Discover more from Unexpected Delirium
The North London Derby, and why it's okay to miss a bit of it
I missed the first twenty minutes of the North London Derby, and I don't regret it for a second.
Manchester City just keep grinding out those wins, so to an extent we’re all bald men arguing over a comb in the Premier League this season, but local derbies tap into something… different. More atavistic. And as I have expressed before, I hate everything about local derbies. At least, in those in which I have a vested interest.
But as kick-off approached at The Emirates Stadium on Sunday afternoon, I was otherwise engaged. I have two kids, one of which was eight a week and a half ago, the other of which will be six in about three weeks time, and we were just finishing clearing up after their joint-birthday party.
And privately, I wasn’t that disappointed. What good ever comes from them? Even if you win, you’re just postponing your next defeat by one match, and you won’t win anyway because you never seem to win those games, and certainly not the ones of great importance. Most of the time.
But unfortunately, we barely live 200 yards from the community centre, so I just switched the television on in time to see Bukayo Saka trick Cristian Romero into giving Arsenal the lead. Of course, with three children who may have just eaten their own bodyweights in Skittles—including one of their little friends, because WHY STOP AT TWO?—was always going to make completely focusing on the match at hand difficult, but through the haze of glitter and screeching it does at least look as though Spurs are making something of a game of it.
And then, three minutes from half-time, they draw level. Furthermore, they deserve it. The frantic nature of these matches means that they are often more heat than light, and it is an error-strewn first half, but it is certainly not an error-strewn first half during which they have been outplayed. And that, let me tell you, in quite some progress.
The second half seems set to follow a familiar pattern, too. A contentious penalty kick early on to give Arsenal the lead. That familiar post-goal swagger. But on this occasion, they let the moment go to their heads slightly and Jorginho esswitch off for a moment too long. James Maddison threads the ball through to Heung Min Son, and Spurs are level again.
So, let’s address the penalty. I’m plenty willing to accept that I’ve seen ‘em given. But the fact remains—and I think I’ve been consistent on this sort of thing over the years, though Self Doubt remains my middle name—that if you give somebody a penalty kick, you’re giving them an 80% chance of a goal.
Considering this, the narrow margins that separate victory and defeat, and the huge amounts of money at stake, you’d think that referees would be pretty circumspect, but this has never seemed to be the case. The awarding of penalty kicks has become the game’s extra-time multi-ball. Even in games in which they’re not given, someone will be complaining that one wasn’t.
Was it handball? Well, having seen ‘em given and whether they should have been given are not the same thing, and I remain broadly of the view that there seem to be some positions into which a player’s body can end up in which there may be no ‘natural’ position for their arms. And if it takes that long to even start to make a decision, how can you be so certain as to give a team an excellent chance of a goal?
The result of all of this is ten minutes stoppage-time at the end of a match being played at a point in the history of the game at which ACLs seem to be popping like champagne corks at midnight on New Year’s Eve as those years on the football career treadmill start to catch up on players through natural wear and tear to their joints. It looked for a moment during the second half as though James Maddison might have twanged his, but following attention he was back up and at ‘em.
2-2 it ended. A fair result, between two evenly-matched teams.
I’ve complained across the pages of multiple organs about supporting Spurs since the 2019 Champions League final. It wasn’t and still isn’t about trophies. I’ve argued before that Big Club Entitlement doesn’t sit comfortably at a club which has won precisely two trophies in the last thirty years. If Spurs fans are nothing else, they are patient.
But the sense of torpor, of an initially slow sense of degradation that was starting to accelerate, had been there for a while. Two of the last three managers hadn’t even wanted to be there, and made it clear in no uncertain terms that they held the club in contempt. What on earth were they even doing there? And the other guy, the one inbetween, Nuno Espirito Quiz Question, lasted three months. Everyone was willing to give him a go, but you could see from just a couple of games in that he wasn’t going to work. The Director of Football was banned worldwide. The long-serving, club-record goalscorer had had enough and was fucking off abroad.
I argued earlier this year that Spurs should have re-hired Mauricio Pochettino and just run on vibes going forward, and perhaps Ange Postecoglou is a significant upgrade in the Vibes Coaching stakes, with his first language of calling everyone “mate” and his Bandit-out-of-Bluey energy, rather than getting involved with that Melted Johnny Depp waxwork Salt Bae and having the eyebrow-raising opinion that lemons can suck up bad vibes.
(I’ll touch on Chelsea in a bit more detail in tomorrow morning’s weekend round-up.)
But yes, another match, another more than satisfactory performance from a team which looks greater than the sum of its parts for the first time in years. In James Maddison, Spurs have the midfield piece that they’ve been missing for years. New goalkeeper Vicario has stepped into his position with distinction. Heung Min Son was an obvious choice as captain and has clearly shaken off the torpor that afflicted his last season. Dejan Kulusevski is getting back to being the player who surprised so many following his initial arrival at the club. Destiny Udogie started slowly against Arsenal but overcame early setbacks to end his afternoon on a high. Yves Bissouma looks utterly transformed, certainly in comparison to his occasional bit-part appearances last season.
There really is a lot to like about Spurs this season. No-one really believes that they’ve got much chance of challenging for the title, but in comparison with last season, it’s almost unrecognisable. That guy has gone, and the team seems to be functioning better in his absence. Perhaps the great What If story of the next couple of years will be what if Kane had stayed, leading the attack of this team? With Son firing on all cylinders and Maddison providing a lot from midfield perhaps he’s not even necessary, but that doesn’t prevent the question from being a tantalising one in the first place.
But there you go. Another North London Derby. The 101st of my lifetime, in the League (by my calculations, and taking into account Spurs’ relegation in 1977). And perhaps my extreme, radical position is not to be frothing at the mouth with anger and bile. I have quiet satisfaction at a team that is playing well, has improved immeasurably, and is playing good, challenging football against the best teams in the land under an immensely likeable manager. The inner Spurs in me says it can’t last, but sometimes the prudent thing to do is to live in the present. It’s why I’m glad that watching them is enjoyable, and it’s also why I’m glad that I’m writing this now, just short of midnight, having missed the first twenty minutes of the North London Derby, but with two extremely content kids asleep upstairs. Living in the present. I recommend it.