Tottenham’s temporary home was always going to play a big part in their transformation from glamorous under-achievers to a club capable of joining the European elite; and despite those early scare stories about a ‘Wembley jinx’, that opportunity is starting to hit home with record attendances, a raised global profile and a Champions League victory over Real Madrid which has made football sit up and take notice.
Home advantage against their old rivals, then, ought to be key; but Wembley holds a special place in Arsenal hearts, too, and for years they have proudly held the record of the club that has played most times at England’s national stadium.
Forty-one times at the ‘old’ Wembley (a record which can never be taken away from them) and a further 11 times under the current arch — a list of fixtures which includes 17 FA Cup finals and six League Cup finals.
In fact, Arsene Wenger’s recent Wembley record is quite remarkable. Since losing the League Cup final to Birmingham in 2011, his side have won nine consecutive matches there, creating a feeling of invincibility which will certainly be a factor this weekend.
Arsenal legend Paul Merson said: “You ought to feel that because they are at home, Tottenham have the advantage. But this is Wembley and Arsenal have been there enough times and done very well there. If this was White Hart Lane I wouldn’t give Arsenal much chance — but at Wembley they are very comfortable and it’s a nice big pitch for them. It makes a difference.”
What Tottenham hope, however, is that Wembley can be the springboard to help them finally overtake their rivals (it’s a long road because Arsenal lead the head-to-head 81-62 and the trophy count 45-26 since the first North London Derby in 1909) as they prepare to move into their new high-tech stadium next year.
In one way at least, they have already achieved that goal because Arsenal’s place at the top of the Wembley appearances list has, thanks to Tottenham’s current tenancy, already been eclipsed.
Spurs have now played 53 times at the iconic stadium, one more than the Gunners. It is a tally which includes 13 Premier League games and six Champions League fixtures over the last two seasons — but also nine FA Cup finals, including replays, going back to the legendary ‘double’ season of 1960-61.
Maybe it’s a statistical victory which doesn’t mean much — it certainly doesn’t compare to winning trophies or finishing in the top four — but it does show that Tottenham are growing more and more used to the big stage and consequently manager Mauricio Pochettino no longer has to answer questions about why his team cannot win at Wembley.
In fact, they have lost just once in the Premier League there this season, scoring 28 goals in the process.
“We feel confident,” Pochettino said. “Arsenal will be tough to play, but Wembley is starting to feel good for us.”
Tottenham have felt that way before.
Memories of the FA Cup semi-final of 1991, when Paul Gascoigne scored one of the most iconic free-kick goals of all time to help beat Arsenal 3-1, is one of the cornerstones of Spurs’ culture and history; a Wembley match which fulfilled their philosophy of ‘to do is to dare’.
But there was, of course, a 1-0 victory for Arsenal, thanks to a Tony Adams goal, in the same fixture two years later and that, until now, was the last Wembley meeting
between the teams — so you suspect Spurs fans will feel it is a good time to make a statement about their club’s future intentions.
That’s what makes this game so fascinating; there may be no cup final at stake this time, but nevertheless, the tension is the same.
Having taken 91 years to become appearance kings of Wembley (going back to a 1-0 FA Cup final defeat against Cardiff in 1927), Arsenal know statistically that particular crown has already gone, thanks to Tottenham’s season as tenants in the borough of Brent; but they may not be ready to give up north London supremacy quite so easily.