There was a cursory meeting of Arsenal and Tottenham supporters at Frankfurt Airport on Thursday morning, one side beating a retreat from Baku, the other en route to the Champions League final in Madrid. As a snapshot of where the great North London rivals are, and what direction they are heading, it was difficult to ignore the symbolism.
Tottenham may come up short in delivering an unlikely European Cup this evening, but the club is in a good place, one where their rivals in N5 are framed in a rear-view mirror. How has it arrived at this point? Tottenham lost three more Premier League games than Arsenal this season, with 13 of their 38 games ending in failure.
Arsenal were in a position of strength for crucial Champions League qualification until a series of disastrous results against very beatable opposition in the run-in. By that metric, Tottenham are still very much within Arsenal’s compass, but the reality is different and impossible to ignore.
While Mauricio Pochettino has won justifiable praise for the way he has balanced the squad and the limited financial scope for improving it, Daniel Levy and his executive team deserve significant credit for good business over the last six seasons — essentially since the departure of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid.
That €100m windfall in 2013, when Andre Villas-Boas was the manager, became a cautionary tale of the Premier League. That while money can buy you success, it won’t guarantee it. A giddy Tottenham splashed the cash on the likes of Soldado, Chiriches, and Capoue, and only invested well with Christian Eriksen.
I don’t know for sure what influence Levy had on those signings, but with the realisation that Tottenham needed to move on from their White Hart Lane base to generate consistent resources — and not one-off windfalls like Bale — there was a clearly identifiable shift in the business model. Pochettino arrived in 2014 after Levy’s brief dalliance with Tim Sherwood, and a cursory glance at their transfer business since is a template for smart spending.
Subsequent signings like Vertonghen, Wanyama (£12m), Alderweireld (£14m), Dele Alli (£5m), Eric Dier (£4m) and Kieran Trippier (£5m) all came in, but even when Spurs splashed big, the signings have delivered and, crucially, increased in value. Heung-Min Son for £27m from Leverkusen. Moussa Sissoko for £30m from Newcastle. Davinson Sanchez, £36m from Ajax. Lucas Moura from PSG for £25m.
It in this critical area — assets on the pitch — where the difference between Tottenham and Arsenal is now so stark. I have listed 10 players above, at least eight of whom would move on now for a tidy profit. Spurs is a squad rich in resources, even if there have been no additions in this remarkable season. The scouting department certainly earns its wages.
Now look at Arsenal. While they might get their money back for Lacazette and Aubameyang — both are closing in on 30, mind — elsewhere, they are struggling in that regard. There is little money to spend, few sellable assets to generate transfer revenue, and a number of under-performing players on eye-watering contracts. it is a worrying time for my club.
Another thing. Under Levy, there is no way that a player of substance and value would be allowed run down their contract. The Premier League was never the cheapest place to be doing business but financial and contractual mistakes with players can prove very costly these days.
The flipside, of course, as Tottenham are happily discovering now, is that taking care of business can bring vast financial rewards. With all-English finals in both the Champions League and Europa League, this was the season where we finally saw the Premier League achieve real supremacy in European football.
With the increasing financial power of the elite club game in England, the changing of the guard has been coming for a while, as the traditional superpowers like Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich have failed to match the Premier League clubs in the recruitment stakes.
The tide has turned and, if they want to, English clubs can afford to keep their stars now. No longer is it easy for Real Madrid or Barcelona to wave the chequebook. There’s now a very big challenge facing Europe’s traditional powerbrokers like Bayern, Madrid, Barca and (latterly) PSG to get their acts together.
Both Spurs and Liverpool are good examples of how an astute transfer policy, combined with the appointment of strong managers who are also willing to give young home-grown talent a chance, can reap rich rewards.
Liverpool have had a brilliant season in the Premier League. But while they will go into the final as favourites, a lot will depend on how Klopp and his players handle the enormous sense of expectation. The pressure is all on them. Having been beaten in two previous European finals with Klopp at the helm, and having just fallen short in their latest bid to end that 30-year title drought, if they don’t prevail in Madrid tonight they will become the ‘nearly team’.
Much of their thrust will come down the left flank with Robertson and Mane, two massively shrewd purchases. Klopp will use their dynamism to stress Kieran Trippier, who might just be a Tottenham weak link at this stage.
The unquantifiable factor is Spurs’ state of mind.
Is this almost a free shot for them — and is that good or bad? Some will claim that extra pressure is good, but it didn’t help Arsenal in Baku on Wednesday night. The ‘free shot’ was no hindrance to Sarri’s Chelsea, who had already qualified for the Champions League.
As a player, you can feel the effects of the pressure when you’re expected to win, when you’re favourites, when you’ve come close so many times. That can negatively tip the scale, especially if, say, you get off to a poor start and go a goal behind. That’s when the doubts can creep in.
Everyone, including myself, rightly hails Klopp as a great Liverpool manager a wonderful fit for the club. But he’ll continue to have this monkey on his back unless and until he succeeds in the Premier League or the Champions League.
Klopp’s own unwanted record of finishing second-best in cup competitions — he’s lost six out of his last seven, three with Dortmund and three with Liverpool — will add to the pressure on him. He’ll be very aware of it since it’s always a talking point when these big games come around. It’s just something else which adds to the pressure which he and his players will have to handle.
As they showed at the Etihad and in Amsterdam (if erratically throughout the season), Spurs have real potency in their attack: the enigmatic Dele Alli, the technically-gifted Eriksen, and the in-form Son and Lucas Moura.
We must wait to see if Pochettino gambles on Harry Kane to start the final, but it’s at the other end of the pitch where the final may be decided. Klopp went big for Alisson Becker from Roma, and says now he’d have paid twice as much for him if he’d known how good the Brazilian actually was.
With Hugo Lloris, I am not convinced. He’s had some memorable moments (stopping a last-minute Arsenal penalty at Wembley being one), but he’s had problems on and off the field too and he doesn’t offer the comfort I need if I am a Tottenham defender in the club’s first Champions League final. He will be confronted by the proven match-winning ability of Salah, Firmino, and Mane. When they strike form, they’re pretty much unstoppable.