A hundred years ago, Arsenal moved to North London and built Highbury minutes away from Tottenham's stadium, White Hart Lane. For a hundred years the two have fought, the pendulum swinging one way, and then the next, decade to decade. And then the 1990s happened, and then the 2000s, and after nearly a hundred years, North London turned emphatically, and some think, irrevocably red. Finally, after nearly a hundred years, Spurs were relegated to playing catch up with an opponent that had already won the race.
But recently, things have changed. Since 2006, Arsenal and Spurs have been more or less attached at the hip. Instead of fighting for trophies, the Gunners regressed and turned to fighting for fourth-place finishes, while Spurs inched ever closer to their local rivals. Arsenal, on the surface at least, had gotten weaker, as Tottenham had grown stronger. Last year, the Gunners went on a legendary run to finish the 2012-13 season a point above Spurs, winning fourth place and a Champions League berth. But finally, after forever, it seems, the two sides were regarded as equals. This summer, Tottenham sold their soul to Los Blancos for about £86 million, seven players, and the chance to, after forever, it seems, once again turn North London white.
But on Sunday, injury-plagued Arsenal beat Tottenham at home, 1-0, in the season's first North London Derby. It was devastating. On paper, at least, Spurs, who used the money from the Gareth Bale sale to Real Madrid to buy Erik Lamela, Paulinho, Roberto Soldado, Nacer Chadli, Étienne Capoue, Christian Eriksen, and Vlad Chiriches, were a better side than Arsenal. But a pragmatist will tell you, pride aside, the result didn't mean much. It was one match. Spurs' new boys were still gelling, and Arsenal, who still needed a striker, a winger, a defensive midfielder, defensive cover, and a keeper, had spent dick all summer on improving their squad. The smart money was on the deeper, stronger, hungrier Tottenham to outlast and outclass the Gunners throughout the grueling Premier League season. But then, höly shit.
On Monday night, just before the summer transfer window closed, Arsenal announced that they bought German international Mesut Özil from Real Madrid for about £42 million. Everything changed.
Even before the stories ran about Spurs chairman Daniel Levy pleading to Real Madrid president Florentino Perez to block the Özil transfer, it was obvious how momentous this single move was to the rivalry. See, a player like Özil was never supposed to end up in North London. Mesut Özil is, almost without hyperbole, an eater of souls.
As the number 10 for Real Madrid, the 24-year-old (24!) established himself as perhaps the single best playmaker on the planet. Since joining the Spanish giants in 2010, he's created more chances and goals for his club and country than any other player, and more than than most tandems. Statistically, he is the best. According to his former manager José Mourinho, now at Premier League rivals Chelsea, he is the best. He plays the way you'd expect a psychic to play. For a player like Özil, moving to any club outside of FC Bayern and Barcelona is a step down.
In a cruel twist for Spurs fans, the transfer wouldn't have been possible without Tottenham's help. Gervinho conspiracies theories aside, Bale's transfer—and, more importantly, his transfer fee—along with the Real Madrid's signing of of 20-year-old stud Isco, made Özil surplus to requirements.
And with the signing, we see a difference in strategy between the Gunners and Spurs. Tottenham sold their most valuable piece—basically their only valuable piece—and swapped him for a new team. Arsenal, after a disaster of a transfer window in which they failed to plug their holes, signed one legend. Though both teams could win trophies this year, it's unlikely that either will win the Premier League or continental competitions. Come next spring, they'll probably both be fighting for Champions League qualification. The question, then, is a tough one: in this pivotal transfer window, when North London is, after forever, it seems, neither red nor white, who had the better summer?
It's a tough question, because it's also a philosophical one. Because surely in a game that employs 11 players a side on a 120-yard-long playing field, seven is greater than one. After all, this isn't basketball, where a player can block a shot, grab the loose ball, race down the court, then dunk in transition. In sacrificing Gareth Bale, Spurs sacrificed 21 league goals, four assists, and a talisman. In return, they got Soldado, who if nothing else, can score goals. They got Lamela, a young winger who looks, physically and stylistically, at least, a player in the mold of Bale himself. They got Eriksen, Capoue, and Paulinho, hot commodities who will hold down the midfield once they gel. Chadli and Chiriches add extra strength and versatility. They traded in their star, their savior, for a complete team. On paper, Spurs had the best transfer window of the summer.
The signing of the summer, though, belongs to Arsenal. Because while Spurs no longer have a star, Arsenal, who are still full of holes that no single player could hope to cover, do. He'll win his new squad points, sure. But Özil is important to the Gunners for more than just points. He's important because he belongs nowhere near North London. He's important because after some coaxing, and in spite of reported offers from teams like Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United, he chose Arsenal. He vouched for the Gunners, and the hope, the expectation now is that other stars will follow.
This transfer window was a vital chapter in the storied North London rivalry, but it will be a while before we know who had the better of it. Both clubs, who have grown closer and closer in stature and ability in recent years, have diverged again. It's difficult to see where they'll end up. But for now, for today, at least, North London is still red.