Following the North London Derby at the Emirates, Arsenal Manager, Jonas Eidevall, stated that his team beating Tottenham 3-0 meant that ‘football was the winner’.
It’s a tired cliché, but there are lots of tired clichés in football. More pertinently, it’s a cliché that’s usually trotted out to celebrate games that are hard-fought or a developing rivalry. Not used by a manager to gloat about his team’s home win over a significantly less well-resourced side, especially not one led by a manager in their first full year at the highest level.
Yet, both pre- and post-match Eidevall’s comments went beyond the usual ‘the better team on the day won’, choosing to make explicit criticisms of Spurs playing style.
Cards on the table: As a Spurs fan I am preternaturally disposed to dislike Arsenal. That said I respect and have long envied our North London rivals’ commitment to the women’s game. And am often awed by the quality of individual Arsenal players and at some of their combinations. Moreover, on reflection the outcome of Wednesday’s game was no worse than I feared it might be. I had hoped we might scrape a result – of any kind. Indeed, the draw in the reverse fixture (which could have – should have – been a win had Ashleigh Neville controlled her shot into an open goal) was an important step on the path to closing the gap. But the ongoing gulf in quality exists, not just between Spurs and Arsenal, but Arsenal and most of the league. Indeed, notwithstanding Spurs’ loss at the Emirates, our head-to-head record against Arsenal remains the fourth best in the league (after Birmingham, Chelsea and Manchester United).
There’s no one way to play football
As noted by Rio Ferdiand in commenting on the Premier League Liverpool-Spurs game, ‘There are different ways to win a game of football’. Indeed, for many of us the beauty of football is exactly this – that teams employ different tactics, and related, that the ‘best’ team may not always win. Most of us gasp at the attacking verve of Brazil circa 1970 or, more relevant here, the current Barcelona women’s team, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t also appreciate the defensive nous, collective will to win, and occasional shit-housery of the Italian men’s teams of the 1980s and 1990s, admire the direct-play of Wolfsburg in this year’s Champion’s League (becoming the first team to beat Barcelona in 45 games), or marvel at Greece’s wholly unexpected and joyous, if hard-fought and unstarry 2004 men’s Euro campaign.
Along those lines, the way that Spurs has played this season has, for those of us following it closely, been uplifting. Because it’s depended on and been underpinned by a commitment to one another, something the players and staff frequently talk about in interviews as ‘a family mentality’. The team’s strong defensive record is widely recognised, what is less often made explicit is that this is not simply the product of strong defenders (although it has clearly required that), but rather has involved the entire team working extremely hard, pressing, tracking-back and covering each other. In the North London Derby this was seen in the willingness of our attacking players (Jessica Naz, Rachel Williams, Rosella Ayane and Kyah Simon) to put in blocks and try to win the ball back.
It is also seen in analysis of the season. The team’s desire to chase things down is evidenced by Spurs having won more loose balls than any other team this season. While ten Spurs players, as compared to just three Arsenal players, average over 20 pressures per 90 minutes played. Spurs have also won 30 more tackles than any other team and are second only to Chelsea in the number of arial duels won. Ashleigh Neville tops the league in both tackles made and won and, until her injury, Ria Percival was also in the top five.
A corollary of that, as Eidevall pointed out in his pre-match interview, is that Spurs players have committed more fouls than Arsenal players. Does that mean that Spurs are a dirty team, as he unsubtly implied? Well, the difference is hardly massive – Spurs typically are called for four more fouls per game than Arsenal (12 as opposed to Arsenal’s 8), but for both teams this has varied hugely across games against different opponents. In the game on Wednesday Spurs committed more fouls than Arsenal, but a few of those (in the first half especially, were marginal calls). By the end of the game Spurs had four yellow cards, but two (Summanen and Clemaron), as well as one for Aresnal’s McCabe, were for dissent as the Second half of this derby became increasingly feisty on and off the pitch.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Spurs, a team that focuses heavily on whole-team defence, winning the ball back and tackling will commit a few more fouls than a team with the personnel to control possession. But this is not to agree with Eidevall’s pre-match characterisation of Spurs as a team that shies away from possession and ‘doesn’t want the ball in play’. In fact, only the top four teams, and Everton, have (with one game remaining) averaged higher possession across the season than Spurs (who are on 50.3 percent). It’s probably most accurate to say therefore that Spurs are equally likely to play in as out of possession, on the front or back foot, depending on their opponent. Indeed, even in the two games against Chelsea in the week before the Arsenal game, Spurs had 55 percent (home) and 45 percent (away) possession, while in their away game against Everton, which ended in a draw, despite less possession, Spurs had ten more shots, 6 more on target than their opponents. Moreover, by the end of the first half of the game at the Emirates, Spurs were starting to find spaces to play, with a few clear goalscoring chances. As the game went on, however, and as Spurs tired this reduced, with Arsenal increasingly dominant.
Speaking of tiredness, the North London Derby was Spurs fourth game (and third away game) in eleven days. As noted above, Spurs previous three games included two hard-fought matches against Chelsea and a back-and-forth 2-2 draw at Everton. Weirdly, and something that speaks to the widely noted problems of WSL scheduling, across the previous two months Spurs had played just two games, mostly because of international breaks, but also Covid postponements.
