LONDON – Such is the standard Manchester City are setting this season, an away draw against a title rival can no longer be considered a good result.
Unless the wheels fall off of Pep Guardiola’s record-making team — and there have been no signs of this — the chasing pack lives with the knowledge that anything other than a victory is failure. It is now the must-win league.
Arsenal plays Tottenham Hotspur in the first of the post-international Premier League matches and coming away from Emirates Stadium, where the home team has won its last 10 games, with a point would normally be satisfying. Not now.
City has an eight-point lead and unless Leicester City can do what only Everton has achieved — deny the league leaders victory — the pressure to be even some sort of long-distance challenger remains as intense as ever.
The bookmakers, who tend to make few mistakes, have City 1-6 favorites to win the Premier League with Tottenham, at 12-1 second favorites. In other words, as things stand, the title race is effectively over by mid-November with six months to go. Soon, Sky Sports and BT Sport will be promoting matches as “the race to finish second hots up.”
Saturday, the fight to finish as north London’s top dogs will resume with Arsenal four points behind Tottenham, a match which for the Gunners is a must-must-win because a loss would be a real hammer-blow to its hopes of even finishing above Spurs, let alone runner-up in the league. Local pride is important and when a reporter put it to Arsene Wenger that Arsenal dominated Spurs “for a long time”the Frenchman interrupted and said: “Yes, for 20 years.”
The pendulum has swung and Arsenal has not beaten Tottenham in the Premier League in the last six attempts (two losses, four draws). However, Tottenham has suffered defeats at the hands of Chelsea and Manchester United, further tarnishing Mauricio Pochettino’s dreadful record against title rivals. Away from home, Pochettino has managed to secure just nine points from a possible 48 against the league’s top six sides since he joined Spurs in 2014.
If you assume Spurs will not win the Premier League or Champions League, then already the season is a disappointment, even a write-off, for Pochettino. Spurs were knocked out of the League Cup by West Ham and realistically the F.A. Cup is its only remaining target, which is not enough for the Argentine who said as the season started: “I need to explain what it means to win a trophy. I want to win the Premier League. I don’t say that it’s not important to win the League Cup or the F.A. Cup or the Europa League. But for me every season Tottenham needs to have the possibility of winning the Premier League and of winning the Champions League. The two most important trophies. That is our challenge. If one day I am not capable of winning the Premier League with Tottenham or we don’t have the chance to win it, I would be disappointed. There’s often a lot of talk Tottenham need a trophy. But no, we need a big trophy.”
Tottenham is, pound for pound,probably the most underachieving of clubs. It has not been champion of England since 1961, it is 26 years since it won the F.A. Cup and its last success was the League Cup in 2008. Jokes about thieves breaking in and leaving empty handed because there was nothing in Tottenham’s trophy cabinet to steal continue.
Arsenal fans have given up on seeing their club winning the Premier League again while Wenger remains in charge. Tottenham supporters’ short-term ambitions remain lower than the manager’s and lifting the F.A. Cup would be considered success. The problem for Tottenham and all Premier League clubs apart from Manchester United and Chelsea is that Guardiola’s City looks set to dominate for this season and next, which is as far ahead as you can look in football. City also has the financial clout to strengthen the country’s best team even more. United and Chelsea can and will spend big, but Tottenham cannot compete at that level.
Pochettino has fashioned the best Spurs team most can remember. Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris is one of the top five goalkeepers in the world, Dele Alli is a precocious talent, Harry Kane is arguably the best striker in the world after Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, while Christian Eriksen would get into virtually every club or national side in the world.
Danny Rose is England’s best left-back, Erik Dier is the latest England captain, South Korea’s Son Heung-min is the all-time leading Asian goalscorer in the Premier League, Toby Alderweireld (currently injured) is as solid as any central defender . . . so Pochettino has, after Pep Guardiola, probably the best collection of individuals to select from.
Europe’s top leagues are now dominated by clubs for who money is no object. Tottenham and Arsenal missed their chance when Leicester came from nowhere to win the title and such an opportunity is unlikely to arise again. Pochettino wants the chance to win the Premier League — Tottenham had that last year, but blew it.
Saturday’s clash between north London’s finest promises to be an intriguing tactical battle between Wenger and Pochettino.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.