There are certain things I never thought I’d say.
“No, I don’t want that next beer.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Ratajkowski; I should really be heading home.”
“Thank you, Tottenham.”
But the last thing I want to do is to appear churlish after Spurs preserved Arsenal’s Premier League record of 14 consecutive wins by beating Chelsea last week. And I suppose I should also express my gratitude to Tottenham for keeping the title race alive when it had threatened to be stomped to death in one of Antonio Conte’s triumphant sideline celebrations.
Let’s not get carried away, though. This was not Spurs extending an olive branch to their bitter North London rivals, because had it been, the game would have ended in a mass brawl featuring a half-dozen red cards and the ground opening up to swallow anything wearing blue — or white.
No, this was Tottenham making a bold statement of intent that feels different from the hopeful bluster they’ve bleated over the past 21 years of vertigo-inducing capitulation to their neighbors. It’s a testament to Tottenham’s physio department that anyone who played or managed at the club during the past two decades doesn’t have a permanent crick in his neck from gazing up at Arsenal in the standings.
So what is the world coming to when a Gooner has to endure the sight of Spurs’ fans holding their heads high after the first 20 games of this free-for-all of a campaign?
It’s not simply by dint of their impressive 2-0 victory over the league leaders that Spurs vaulted into third place and dropped Arsenal to fifth, where the Gunners can feel the turgid breath of Jose Mourinho on their necks. It’s that Tottenham seem to have exorcised any remnants of the inherent “Spursy-ness” that has caused them to melt down so entertainingly — and with such magnificent consistency — over the years.
While it’s still too early to know if they can stay what promises to be a very choppy course — the big six are currently separated by only 10 points — the convincing manner in which Tottenham tore off Chelsea’s mask of invincibility augurs well for a team that’s usually delighted just to make the Europa League.
Manager Mauricio Pochettino appears to have concocted a potent blend of imperious defending, effervescent attacking and a willingness to work ceaselessly for each other that is designed to keep Conte from getting a good night’s sleep for the next three months. And it doesn’t hurt that of the half-dozen title challengers, Spurs have the most favorable run-in. They play only two of the top teams (Manchester City and Liverpool) away from home and get to host Arsenal in their penultimate fixture at White Hart Lane. What a love fest that promises to be, particularly if a Champions League berth is at stake.
Of course, the Gunners aren’t about to go quietly into Thursday night football, as they showed with their stirring comeback at Bournemouth last Tuesday. Trailing 3-0 with 20 minutes left, they fought back to equalize in injury time on a towering header from Oliver Giroud, whose goal 48 hours earlier against Crystal Palace you might have heard about.
But for all the talk about Arsenal’s strength of character in rescuing a point, thus far they appear to lack the single-minded focus of their North London rivals. The fact that after scoring at Bournemouth, Giroud chose to waste precious time auditioning for Dancing with the Prats with an awkward scorpion goal celebration when there were still four minutes left to play seems in keeping with Arsenal’s preening, selfie-taking culture. The look on Alexis Sanchez’ face while Giroud pranced on the touchline screamed “Where do I sign up for Chinese lessons?”
Why do I think that someone like Harry Kane would have grabbed the ball out of the net, sprinted back to the center circle and exhorted his teammates to go hell-bent for the winner? Indeed, to understand the difference in mentality between Arsenal and Tottenham you only have to go back to Spurs’ watershed October victory over then-undefeated Man City, a game that first opened Pep Guardiola’s eyes to the bruising intensity of the Premier League.
In the 70th minute, Son Heung-Min was fouled in the box and awarded a penalty kick only for his teammate Erik Lamela to step up. Some ludicrous shenanigans ensued over who was to take the kick — Lamela won the debate but his shot was saved — as Pochettino glowered from the touchline. It was to be the first and last blip in team harmony among Spurs’ “band of brothers.”
Conversely, there was Arsenal’s disheveled performance against Bournemouth.
Early on, Sanchez, who looks increasingly like a frustrated one-man army, raged at Aaron Ramsey for the Welshman’s failure to make the correct run in the box. Later Hector Bellerin, one of the fastest defenders in the league, was beaten for pace by a squat, no-necked Scot named Ryan Fraser and shoulder-barged off the ball. Neither of these mental or physical frailties are part of the story across town.
Against Chelsea, Pochettino’s decision to mirror Conte’s now-fabled 3-4-3 formation wasn’t some groundbreaking tactical move: Ronald Koeman tried the same gambit and Everton ended up getting torn apart 5-0. More important was that Tottenham’s Argentine boss was able to galvanize his team to play with an urgency that Chelsea couldn’t match, especially within the raucous confines of The Lane. This is both a credit to Pochettino’s man-management skills and a reflection of the high-grade technical ability radiating throughout his squad.
You can argue that Hugo Lloris, Toby Alderweireld, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose are the best at their positions in the league. The fact that they comprise four-sixths — Jan Vertongnen and Eric Dier aren’t exactly slouches either — of the Prem’s meanest defense only buttresses the case, and more often than not, the team with the stingiest back line wins the title.
While defensive midfielders Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele don’t attract the plaudits of their Chelsea counterparts, their out-muscling of N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic last Wednesday disrupted any semblance of service to Eden Hazard and Diego Costa as though they were on the London Underground during a rail strike.
Intelligent Spurs fans — assuming such creatures are not mythological — will tell you that as Christian Eriksen goes, so do Tottenham. When the silky Danish playmaker started ponderously this season, opting for Louis van Gaal-esque sideways passes that allowed opponents time to re-align their defenses, Spurs stuttered.
Fortunately, Eriksen has rediscovered his mojo, while Dele Alli (seven goals in the past four league games) and Harry Kane (eight in 10 since returning from injury) have also found their groove. As Eriksen demonstrated against Chelsea with his two ridiculously accurate crosses onto Alli’s head for both goals, the intelligence and precision of his passing can change a game in an eye blink. Also, it helped that Chelsea’s Victor Moses had no idea what he was supposed to be doing and that Cesar Azpilicueta was three inches shorter than Alli.
The 20-year-old tyro was simply head and shoulders above everyone else. The way he hung in the air until guiding the ball past Thibaut Courtois with a decisive flex of his neck was downright Ronaldo-esque. Alli should fit in nicely at Real Madrid. But Alli’s evolution as an elite player goes beyond his leaping and heading ability. There is a new-found sense of maturity to his game. He no longer looks to nutmeg opponents every time he receives the ball.
Meanwhile, Kane’s tireless running off the ball opens up space for Eriksen and Alli to exploit. It’s worth noting that even though he was out for six weeks with an ankle ligament problem and then nowhere near his menacing form for two months, Kane still managed to score 59 goals in his first 100 Premier League games, a record that becomes all the more eye-watering when you consider the last player to achieve it: Thierry Henry.
Yet for all the abundance of individual talent on this Tottenham team, it’s their sheer hunger and collective sense of purpose that makes them a genuine threat. Chelsea chose to press sporadically against Spurs, but Pochettino’s men chased and harried all over the pitch, choking off every passing angle with the kind of swarming relentlessness you’ve come to expect from the youngest and arguably fittest team in the league.
Frankly, I’m worried. I already have a bad back and the prospect of looking up at Spurs in the standings at season’s end might just spell the end of my spinal column, as well as my tattered Arsenal psyche.
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.