Matches between Tottenham and Arsenal have for years been framed as a battle for the “balance of power” in north London. It is a phrase which seeks to encapsulate and heighten the Premier League rivalry of two long-standing adversaries, yet has always felt slightly curious, implying that only one of the two clubs can enjoy meaningful success at any given time.
However, Thursday’s 191st derby will mean more than most as it could have lasting consequences for both Spurs and Arsenal, potentially defining the trajectory of each in opposition to the other. Champions League qualification is essential for their evolution; neither boasts super-rich owners or the commercial income to match the Premier League’s biggest spenders, so the increase in revenue and prestige garnered through entry into Europe’s premier club competition is vital in their attempts to keep pace with their rivals.
The “balance of power” has been about one club putting the other in their shadow. Arsenal enjoyed this dominance for years under Arsene Wenger, becoming an annual event to the extent it was honoured by what became known colloquially as “St Totteringham’s Day,” the precise moment Spurs can no longer mathematically finish above them in the table. Tottenham have since turned the tide, securing a higher league placing for the last five seasons including in 2018-19, when pipping the Gunners to fourth place on the final day.
Local bragging rights is one thing, but qualifying for the Champions League while ensuring your next-door neighbours miss out is something else entirely. Arsenal are currently four points clear, so a win for would secure them fourth spot at a minimum with two games left, as well as a first St Totteringham’s Day since 2016. Defeat accompanied by a subsequent Spurs win over relegation-threatened Burnley on Sunday would see the Gunners kick-off at Newcastle on Monday night in fifth place, two points behind.
The “balance of power” in north London really is on a knife-edge, and the short-to-medium term futures of both clubs depend on what happens next. So why is the game so important?
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A rebuilding process: find a way back to the top
Spurs enjoyed steady progress under Mauricio Pochettino, reaching a Champions League final three years ago and establishing themselves as top-four regulars after years on the fringes, but the Argentine left the club in November 2019 without a trophy to show for it.
Arsenal enjoyed huge success in the first half of Wenger’s near 22-year reign, but the stagnation that occurred in his later years created a malaise his successor Unai Emery was unable to address. As a former player under Wenger between 2011 and 2016, current head coach Mikel Arteta understands that gradual decline better than most and has convinced the club’s owners to back him in a ruthless overhaul. That process has gathered pace over recent years, despite the club feeling the financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. They cut 55 non-playing staff members in 2020 and culled the scouting network, yet spent £140 million on five new signings and significant sums paying off seven more players (including Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mesut Ozil) to cancel their contracts as Arteta sought a dramatic cultural reset.
Sources have told ESPN that senior figures at Arsenal believe they would be ahead of schedule if they secured Champions League football for next season. The internal expectation was to reach some form of European football this term and then push for the top four next year. Yet it will inevitably feel like a disappointment if they fell short now, especially having occupied fourth place since April 23 and have an 80% chance of securing it, per FiveThirtyEight.
Arsenal and Tottenham have a chance to end the season on a high. Marc Atkins/Getty Images
A financial boost in the transfer market
Securing Champions League football would also give a palpable advantage when trying to attract new players. For example, both Arsenal and Spurs hold an interest in signing Leicester City midfielder Youri Tielemans but part of his motivation is to play on Europe’s biggest club stage and that may be a decisive factor in choosing his next move.
Antonio Conte has made little secret of his intentions for this Tottenham squad, seeking around six new players this summer to transform them into title contenders. Yet financing this plan will require unusual aggression from chairman Daniel Levy and although we are all attempting to put the pandemic in the rear-view mirror, it remains firmly visible on the balance sheet.
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Arsenal announced a record pre-tax loss for the year ending May 31 — so, not including any of the summer’s transfer splurge — of £127m. Tottenham announced an £80.2m loss for the same period and suggested the pandemic had cost the club almost £150m overall.
Both Arsenal and Spurs took advantage of the Bank of England’s COVID Corporate Financing Facility, Arsenal borrowing £120m and Spurs taking £175m, to offset the pandemic’s impact. Inadvertently compounding the situation, Spurs opened their £1 billion new stadium in April 2019, but costs spiralled, in part due to Brexit, and event revenue subsequently collapsed with football matches played behind closed doors and music concerts cancelled.
Debt has not stopped fresh investment in the past, but Tottenham’s total debt last year stood at £706m, largely due to their stadium build. Finance expert Swiss Ramble stated Arsenal’s net debt at the same point was £199.1m.
In the absence of the failed European Super League project — which both clubs signed up to — the monetary boost Champions League qualification would provide is a potential game-changer. This season, the maximum the Europa League winners can earn in prize money alone is €23.4m. The Champions League winners could earn €85.1m.
Will Harry Kane want to leave Tottenham again if they don’t finish in the Champions League spots? Ryan Pierse/Getty Images
A way to keep star players
Manchester City’s £51m signing of Erling Haaland from Borussia Dortmund takes the most obvious suitor for striker Harry Kane out of the running, but the England captain will likely still need convincing that Spurs can challenge for major honours. Another year out of the Champions League when he turns 29 next month could play on his mind.
There is some doubt over whether Conte himself will stay on next season, too. Although Spurs are making positive noises behind the scenes about backing the Italian, the situation regarding his future still feels tense.
It must be said that Arteta is far less proven as a manager than Conte but he is developing a promising body of work at Arsenal and by having already extended his contract until 2025, continuity is ensured no matter what European competition Arsenal end up in.
The Gunners have decisions of their own to make over Eddie Nketiah, Alexandre Lacazette and Mohamed Elneny, three players out of contract this summer, with Arteta keen to finalise plans once the precise requirements for next season are known. They will need squad depth however, having already streamlined significantly. A forward, a winger and a central midfielder are their primary targets, although other positions are being monitored.
Antonio Conte believes that finishing in the top four would be like winning the Premier League or Champions League.
A controversial postponement
Thursday’s game has an edge in one other way, chiefly around the timing. The subjective nature of the Premier League’s decision-making around postponements involving COVID-19 cases was always going to lead to arguments and perhaps the most controversial was Arsenal successfully getting the derby moved in January with just a solitary case.
The Gunners had several players at the Africa Cup of Nations and injuries elsewhere, not to mention they had just been beaten in the last minute by Manchester City, knocked out of the FA Cup at Nottingham Forest and engaged in a tense Carabao Cup semifinal first leg at Liverpool. Spurs issued a statement at the time highlighting their “extreme surprise” at the postponement and although Conte refused to double down on that irritation this week, the prospect of facing an Arsenal team in altogether stronger shape — on a four-game winning streak no less, knowing they can lose and still make the top four — will continue to irritate.
Conte has at least had more time to work with his players. Back in January, it was clear his ideas had not bedded in after just two months in the job.
“I think now we are a team with more organisation in the tactical and physical aspect,” said Conte on Tuesday. “Now for sure this team has more football knowledge and at that time, I arrived in November and in only one month we tried to give a lot of information to the players. We had time to improve and to be a team stronger now than the past.”
Spurs are used to waiting for this fixture, however. A quirk of circumstance means this will be the first north London derby staged at Tottenham’s lavish arena in front of a full crowd. The 2018-19 game was played at Wembley a month before the stadium opened, the 2019-20 game was behind closed doors during “Project Restart,” and last season’s fixture was in December when fans were allowed back into the stadium for the first time in 277 days but only 2,000 supporters could attend due to COVID restrictions.
The stadium was built for nights like this. It was also designed with the ambition of Tottenham becoming a European powerhouse. The next step is securing a top-four finish and only victory over their bitterest rivals will be enough. Power really is in the balance this time.