA Cup. A decade has passed since the club last won a trophy (the League Cup in 2008) and Pochettino's side are capable of winning silverware. They need to prove they're good enough and have the required mental strength to achieve tangible success.
The first task in hand is victory over Arsenal this weekend. Despite Arsene Wenger's struggles over the past five years, the Gunners have won three FA Cups and face Manchester City in the final of the EFL Cup at the end of February. An air of crisis frequently swirls around the Emirates but Wenger's ability to reach and win domestic finals has kept him in his job. Arsenal may aspire to more prestigious trophies like the league title and the Champions League, but their success stands in stark contrast to Tottenham's inability to get over the line.
The derby comes at a crucial moment in the season. Spurs have been frustratingly inconsistent. In October, they produced one of the performances of the campaign to beat Liverpool 4-1 at Wembley but lost two of their next three league matches to Arsenal and Manchester United. At the end of January, they took apart Man United with another sparkling display, winning 2-0 at home. They followed it with a 2-2 draw at Anfield that showed Tottenham at their best and worst.
Trailing 1-0 to an early goal, they were excellent in the second half. They drew level and had the chance to go 2-1 up with three minutes remaining when they were awarded a penalty. Harry Kane missed the spot-kick and the team experienced a familiar loss of discipline as Mohamed Salah was allowed to wriggle through a distracted and disorganised Spurs defence to put Liverpool in an unlikely lead. Kane equalized with almost the last kick with a second penalty. The striker's mental toughness is unquestionable but Tottenham's overall resilience has not been proven yet.
Arsenal will test it, too. There is an air of optimism around the Emirates at the moment. The departure of Alexis Sanchez had a positive effect in the dressing room. Normally when a team loses a superstar to a rival club, there is an atmosphere of gloom in the squad. Sanchez's attitude and reportedly self-centred behaviour had alienated many of his Arsenal teammates; as such, most were relieved to see the back of him. The mood was lifted further when Mesut Ozil signed an extended contract and Henrikh Mkhitarayan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang arrived before the transfer window shut. Wenger's men go into the derby in a positive frame of mind.
Mkhitarayan gives Arsenal added craft going forward. The Armenia international was inhibited by Jose Mourinho's approach at Old Trafford and will have more freedom to create under Wenger, especially alongside Ozil. If the pair are allowed to get time on the ball, Aubameyang's intelligent movement could cause problems for the home side. The addition of Wenger's new players presents Pochettino with a different tactical challenge than in any of his previous north London derbies.
There has been a feeling over the past three seasons that power was shifting in this rivalry. Tottenham finished above their neighbours for the first time in 22 years last season but have not pushed home the advantage to become the truly dominant team. A victory at Wembley would put Spurs seven points clear and effectively kill off Arsenal's top-four hopes for this season. But it will take trophies to confirm that Pochettino's men are really on top.
After the derby, Tottenham travel to Turin to meet Juventus in the Champions League knockout round. It will be a severe test for Spurs as they haven't fared well when the pressure is turned up. The meltdown against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge during the title run-in two years ago, when they threw away a two-goal lead to draw 2-2, comes to mind. So too does the loss of conviction against the same team in the late stages of last season's FA Cup semifinal, when Spurs fell apart in a 4-2 defeat. The chaotic finale at Anfield last Sunday suggests that the problem still exists. It's unlikely they have the experience and mentality to go all the way in Europe's most prestigious tournament.
Tottenham's best hope of a trophy could come in the FA Cup. They've been drawn away to Rochdale in the fifth round and a place in the last eight appears assured. Spurs also have the advantage of the potential semifinal and final feeling like home games at Wembley. Qualification for the Champions League for the third successive campaign and winning the cup would represent progress but equally, it's important that their momentum is maintained. The new White Hart Lane opens next season and some of Europe's biggest clubs are sniffing around their best players. Real Madrid's interest in Kane is obvious.
Tottenham's budget is limited. Even when the England striker signs a contract extension, he will be paid less than half the £300,000 per week Ozil earns at the Emirates. Players stay at clubs for two reasons: to earn big wages or win things. Spurs currently do neither but the first step to the latter might be beating Arsenal. Victory in the derby would set the tone for a busy, competitive run-in.
Tottenham have shown they have potential but now they have to prove they can be winners. It's time for Spurs to step up.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.