Arsenal’s unified vision exposes Tottenham’s identify crisis under Antonio Conte

After an effervescent Arsenal win where another Antonio Conte eruption might have been expected, the Tottenham Hotspur manager instead took a different view.

“With the performance, I’m not disappointed,” the Italian said. “We knew the game would be difficult. Arsenal are very strong, and tonight showed they deserve to be top of the league. In my opinion, Arsenal and Manchester City are the only two teams that can fight for the league this season.”

Mikel Arteta meanwhile came as close as he has to publicly acknowledging that prospect, by talking about how it will still likely take over 90 points to claim the title. With a return of 2.6 points per game after this 2-0 victory, Arsenal are currently on course for 99.

That number might well drop as the games and rigours of a season mount, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the leaders will. Arsenal are up there. No matter what happens next, it’s already a remarkable over-performance, that speaks to the job Arteta has done.

It’s all the more impressive given Arsenal finished behind Spurs last season, after a 3-0 defeat in this very fixture that could well have proven another juncture moment in the history of this rivalry. It didn’t.

What actually happened was that Arsenal continued on their longer-term upward trajectory, while Spurs remained an inconsistent side capable of brilliant displays and impressive bursts.

Conte has made his frustration at that clear, and it has frequently been hinted he looks at Arteta’s side and believes it should have been his.

The question, given Spurs were ahead of Arsenal just a few months ago, is why it isn’t. Conte himself would doubtless point to signings, even though Tottenham’s gross and net expenditure was above the leaders in the summer. Arsenal are not exactly buying from the top tier, as the manner they were gazumped by Chelsea for Mikhailo Mudryk makes clear.

The real difference is down to an appointment like Conte himself - but not because of his quality as a manager. The Italian remains one of the best in the world. The difference is the context such appointments are made in.

Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka celebrates with manager Mikel Arteta (PA)
Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka celebrates with manager Mikel Arteta (PA)

It is about the different views the clubs have taken - not least of themselves.

Just over three years ago, after all, Spurs were Champions League finalists while Arsenal were genuinely struggling to attract players. They found that targets were now turning them down because of the recent history of the club.

Arsenal, if not without some ructions and reappraisals, essentially accepted that position and built from there. They went for future talent, in the manner of Borussia Dortmund. They took the long-term view. A certain number of fallow seasons were accepted, in a way more clubs could do. Arteta was fully trusted, and allowed to get rid of anyone who wasn’t on board.

The net effect of all this was that everyone and everything at the club was unified in the same vision. The result was a resounding display like in Sunday’s first half, that puts Arsenal eight points clear at the top.

As Conte said, they deserve to be there. They are the product of a unified project.

That cannot be said of Spurs, as has best been articulated by the manager’s constant complaints about expenditure.

It is as if Conte hasn’t realised - or, at least, hasn’t accepted - the profile of club he has joined. But it’s also as if Spurs haven’t quite accepted what they are.

Reaching a Champions League final and being part of the Super League project has brought a new outlook, and level.

Spurs are on the brink of the “super clubs” but not yet truly one of them. They just don’t spend in that way.

There are of course greater debates to be had here about the ownership and investment but the current reality of their recent history is that they are a club on the next tier down. They are at best a Liverpool 2017 - with the potential of more but not quite there.

Tottenham Hotspur manager Antonio Conte and Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta (Action Images via Reuters)
Tottenham Hotspur manager Antonio Conte and Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta (Action Images via Reuters)

In order to get there, however, a club needs to be fully focused. Everything needs to be in sync so it is all maximised; so you can be more efficient than more expensive rivals. Spurs were close that in the Mauricio Pochettino era, and it wasn’t a coincidence that came from a manager who was himself on the up.

It all fit together. Arsenal currently better fit that model.

Now, arguably because of Daniel Levy’s exaggerated vision of the club, Spurs have gone for a manager from the top tier. That brings all the advantages of his abilities, that got the team into the top four last season, but also the tensions of his demands. Spurs can’t rise to those demands. They can’t spend in the manner he’d like, or that he feels is justified after last season.

It means there is this corrosive disconnect, that saps efficiency. It is part of the reason that a coach like Conte, whose proclaimed ideal is pressing football, plays so cautiously. The squad doesn’t match his standards so he feels he has to go defensive to compensate. Similar, to a degree, happened with Jose Mourinho.

None of this is to absolve Conte. He had plenty of prior evidence as to who he was joining, and we’re at the point where it feels like his constant complaints foster an unrest that is completely unnecessary. The same goes for the style of football in the 2-0 defeat to Arsenal, that has been seen so often.

There is no need for Conte to compensate to this degree. It is as if he is saying he can’t possibly play more progressive football unless he has everything exactly as he likes. The second-half comebacks meanwhile show what is possible.

Spurs should be capable of more. They could be capable of even more than that, if everything was more aligned; if they were more like Arsenal.

As it is, it is like they haven’t accepted where they are. Arsenal have done that. It’s why Spurs and everyone else might have to accept the idea of Arteta’s side as champions.