I didn’t see it coming. We’d been squeezed back into our own half from the very beginning, a dog on a leash struggling in vain to free himself.
From where I sit, you see every bead of sweat, each straining muscle, look into the players’ eyes and beyond, deep into their psyche and their soul, determination or fear, laid bare. I saw the pass but not where it would end up. I saw the red shirts, odd how they stand out, more so than the white, however bright. So much red and the only white was the ball itself. Then Lennon, scampering goalwards, so sudden, so perfect because in that instant I knew. Control as perfect as Greaves, gliding, in his stride. Bustle and rush, this frantic game paused for a long, lingering moment. The moment. Lennon looked up, saw an open goal. I looked up, saw an open goal, just as I see it now, eyes half-shut.
Felt the moment. In my ears, the roar. A powerful exultation from way down, expressing years, decades of frustration and misery, gone in that instant. The old ground shook and shivered around us, coming to life like an old soldier’s last hurrah, rediscovering the spirit and glory of past victories, buried but never forgotten. Seen it all before but knows there’s more to come.
Finishing above our rivals for the first time since 1995 carries a meaning and significance far greater than the parochialism of a win in the north London derby. Once, we were equals, with identical records in a fixture that dates back to the early years of the last century. Then they pulled away into the far distance, in the process winning not one but two Doubles at White Hart Lane. I was there for both and it hurt, my goodness me it hurt.
Now, there is an inescapable feeling that the balance of power is about to shift and this game was the tipping point. More precisely, around 4.35 on March 3rd 2013 was the tipping point. A relatively young Tottenham team is one for the future, packed with skilful players desperate to better themselves and loyal to manager André Villas-Boas. Contrast this with Arsène Wenger, a decent man unfairly criticised by sections of the media and his own fans but whose ideas appear jaded, his hitherto masterful judgement in the transfer market having finally failed to bring in enough players of sufficient quality. Never mind north London, the future is ours.
Derbies often don’t live up to expectations but you cannot say this about the north London derbies at Spurs in the last five years. Fantastic, breathless football with the quality enhanced rather than hampered by the frenetic pace. The 3-3 match was one of the best ever seen in the Premier League, two sides giving everything they had for 90 minutes.
Yesterday, Arsenal did not give everything and therein lies a significant difference between the sides and between Arsenal then and now. On top for the first half an hour, they beavered away in midfield and denied Spurs any room. We could not keep the ball and as in other matches recently, especially in the opponents’ final third where Adebayor singularly failed to rouse himself despite the usual inspiration of playing against his old team and Parker, the supposed reliable, was more flummoxed than the rest.
Our defence were exposed but rose to the task. Dawson and Vertonghen were magnificent throughout, unbeatable in the box. Superjan’s saving tackle on Giroud was miraculous. Time and again Dawson got to the ball first. Rock solid and they did as much as Bale and Lennon to win the match for us. Lloris, impeccable again, swept up the leftovers.
Both sides played a high line so the play was heavily compressed in the centre. Trying to get going, we fell back, playing the ball this way and that across the halfway line. Suited Arsenal – we were getting nowhere and it was only a matter of time before we gave it away under pressure. To counter Walcott’s pace, we had dropped back a little more than in previous games so everything moved five or ten yards closer to our goal. Dembele moved up a little towards the end of the half and had a good period either side of half time.
Bale gets all the attention. I noticed the hand-held camera following him at full-time when it should have been on Vertonghen and Dawson. However, the key is that somewhere in the last couple of months, Spurs have discovered the mysterious alchemy of resilience. We were not playing well but we did not concede. Not fluent but it was tight. Bale in fact was not allowed much time or space but the midfield stayed firm and the defence played as a unit.
Regular Spurs fans, just pause to consider one aspect of the last couple of paragraphs. The fact that I can write about a defence working as a unit. Pushing up, playing the high line, playing any tactic for that matter. Who would have thought it? Walker had the best game defensively he’s had for a long while. Anyway, something is working and that is down to our Andre.
But back to Bale. As we always do. Add a matchwinner to that resilience and we have a team capable of doing something. It’s the recipe of a successful side. Under pressure, we were at our most creative and turned adversity into goals. Bale on the end of Siggy’s pass and he took it like a classic goalpoacher. But what a pass – took 6 red shirts out of the game in a single moment. Lennon on the end of Parker’s pass – took out five red shirts in a single moment. I’ve read stinging criticism of Arsenal’s back four but they were two fine goals, perfectly timed runs onto passes of perfection.
The old Arsenal would have come back at us after the break but that sustained determination is missing. Don’t know exactly what it is but we’ve got it and they’ve lost it.
After taking over as the second half began, we stupidly gave away the sort of goal that makes my blood boil. On top but concede a needless free-kick and pathetic marking at the near post. Yet despite a couple of chances, our opponents’ opportunities were limted by sterling defence that got better as the match went on. The players look so fit they could have played another game straight way. In fact, once Defoe came on (can’t get rid of the idea that Manu took the easy way out) we looked the more likely to score again, Bale putting it over at the far post after a stunning move from deep inside our half and Siggy showing the tell-tale signs of a man without confidence by passing when the only option was a shot.
Within the mayhem in the stands, something odd happened. About 80 minutes, I suddenly found a moment’s calm. Dawson and Vertonghen were winning everything. Perhaps Arsenal weren’t going to score after all.
Many articles over the weekend about the fit between Villas-Boas and Tottenham, favourably comparing his achievements with his time at Chelsea where the old guard did not take to his methods and Abramovich pulled the chair out from under him just as he was trying to get comfy. Undaunted, the young manager with the manner of an earnest, newly qualified teacher came to a club where he could express the ambition that burned inside him. He found a group of talented, maturing footballers of a like mind who were good but wanted to better themselves.
Similar pieces appeared here in Tottenham On My Mind before the season began. I added that we may have to wait awhile until it all came together. For once, I was right. The players have bought into the Villas-Boas way and so have I. At the end, we celebrated together, players chucking their shirts into the crowd, Dawson the last to leave the pitch. The old place may be on its last legs but on the good days it rocks like a proper football ground should, and this was one of the very best.