Take a look at the table above and try to guess the two teams and the context. If you read my tweet with these numbers then you know the sides involved and the context. Even otherwise, the title of the post and the colours used should be a giveaway. Yes, those are numbers for Arsenal and Spurs. The context, if you don’t already know, isn’t very obvious. It’s the summary of these two clubs’ League performances since the North London Derby at White Hart Lane in the first week of October.
Essentially, after their worst start to the Premiership campaign in 58 years, the Gunners are currently outperforming the best Tottenham side in decades. Before someone gets me wrong, I want to be very clear this post is not about making fun of or putting Spurs down. I want to acknowledge they have created a very strong team and have been competitive in the League at a more than respectable level. My main intention is to address the difference in popular perception of Spurs and their players vis-à-vis that of the Gunners and Arsenal.
Everyone who has followed the broader commentary on various teams this season knows that Tottenham have constantly received widespread acclaim for the way they’ve performed. A place in the top three, which for a while was closer to the sides above than below them, merited at least some of the accolades that went their way.
Naturally, their players too have been exalted for their exploits. On its own I would not have many issues with the general public perception of Spurs or their players. Interestingly though, it’s reached such heights that many of their players have been classed world class leading to hilarious claims that none of the Gunners, apart from Van Persie, would make it to their starting line up. Such comparisons, while insignificant and lacking any serious weight in themselves, are part of a larger narrative – we will return to this word later – which suggests the Gunners have just been awful this season, to put it mildly.
So on one hand we have Spurs with their extraordinary season with a genius of a manager and world class players, and on the other there’s miserable Arsenal going downhill with a manager who’s lost the plot, players that don’t care or are panic buys or simply not good enough.
This is where things get a tad annoying. If such effusively grand opinions had been limited to certain ebullient Tottenham fans alone, one could take it in the stride as predictable and harmless hype. But no, the media seems as much in cahoots with said fans and many disgruntled Arsenal fans with short memories have also joined the bandwagon. Similarly, if the criticisms directed towards the Gunners had been limited to a section of fans with limited perspective or a clearly biased narrow portion of the media, one could ignore it as one of those insufferable parts of following the game and supporting a club. Sadly, such opinions seem very widespread and even people who are usually fairly sensible seem to have been caught up in these misconceptions.
Take another look at the above table. Arsenal have played one game less but have more wins, more points, and a better goal difference than Spurs. Those who really think Arsenal would be nowhere without Van Persie should answer why Tottenham with all their great players aren’t doing better than a one man team. And it’s important to note this isn’t over a small period. These numbers are from 20 games – more than half a season – spread over 5+ months of football.
Furthermore, last season after 27 games Arsenal were at 56 points. That while competing in the Champions League and reaching the finals of the Carling Cup. Till this point we haven’t even mentioned the fact that Spurs suffered rather embarrassing early exits from the Europa League and the League Cup this season. Granted they are still in the FA Cup but then they are yet to meet quality opposition in that tournament. Indeed, considering they are the highest placed side in the Cup, shouldn’t the failure to win it be considered catastrophic? Anyway, I digress, that’s for the future.
Even in 2009-10, Arsenal had 58 points from 28 games at the end of February. It’s a number Spurs can’t reach even if they win their next game against Everton. The Gunners achieved that too while competing the Champions League and other Cups. Spurs are yet to show they can manage the pressure of two high-level competitions.
I have no qualms in accepting that Arsenal had a difficult summer that led to a horrible start to the season. It was painfully substandard to say the least. But since then, Arsene Wenger and his players have turned it around and done much better than a highly rated bunch of players who are being managed by England’s next great managerial hope. Not only that, the results and numbers from the last two seasons clearly show that Arsenal have done much better in the recent past when compared to Tottenham’s achievements this season.
But think back, research it if you want to, and tell me if you’ve heard or read Arsenal getting anywhere near the same kind of admiration that their North London rivals have received this season. Forget accolades, have the Gunners even received enough respect? For the club? For the manager? For the players?
The widely held perception of many players has often surprised, bemused, and troubled me at the same time. Let’s take one example. How about England’s latest captain – the diminutive, tough-tackling embodiment of grit and determination, Scotty Parker.
Now, I must say I like the former West Ham midfielder. He’s tenacious, dedicated, and gives his all on the pitch. Having him in the side has played a vital role in Tottenham’s League efforts and position this season. To a large extent I can accept the strongly positive opinions that he generates. But a number of people have offered opinions that lack balance to the extent that I have even read outrageously ignorant suggestions that Parker is the best midfielder in the League. Similar opinions of profusely extolling nature have been expressed for a number of Redknapp’s players.
Why then, despite so many supposedly top class players and a superstar manager, have Tottenham not outclassed Arsenal? I could understand if someone said Yaya Toure was the best midfielder in the League. I might not agree with that but it’s an opinion that can be respected. City’s performances, in the League at least, have been outstanding. Their position does not betray the talents of their players it reinforces them.
