here is something in Antonio Conte’s suggestion that, for Tottenham and Arsenal, finishing fourth would be equivalent to winning the league in another country.
In August, neither of the north London clubs really expected to challenge Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea or Manchester United after finishing seventh and eighth respectively last season, so a place in the top four, particularly at the expense of the other, would be a seismic achievement.
If Arsenal seal fourth place with a win at the home of their rivals tomorrow night, it is likely to be nearly as satisfying and memorable as their title wins at White Hart Lane in 1971 and 2004 – and a genuinely sickening prospect for Spurs and their supporters.
This is one of the many subplots that makes tomorrow’s game the biggest north London derby in years, certainly since the last time the stakes were so high in 2017, when Spurs were pursuing Chelsea for the title.
And arguably not since 2005-06 has so much been on the line for both clubs, who then drew 1-1 in the third to last game at Highbury, only for Arsenal to pip Spurs to fourth amid the drama of ‘Lasagnagate’ on the final day of the season.
Spurs’ 2-0 win in 2017, in one of the final games at the Lane, was also the last time they had a full home stadium for a north London derby. Supporters have missed this fixture and tomorrow promises to be the best atmosphere yet at Spurs’ new home.
Bragging rights matter, of course, but the derby also feels hugely important for the clubs’ medium-term prospects and has assumed the proportions of a zero-sum game. Both clubs are back on an upward trajectory, Spurs under Conte and Arsenal under Mikel Arteta, and whoever finishes fourth will accelerate their own rebuild while damaging the other’s.
This feels particularly true for Arsenal. Conte is more settled now at Spurs but still refusing to commit beyond the end of the season, and his future hinges on the club matching his “vision” of spending lavishly on “important players”.
Meeting Conte’s demands will be easier to justify for chairman Daniel Levy with the £30million windfall from Champions League qualification and a return to Europe’s top table would enable them to attract a higher calibre of player.
The north London rivals are shopping in a similar market – for example, both considered Takehiro Tomiyasu and Emerson Royal last summer, the former joining Arsenal and the latter Spurs – and whoever finishes fourth would have the upper hand in attracting targets.
With Conte in the dugout and the likes of Harry Kane, Heung-min Son, Dejan Kulusevski and Cristian Romero already in the squad, Spurs could be a real force next term.
On the flip side, a nightmare scenario is Conte deciding he does not have the patience for the scale of Spurs’ rebuild and forcing his way out of the club over the summer, which is surely more likely without the offer of Champions League football and would have serious repercussions for the happiness of Kane and other players.
In all probability, Conte could be persuaded to stay regardless, but with his contract up next summer, Spurs would be more susceptible to mid-season interest from a leading European club like Paris Saint-Germain if they are not in the Champions League.
As for Arsenal, a return to Europe in any form would be a step forward, but a place in the Champions League has the potential to be an almighty springboard for Arteta’s project. The Gunners have recruited cannily and, with the offer of a place among Europe’s elite, they could add some proven winners to the impressive nucleus of young players being developed by Arteta.
Thursday’s derby is an important juncture in the immediate history of the two rivals, the outcome of which could shape their prospects going forward
Conversely, having established a position of strength, blowing fourth place now would add to the sense that Arsenal are still too soft-centred and perhaps raise further questions over Arteta.
Tomorrow’s game is, therefore, not only a huge one-off occasion but also a potentially important juncture in the immediate history of the two rivals, the outcome of which could shape their prospects going forward.