The phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached Spurs. It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing visible save one outstretched hand. It pointed to the south-west and in that moment Spurs understood. Spurs looked at Arsenal and saw not a rival but their own future. Could it be that Arsenal are a vision of Tottenham yet to come?
This is a tale of Daniel Levy, of course, and of Mauricio Pochettino and Harry Kane and dozens of others, but it is also about the broader sweep of history. Football, as we know it today, may have been born in London with the formulation of the Football Association at the Freemasons Arms near Covent Garden in 1863 and the codification of the laws that still form the basis of the modern game, but after professionalisation it quickly left.
It wasn’t until 1931 that a London club first won the league. Football became a game dominated by the large industrial cities of the north and Midlands, a pattern followed in most large democracies. That was where the biggest crowds were and where a sense of provincial pride encouraged local industrialists to invest.
There were moments of excellence for Arsenal and Tottenham, even Chelsea, but it was only in the 80s with the decline of the industrial heartlands and an increasing focus of capital on the capital that London came to match Liverpool and Manchester as a great centre of English football. It is the only British city to have provided three different Champions League finalists.
But while London offers certain advantages – a large fanbase, a cosmopolitan environment attractive to foreign players and managers, vast commercial and marketing opportunities – it is also expensive. Arsenal decided in 1997 that they had to move from Highbury, a beautiful and historic ground that had come to feel cramped and was impractical for the modern world of media and corporate hospitality. When they eventually moved into the Emirates in 2006, the cost was £390m. They have never recovered.
That’s not to say it was the wrong decision to move; on the contrary, it was the only decision that the club could have made if they wanted to compete with Manchester United. But by the time Arsenal had moved a number of small things had changed, and so had one big one.
Arsène Wenger had arrived as a visionary. But by 2006, other clubs had caught up with his advances in nutrition and his understanding of overseas transfer markets. By the end of the decade, there was a clear sense that he was no longer in the tactical vanguard. But worse was the financial reality. Between Arsenal buying the land at Ashburton Grove and completing the stadium, Roman Abramovich had taken over Chelsea and football’s economics had changed absolutely. Two years after Arsenal moved in to the Emirates, Sheikh Mansour bought Manchester City.
That apparently inexorable shift of footballing power to the capital suddenly was disrupted by far greater outside forces. It didn’t matter whether Arsenal trebled or quadrupled their gate receipts, they could never hope to compete with the wealth of an oligarch or an emirate. And so, as Chelsea and City rose, Arsenal, operating under budgetary restraints as they paid back the loan for the stadium, slid.
Wenger probably stayed on too long. Bad decisions have been made. Transfers have been mystifying at times. But a lot of the mistakes have been at least partially provoked by circumstance. Would they have made the same expensive signings, would they have granted the same vast contracts to ageing stars, had they not been deeply insecure about their waning status?
Of course the club has been poorly run, but it’s no coincidence that Ivan Gazidis, Sven Mislintat and Unai Emery, seen as failures at the Emirates, have all been successful after leaving. For Arsenal not to have declined at least to an extent would have required something approaching genius.
Like Arsenal, Tottenham moved into a sparkling new stadium in the same year that they reached their only Champions League final. Like Arsenal, they have found their budget restricted as a result, their difficulties amplified by the pandemic (it may be the apogee of “Spursiness” to construct a new stadium at vast expense to increase revenues and almost immediately be forced to lock fans out).
They too had their crisis with an extremely popular manager who had transformed perceptions of the club. Backing Pochettino, which would have involved selling players he felt had gone stale as well as releasing funds for signings, was the difficult option. Levy’s great mistake was, at that moment, to abandon the careful husbandry that had previously characterised his approach and instead cosplay being a big club by sacking him and appointing a celebrity manager in José Mourinho.
If Kane starts scoring in the league again, Levy’s intransigence over his sale to City may seem vindicated, but there is also a danger that keeping him is the equivalent of Arsenal offering Mesut Özil or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang an expensive extended contract: a club uncomfortable about how others view them clinging on to the star who offers status rather than having the confidence to find replacements still on the way up.
Perhaps Arsenal, with their new focus on youth, will build again. They have finished the past two seasons strongly under Mikel Arteta and that perhaps offers some succour amid the gloom. But what does that mean? How high can they go? Champions League qualification? Europa League? A Premier League challenge seems a very long way off.
For Tottenham, that is a warning. Their Champions League final may be only two years in the past but they must look at Arsenal and see a worrying glimpse of a potential future: a club with Super League aspirations in a magnificent stadium in a well-appointed part of the country, playing mid-table football and unable to climb higher because of the vast gulf between them and the next tier of the sport’s financial hierarchy.