Sticking with Parker, I want to dig a little deeper into the quality of his efforts. I’m going to put some snapshots of his positioning against Arsenal in that – sensational or horrific, depending on the colour of your glasses – 5-2 loss in order to discuss the effectiveness of the role he’s performing. The images in themselves will not prove anything – they rarely do in a game as fluid as football – but should be seen as a reference point.
For the first Arsenal goal, we can see Parker going out to close Arteta down but England’s El Capitan, if I may, fails to put in a meaningful challenge to prevent the cross. You could say it’s impossible to prevent all crosses and that would be valid to a large extent. This effort, per se, was not a massive blunder from the highly-rated midfielder but it is one example that shows he wasn’t able to do as well as can be expected from someone in that role. Let’s carry on and look at other instances from the game.
For the second goal, Parker again failed to get close enough to Van Persie and was left sprawling on the ground as the Dutchman found the back of the net with an exquisite finish. Shouldn’t the player who is supposed to be excellent at sitting in front of the defence do better?
This wasn’t a one-off either. Earlier in the game, around the 20 min mark, RvP had left Scotty P on the turf with a neat turn. Sagna took a throw and Van Persie sucked Parker to one side before letting the ball roll in front of his body. This left the hardman biting the dust as RvP won a corner when his shot was deflected.
Clearly, Parker wasn’t learning from his mistakes in the game. If we look at the fourth goal, once again it was the tackle-master who was short of making any kind of effective tackle on Theo as the winger got his shot away.
That failure to tackle would again be excusable if it were a lone event in the game. As the other examples show, that’s clearly not the case. And once we take a different look at the events in the build-up, Parker’s effort looks criminally negligent.
As you can see, Theo was at least 10 yards behind his temporary England skipper. The Arsenal winger is fast but is he so quick he can beat an opponent with a 10 yard head start? Or is it more likely that Parker was completely unaware of the threat and only reacted after it was too late? Reminds us of a certain Arsenal player currently out on loan, doesn’t it?
Yes, it would not be way off the mark to say that the so-called best midfielder in the League did a Denilson there! Speaking of whom, let’s take a quick look at a statistical comparison of the two.
I have already looked at it in detail in this piece for EPL Index but want to quickly compare Denilson in 08-09 with updated stats of the Tottenham midfielder this season.
There are a number of surprising figures in there. While Parker is touted as a tough-tackling hardman and Denilson derided as a wimp who couldn’t tackle to save his life, it’s actually the Brazilian who has the better tackling success rate. In contrast, the Arsenal man is often remembered for his metronomic passing abilities but it’s actually Parker who’s done better on that front. The focus of this article is not a comparison of the two so I won’t dwell on it but look carefully and you’ll see a lot of other interesting details.
They’ve played under different tactical systems and these numbers are from different seasons so I agree they shouldn’t be directly compared but I also insist they do give enough of an idea. At the very least they’re sufficient enough to say that Denilson wasn’t as bad a player as he’s made out to be and Parker isn’t as great as some people like to think.
Indeed, if you look at the mistakes of Parker discussed above, throw in the stats, and look at where Tottenham are in the League, it’s hard to say he’s that different from Denilson as far as impact goes even if their styles are different.
Arsene Wenger has consistently kept Arsenal in the top four even with a number of players who were commonly considered useless. The problem wasn’t with the players, otherwise Arsenal would not finish where they did, but with the popular perception. The same is the case right now.
Spurs are now close to reaching the level Wenger’s teams have consistently achieved in recent seasons on a very tight budget. But we can only say Tottenham have reached that level, leave alone passed it, after they can show a level of consistency and sustain the performances while competing for more than one major trophy. And until Spurs prove their mettle, there is no valid reason to consider their players as far superior.
Based on this discussion, it would seem absurd to claim none of the Arsenal players, barring RvP, would make it to the Tottenham starting eleven. In the interest of fairness though, it must be said that many of their players are also comparable to their Gunner counterparts and could take a place in the current Arsenal line-up. Obviously not in a man-for-man manner, although in some cases that is also possible, as the style of play and systems used a quite different but more in terms of relatively comparable qualities.
At this moment I want to stress that the point of this article is not to belittle individuals but to cut through the hype and derision that is commonly seen in the media and on the internet. Both sets of players, with some exceptions, are fairly comparable. And as a direct result, the output of their efforts is also in the same bracket. The table at the beginning of this post shows that well enough. Therefore, one lot can’t be considered world class if some of the others are considered panic buys.
So the next logical question is – why is there such a difference between popular perception of these teams and players, either individually or a group?
