There’s a favorite song Arsenal fans like to sing in the stadium. “There’s only one team in London!” they croon at city rivals or, rather, to themselves.
This has never been true, of course. Currently, London counts 14 professional soccer clubs, six of them in the Barclays Premier League.
And it certainly isn’t true now. While Arsenal’s 13 league titles are more than those of all other London teams put together, they haven’t won one since 2004. Chelsea have long since outpaced their crosstown rivals, winning the Premier League three times since Arsenal were last champions. And now, horror of horrors, Tottenham Hotspur, their opponents this Sunday (live, FOX Soccer, 11 a.m. ET) with whom they loathingly share the northern part of town, are better too. It might not yet have dawned on all the Gooners, as the Gunners fans like to go by, but laid side by side, Spurs have the much superior squad.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Spurs goalkeepers Hugo Lloris and Brad Friedel are both better than Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczesny. A backline of Kyle Walker, Steven Caulker, Michael Dawson and Kyle Naughton or Jan Vertonghen may be less experienced and have conceded two more goals, but at the moment it inspires more confidence than one of Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, Thomas Vermaelen, Per Mertesacker and Nacho Monreal. Scott Parker, Moussa Dembele, Gylfi Sugurdsson and Lewis Holtby are all better playmakers than Aaron Ramsey, Thomas Rosicky, Jack Wilshere or Mikel Arteta.
Up front, Jermaine Defoe, Aaron Lennon, Clint Dempsey and Emmanuel Adebayor are at least equal to Arsenal’s forward corps of Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski, Santi Cazorla and Gervinho. And Spurs’ best player, Gareth Bale, who is in improbable form, is better than the Gunners’ Theo Walcott. Tottenham’s bench, meanwhile, is inarguably deeper than Arsenal’s.
All of the above is subjective and subject to current form and injuries, even if former Arsenal right back Emmanuel Eboue tweeted that “the set of players we now have are like chicken fillet.”
What is not subjective, however, is the disparity in success these sides have had. Arsenal’s season is in tatters. They made their worst start to the league in almost two decades – going 5-4-6 – and are no longer favorites to finish in the top four. They were virtually eliminated from the Champions League by losing to Bayern Munich 3-1 at home. And they crashed out of both the League Cup and FA Cup early, at the hands of lower-league teams no less. Their previously untouchable manager Arsène Wenger now lives on borrowed time and, still thinking himself unimpeachable, has begun lashing out at the press.
Spurs on the hand are led by a hotshot young manager in Andre Villas-Boas, who has redeemed his reputation after flaming out at Chelsea last year. He’s further refined the attractive style the fired Harry Redknapp instilled and after their riveting 3-2 comeback against West Ham on Monday they moved into third place. They’re in the last 16 of the Europa League, as well.
Yet a derby as heated as this one is usually impervious to context and form. This was certainly true the last two times these teams faced off. Arsenal won both those games at home by a score of 5-2, even though each time Spurs were in better form heading in. Both of those drubbings occurred at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. During the first one, on Feb. 26, 2012, Spurs went ahead 2-0 in just over half an hour before Arsenal roused from its slumber and turned a bad performance into a sparkling one by scoring five unanswered goals. In the second, on Nov. 17, 2012, Adebayor gave Spurs the lead in the 10th minute – his 10th goal in twelve North London derbies – and then got himself sent off for a bone-crunching tackle on Cazorla just seven minutes later, essentially giving a way a game his side had been dominating. In this grudge-match, the improbable will probably not to happen.
Sunday’s game will be played at White Hart Lane, some four miles up the road, changing the equation from the last two editions. If Arsenal manages regardless to “do the double” over Spurs – beat them in both their league games this season, in other words – their season won’t be a total loss and things won’t look quite so bleak for a few days. If they can humiliate Spurs again, every indignity they’ve suffered this year might seem justified, somehow.
For one day, they’d be the only club in London – to their fans’ minds, at least.