There was a tweet going around this weekend noting the difference in responses between Arsenal players after their North London Derby victory back in November and Tottenham players right after they’d reversed that result by winning the rivalry match on Saturday. It felt like a telling window into the kind of club Arsenal see themselves as and, more significantly, the sort of club Tottenham have seamlessly grown into:
The Gunners’ chesty exuberance stands in sharp contrast to the pleased but noticeably more subdued response of the Spurs players. One reaction to North London Derby victory sees the result as a season-defining event, one of the highest achievements the team aspires for, an upset over an equal if not superior foe worthy of crowing about. The other paints the derby as a significant success to be enjoyed, but not overly so, a single result that will help the team accomplish its even more ambitious goals, a win for a better team that expected to win and did and is ready to move on to bigger and better things. In short, it was evidence that Arsenal, consciously or not, now see themselves as at best a peer of Spurs as the two vie for entry into the Premier League elite, while Tottenham know they have surpassed their rivals and thus don’t see a win against Arsenal as much more than three points won. After all, you don’t have to say “North London is white” when everyone already knows it, and you can go out and prove it on the pitch.
You could see Tottenham’s confidence carry over from that Arsenal match into what truly was a much more important game in the Champions League against Juventus yesterday. If Tottenham perceive themselves to be not only part of the Premier League elite but also amongst the best teams in Europe—as they should, with great, prime-age players like Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, Mousa Dembélé, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Hugo Lloris on the roster—then it would stand to reason that they’d move on quickly from beating a Europa League team like Arsenal to focus on overcoming the best team in Italy in a Champions League tie. And if they found themselves down two goals in under 10 minutes in said Champions League tie, as Tottenham somehow did thanks to two brain-dead defensive lapses, then they’d still have the belief and drive to keep fighting back rather than acquiesce to their fate. And if they were as good and confident and brave as they seemed, they’d continue to dominate the Italian giants all day until clawing back a heroic 2-2 draw that would set them up perfectly for the return leg at home and would really crystalize just how incredible a transformation this club has undergone from once being famous for freezing in the biggest, least opportune moments—in a word, being “Spursy”—and now becoming a steel-hardened and fearless bunch willing and able to beat Arsenal handily, brush that result off, and come back a couple days later and pull off an even bigger result away to Juventus.
It’s hard to overstate how impressive Spurs were yesterday, both in the concrete sense of their play on the pitch and the more abstract sense as demonstrated in the mental fortitude required for a club like Tottenham to go to Turin and dominate a club like Juventus. Their players were excellent—especially Dembélé, Kane, and Eriksen. Their manager’s tactical gameplanning was, as is typical, perfect. (At this point, you could make a solid case that Mauricio Pochettino is the only other manager whose name belongs alongside Pep Guardiola’s when discussing who the best manager in the world is right now.) Even more than that, that the players saw themselves go down two goals at the very start of the match and only got more emboldened to play their normal game to fight their way back into the game was worth all the plaudits that are now coming their way.
After the match, Eriksen made note of this newfound determination of the current generation of Spurs players:
“Of course, we are building on every season compared to when I arrived here four or five years ago,” said Eriksen. “The games against the top teams when you are 2-0 down after nine minutes, you lost 6-0.
“That’s the thing we’ve changed with the manager coming in, with the players we have here. Everyone has grown up and they are not going to lie down if they are 2-0 down anyway.
“Tottenham has become, compared to what it was when I came to what it is now, completely different. That’s up to the manager, up to the players and the quality we have in the squad really.”
Tottenham have been able to amass world class talents from time to time over the years, to build very good teams that at their best could beat anyone. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago when Luka Modrić and Gareth Bale were scampering about in Spurs’ white shirts rather than Real Madrid’s. But never before has the team been quite this talented, felt this sure of their ability, this confident that no matter what happens against whomever, Tottenham can and should and would come out on top.
This isn’t the only time Tottenham have assembled a great team. But this might be the first time they’ve truly internalized just how great they are, and that could make all the difference. After all, you don’t have to say you’re great and can compete against anyone for all the trophies when everyone already knows it, and you can go out and prove it on the pitch.