In my opinion, the single biggest factor is expectations. Arsenal have been in the top four all these years and have been competing for various trophies. The demands placed on the club, manager, and players are consequently – directly or indirectly – linked to heightened aspirations. Finishing 3rd or 4th is considered a failure. On the other hand Spurs have not been close to the top for a long, long time. In the recent years they’ve invested a lot and worked hard to move up the ladder. Finally, in the last couple of years they’ve started looking like a team that can be considered in the same league as the top sides. This season a strong run in the League, although with the benefit of competing in only one competition, seems to have established them as close to the top as they’ve been for decades. Starting with lower expectations even a 3rd or 4th place finish will look like a decent achievement. Winning the League was never going to happen but, as we’ve seen with Arsenal in recent years, long sequences of positive results does create an impression of a title challenge. That alone was enough to add to the hype around Tottenham, Redknapp, and their players.
Apart from the expectation-induced differences in opinion, the short-term thinking of many pundits, journalists, and fans also helps build such false perceptions. Few remember that Arsenal have been in similar or better positions. Such people often only vaguely remember the negative feelings that were generated due to the expectation-performance mismatch.
These factors are only a starting point though. The real weight behind such opinions comes from narratives that are built over time. If Arsenal have an expectation-performance mismatch for a few years, and if some people only, or even predominantly, remember the disappointments, the criticisms develop and worsen on a consistent basis. Bloggers/fans who can’t discuss the problems equitably; pundits who are either biased, xenophobic, morons, or worse; and those with a propensity to dispense lazy opinions come together to develop the negative narrative. Mistakes are highlighted, small issues are blown out of proportion, positives are ignored or served with a malicious spin, and of course – occasionally there are genuinely disheartening moments like the loss of Fabregas or the results of certain games.
After a point it’s the easy thing to do. There is safety in numbers and too many people start pretending they know better. Whether it’s driven by low self-esteem or a pathological need to be right, too many individuals fall into the trap of trying to prove their superiority in something they barely understand (like football tactics for instance).
The worst part of this is that an ordinary fan, when bombarded with such a vicious and consistently negative narrative at all times, can easily be led astray as he struggles to deal with the frustrations of the transfer market or the results of certain games, especially a string of poor performances.
In similar vein, it can be said that some people put an unnecessary and unjustified positive spin on events. For instance, those with a higher than normal degree of nationalistic zeal might see more in the performances of Scott Parker than neutral observers might. Club it with the low-expectation driven hype around Tottenham and it’s not hard to see how baseless but vehemently exalting opinions are formed. If the highlights packages don’t focus on the player’s errors at all, those are conveniently forgotten by most. An so the story builds over the course of a season.
Just so there is no misunderstanding, my argument isn’t against valid and constructive criticism but against the narrative driven myths that are propagated as facts. I don’t have a problem with players receiving the acclaim their performances merit either, just with the extravagant undeserved levels that such praise often reaches.
The comparison of Denilson and Parker throws light on the kind of gaps that can be created in public perceptions by the spin or the narrative. The Brazilian was never an exceptional performer but he was by no means the utter dud many portrayed him to be. In contrast, Parker remains a very good player but he isn’t the midfield genius he’s often made out to be. The difference between the two is marginal at best and is clear not only from their stats but the impact that they’ve had – both can play a part in taking their team into the top four but neither seems good enough to be a vital part of a side that is going to win major titles.
An extension of the same thought process can explain the difference in current common perception about other Arsenal and Tottenham players as well as the sides in general. One side isn’t on the way down while the other is in ascendancy. Both have done reasonably well in recent years. Only one has proven longevity.
I think back to the number of times Arsene Wenger says he has to find players better than the ones he has. People looked at guys like Denilson and wondered how he can’t find someone better. They pointed at Parker as an obvious solution. But if you look at actual facts, the impact that players have, and don’t get carried away by the force of the sweeping but fallacious narrative, you will see the point Wenger makes.
The Arsenal manager is not a fool and hasn’t gone senile. It isn’t by accident that an Arsenal side supposedly devoid of world class players, struggling with injuries, and relying on panic buys goes on to win consecutive games against Spurs, Liverpool, and Milan. That is not to say Arsene is without his flaws. Just that it’s too lazy to give in to common myths pretending to be popular wisdom. Any meaningful debate has to start with respect. People who wish to make a point must demonstrate that they can think beyond the obvious.
Unfortunately, such biased opinions against Gunners are not limited to the opinions on some players. There are a number of myths that have been created including yarns that a usually spun based on activity in the transfer market. Depending on what Arsene does, it’s either a panic buy, or a change of failed policy, or over-reliance on an approach that isn’t working, or a lack of ambition, or some such twist that is full of negativity. These fallacies aren’t limited to transfers but extend to many other club policies as well. I don’t wish to get into individual details right now but will urge you to exercise caution while reading such stories. Simply because a lot of people are repeating them, such myths don’t become hard truths.
Arsenal suffer enough artificial external pressure. I want to end by asking whether you really want to add to it or do you wish to alleviate some of it?Follow @goonerdesi