‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me’ – William Shakespeare, Richard II
North of London’s River Thames sit two Premier League clubs stuck in romantic narrative turmoil. The already considerable intra-London rivalry heated up upon the northerly transition, in 1913, of one of these clubs 17 years after its formation in Woolwich. The other club and its fans believed the stomping ground to be rightfully theirs. Today, 105 years later, the fans of each club consider the rivalry so important that when the two clubs meet, they are currently the two (or more) most important games of the season. There was a time, not long ago, when the significance of the rivalry was not quite as symmetrical as it is in 2018, as the mighty Arsenal (formerly of Woolwich) had bigger fish to fry than the perennially underperforming Tottenham Hotspur.
Arsenal’s rivalry with Manchester United
Due to the arrival of Arsene Wenger in 1996, Arsenal, a club transformed, were at one stage locked in a ferocious on-field rivalry with Manchester United. This detracted a little from the significance of The North London Derby, at least for the Gunners.
Wenger, at the point of his arrival from Japan, was exotic, young, unique and a symbol of change and progress. People wondered how the seemingly old-school Ferguson would adapt to this sophisticated new brand of football.
How things have changed.
While Ferguson’s response was to achieve an unprecedented Treble in 1999, win multiple domestic league and cup titles, and another Champions League — among several runner-up spots — before eventually retiring on a high, Wenger is still with us. Now it is he who is perennially underperforming and, to be frank, stinking the place up a bit. His peak has, to everyone except the man himself, clearly been and gone.
This peak is represented by the one thing he will undoubtedly be remembered for most prominently: the extraordinary achievement of remaining undefeated over an entire league season. This was a feat Ferguson could never equal. That was in 2004, the last time he won a league. The last time, you can say with hindsight, Arsenal were to be considered much more than a cup team. Being a cup side was, ironically enough, a stigma that Tottenham were at pains to shake off for years.
Wenger sits amid a cloud of fan resentment
The romantic narrative that unites the Frenchman’s club with their bitterest of rivals doesn’t end there. It is compounded perhaps most poignantly by the man who sits in the home dugout in the Hotspur’s temporary home, Wembley Stadium. Mauricio Pochettino, a relatively unknown manager in this country when he joined Southampton in 2013, is currently the most exotic, young and unique symbol of change and progress to be found south of the Etihad Stadium. Wenger, sadly, sits quite antonymously amid a cloud of fan resentment. It says a lot that they played well in a half-empty stadium on Mother’s Day. This resentment was once rejected out of hand by certain sections of the media as benighted and greedy; it seems to be fairly well accepted wherever you look now.
Even their contrasting fortunes in Europe have done little to dissuade people from concluding Wenger’s Arsenal career has petered out into little more than an expensive paseo. Over 15 years, the club has brought through young players and had little to show for it – save an FA Cup here and there. Over the last couple of seasons, they’ve given in to fan pressure and started splashing the cash a little, but still, they have nothing to show for it save the FA Cup, just yet.
Arsenal’s win over AC Milan should not be interpreted as progress
On the pitch, Arsenal’s usual late season up-turn appears to have come to fruition after a surprising first-leg victory over AC Milan in the aforementioned Europa League. Spurs, in contrast, were knocked out by the mighty Juventus. This should not be interpreted as progress for Arsenal and a lack thereof for their rivals. Tottenham were at least eliminated to a team at the pinnacle of Serie A — playing in the Europa League’s bigger, fiercer brother — on the verge of landing an unprecedented seventh consecutive Scudetto. AC Milan are sixth, five points behind rivals Inter and, despite putting together some decent form of late, have had what is to be considered a bad season. It is fitting that lowly Benevento’s rotten record-run of games without a point was put to an end by their goalkeeper scoring a diving header in injury time to snatch a point at home to Milan in December.
Tottenham’s resolve is such that Harry Kane’s recent ankle injury has only spurred them on — beating a resilient and unfortunate Bournemouth 4-1. Arsenal, on the other hand, beat a disinterested and distinctly cajones-lacking Watford 3-0. This will have pleased fans, but will not be enough to convince them that they’ve had a good season. If they can steer past AC Milan at home and win the Europa League, then this season won’t be considered a disaster. If they fail to do so, however, and finish outside the top four, there isn’t anything to look at and be happy about on paper or off it.
Amongst the fan unrest, in interviews and press conferences, Wenger often sights patience and its necessity for success. The obvious issue with this is that Wenger has had plenty of time and, in the eyes of most, too much to be granted more. He did well for a while but spent too long stagnating, wasting the time he was afforded, all whilst citing ‘transition’ and ‘stability’. While their transition is now over and success has not returned, their rivals are transitioning and building for something progressive, which is more enviable than the mediocrity being sustained at the Emirates Stadium.
More time, Wenger? There is no more time.
Time is of the essence and it waits for no man.
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