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Will Spurs keep finishing ahead of Arsenal?

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Two of TSF’s resident chuckleheads take turns at debating this very important question.

Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

This piece might have the feel and look of a “First Take”, but unlike that show, we’re actively trying to make our readers informed and smarter after reading this. And we won’t shout. But be warned: Most of this post is about Tottenham, not about Arsenal. And it’s not a takeover article! It’s from us! But it does relate to Arsenal, so that’s a thing.

With all that said, pdb and Travis take a stab at debating whether or not north London’s about to turn blue for much longer than we ever dreamed, thought, or feared possible.

TRAVIS:

Increased television and European competition money. Mauricio Pochettino. A new stadium that will increase matchday revenues. The same London location they’ve benefited from in the past. A competent, well-oiled managerial structure and ideology in place that goes as high as the Chairman of the Board. A doping program that is so strong it virtually guarantees the speedy recoveries of players otherwise resigned to the dustbin were the injuries to occur elsewhere. All of these, and more, are reasons why the new supremacy of Spurs might not be going anywhere for the foreseeable future.

Since Pochettino’s arrival in 2014, and with it Tottenham’s first moderately-intelligent and forward-thinking manager since never, Spurs quickly and with ruthless precision created a culture and identity to how they play, how they organize, and who they recruit. Gone are the days of blowing the Gareth Bale money on Paulinho, Roberto Soldado, and Étienne Capoue. Instead, Pochettino - with smart, carefully laid out planning from Director of Football Rebecca Caplehorn - has created an enviable roster out of purchases such as Dele Alli, Heung-Min Son, Toby Alderweireld, Victor Wanyama, and Moussa Sissoko. There’s a planning and purpose made with each of these purchases combined with (relatively) cheap or modest transfer fees.

The narrative for Spurs next season will be that the club will struggle mightily to hold on to Pochettino and the key players responsible for their last couple seasons, which is an especially seductive throughline for Arsenal fans particularly when combined with the well-known viewpoint that the English Premier League is one of the most competitive in the world and the teams at the top are always looking to add the best players from the rest of the league.

Here’s the thing, though: European competitions, combined with a new stadium, bring new, vastly-increased sources of revenue generation and modern training facilities, along with Tottenham offering the same cosmopolitan location that other rival continental clubs don’t have. All of this will help to ensure that Tottenham remains a place that can retain their current staff, in addition to recruiting even better players in the future.

pdb:

Here’s the thing about narratives. They start out as truth, before they harden into evolution-resistant easily distributed soundbites that only contain a small nugget of that original truth, seen fleetingly through a lens stained with what’s actually happening. While all the things that Travis mentioned above are true, I think that the operational realities of the Premier League will mess with those narratives, and here’s why.

1. Spurs are about to be homeless for a season. They’re building a brand new White Hart Lane, on the site of the current one, and that will obviously necessitate a temporary move. They’re moving to Wembley, a 90,000 seat stadium 12 miles to the southwest of WHL; this is in no way a major travel inconvenience for most Spurs fans, I wouldn’t think, but it is an adjustment to game day routines for both team and supporters alike.

The nearest comparable situation is West Ham’s move this year from Upton Park to the London Stadium, and even that’s not the best comp because of the relative strength of the two teams, but still, there are similarities. West Ham moved into a place that was far bigger than their old place (check) that has very little of the personality, character, or history of their old place (check), and that is big enough that they’ll struggle to fill it every week (check).

And West Ham have struggled there, no doubt. Six wins in 17, and a -9 GD. This is where the comp breaks apart, though, because West Ham are also, regardless of venue, a pretty bad team this season whose struggles can’t be entirely blamed on their home venue. I have no illusions that Spurs will struggle this badly at Wembley, but I also don’t think that the move will be as seamless and easy as people seem to think it might be. Arsenal played Champions League games at Wembley from 1998-2000, and only managed two wins in six games. Wembley’s a stadium for special events - Cup finals and the like. As an everyday home, Spurs may not be so thrilled.

2. Spurs are about to take a pretty big financial hit. While they’re not entirely funding their new stadium (they got a ton of tax breaks, and the NFL is chipping in a few million bucks in exchange for the right to play there), and while there’s undoubtedly more money in the game now than there was when Arsenal built their stadium, the reality is that Spurs are building a billion-dollar stadium (the most recent cost estimate clocks in at ~£800 million).

That very large investment in infrastructure will necessitate a lot more financial prudence than they’ve had to exercise in recent years. They’re not currently profligate, but they’ll have to think twice about giving the Dele Allis and Heung-Min Sons of the world the fat raises that excellent seasons usually engender, and they might be a little more receptive to transfer talk for their players than they would have been two years ago.

Tottenham are far from financial giants to start with - they’re in the top half of the league, financially, but have a ways to go to reach the size of the Manchesters and Chelsea and, right behind them, Arsenal. So the degree to which they can weather the financial austerity required is definitely an open question.

They certainly won’t go broke or anything, but I would also be surprised if they were able to add significantly to their playing staff during the construction years. They’ll probably have to start maximizing value for money rather than making big splashy signings, which carries with it an inherent risk that those signings won’t work out.

Look no further than how Tottenham spent their Bale money - on Paulinho, Christian Eriksen, Roberto Soldado, Nacer Chadli, Etienne Capoue, Vlad Chiriches and Erik Lamela. That’s not a great success rate, and if Spurs’ budget mandates they stay in that realm of non-rock star player spending, there’s a lot of risk that they’ll keep getting it wrong.

3. Spurs and their players (and coach) are about to have a lot more visibility. The inevitable byproduct of a year as successful as the one Spurs have had this year is that their players who have also had great years are much more visible on the European stage. In the ruthless capitalistic world of European soccer, that means they’re much more fungible. It’s not automatic that one good season means every good player leaves; what is automatic is that good season ensures that the player’s agent will be looking to maximize interest in that player from wherever it can be maximized.

Spurs have a pretty solid core; it remains to be seen whether Daniel Levy can either pay his players enough to keep them happy there or fend off inevitable interest in them from elsewhere (which, admittedly, might end up being the same thing). The more success Poch has, the more he might get his head turned by one of the big money clubs, as well.

So, long story, uh, long, I don’t think it’s inevitable that Spurs will overtake Arsenal much past this season. They’re unequivocally better this year, and depending on what happens at the top for Arsenal, they might be better again next season. Arsenal will also evolve, improve, and change, though, and they’ve had a 20 year head start on Spurs in that regard.

If the tide is turning, it’s turning slowly, and I don’t believe this turn is permanent. For all the talk of Arsenal’s trophy drought, Spurs haven’t won a title since 1961; to give that number a little perspective, England didn’t even get color TV until 1969.

Even if Spurs win it this season or next and beat Arsenal to the trophy, that title win will be Spurs’ third. In their entire 134 year history. Arsenal have won 13 in 131. Tell me again about how the balance of power is shifting?