In contrast, Arsenal came into the NLD after just two games in 11 days, the most recent a 7-0 home win over a hugely depleted Aston Villa side.
Spurs have a smaller squad than Arsenal, and had two fewer players on the bench. There is also a relatively large fall-off in quality between Spurs starting 11 and substitutes. Notwithstanding the injury to Jordan Nobbs last weekend, Arsenal’s bench on Wednesday included World Cup, Champions League and WSL winners. As such Eidevall had the capacity to make impactful substitutions, something that his counterpart, Rehanne Skinner was only able to do by not starting Evelina Summanen (who has been a consistent starter since joining in January) and bringing her on a the half. Perhaps most indicative of Spurs’ limited resources was the introduction on 69 minutes, 2-0 down, of Izzy Lane, an Academy player who had previously played once, as a 91st minute substitute away at Manchester United. It was hardly surprising that she was unable to impact the direction of the game. Arsenal, meanwhile could bring on key players like McCabe, Maanum and Parris.
Timing matters here because when games are spaced apart it’s possible to compete by relying on a group of starters who can play most of the 90 minutes. But as games are closely packed and include difficult opponents, this dependence on starters is no longer viable. With a Spurs team whose average age is a whole year and a half older than any other WSL team tiredness can be even more of a problem, especially where games are coming thick and fast.
The Telegraph’s Tom Garry reported that for the 2019-20 season Tottenham ranked low for both total and average wages, above only Birmingham, who have now been relegated. Garry suggests that things have since improved, but that he heard reports that up through last year Spurs were offering contracts that failed to adequately cover the higher cost of living in London. With a rash of contract renewals agreed since Easter (Neville, Spencer, Zadorsky and Graham so far) I very much hope this has been corrected and that Spurs players are paid at a wage commensurate with their skill and the club’s ambitions. Certainly, Spurs have committed additional resources to supporting the team in non-pay ways, for instance with full inclusion the club’s state-of-the-art training facility. But at the same time, I doubt this will (yet) take Spurs anywhere near the wage-bills of Arsenal (second top in 2019-20) or other top-four WSL clubs, where some players earn as much as 250,000 per year.
Spurs are a big club so, to some extent, it is the club’s choice to spend, or not, on the Women’s team and if they don’t they have themselves to blame. Yet, it’s hard to make a big jump in quality. Spurs have created stability and cemented their promotion by bringing in older players with WSL experience (thus the team’s age profile). But, without Champions League games to entice players, and with mid- and low-table performances in their first two WSL seasons, and a still-relatively small fanbase, Spurs work in last summer’s transfer markets was low key, with lots of churn, but no ‘star’ recruits. Instead, most of those signed had been released from low/mid-level WSL teams undergoing equivalent churn. Several of these have become core to the team’s success this term (Molly Bartrip, Tinni Korpela and Maeva Clemaron spring to mind), but none are the kind of player who is individually transformative.
Moreover, what’s notable about Spurs’ starters on Wednesday was that three of them had come up with the club from the Championship in 2019 (Ash Neville, Josie Green and Jess Naz). One, Josie Green, has actually been at Spurs since the team was in the third tier of women’s football. Another, Ash Neville, has grown as a player under Rehanne Skinner, so that she is now a certain-starter and won the FAWSL Player of the Month in February.
Spurs limitations are equally clear when we look at the January transfer window. Spurs had already lost a key player in Kit Graham (ACL injury) by January and were having to play games with just three outfield players on the bench, so new blood was essential. In the event, however, the only signing was managed via the agent-skills of goalkeeper Tinni Korpela whose Finnish National Team ties netted the team the relatively unknown Evelina Summanen. Additionally, Viki Schnaderbeck arrived on loan from Arsenal to play out the last few months of her contract, presumably to allow Arsenal to renew their own roster (her loan terms however made her ineligible for the North London Derby). In contrast Arsenal recruited the highly rated Stina Blackstenius (who has already in her half season in the WSL scored more goals than Spurs highest-scorer Rachel Williams has this season), Brazilian centre-half Rafaelle Souza and Austrian full-back Laura Wientoither.
Which is to highlight that Rehanne Skinner has much more limited resources than Eidevall. This season she has created a team that is greater than the sum of its parts, that is committed to playing for and with one another, and this has meant that they have ‘over-performed’ expectations. But there remain real limits.
When does ‘football win’?
When Arsenal beat Spurs they did so because they have objectively better and fresher players and they scored some good goals, while Spurs failed to take their chances. But, as noted, they have better and fresher players because they have more resources. To ignore that and to argue that in winning you have secured the greater good of football is to celebrate the reproduction of existing inequalities in football, inequalities that make leagues uncompetitive, and uninteresting for all of those except the small minority of fans who support a top Four team.
For the rest of us football may as often be ‘the winner’ when games are unpredictable, when the better team does not always win, and when teams play in ways that maximise their resources and improve the players they have to hand. By that standard, Spurs have contributed massively to the WSL this season, but so have West Ham, Birmingham, Aston Villa and all the other teams who have produced upsets by playing their own way.
I hope that in the future this is something that Jonas can recognise and when the next North London Derby rolls around he manages to be more generous about his opposition. I also hope that by then the inequalities have shrunk further and, most importantly, that Spurs are the actual winners of that game.