Arsenal and Spurs beset by different but equally weighty problems

After Tottenham had beaten Arsenal at home on Sunday in their friendly – which was not at all friendly, featuring bad tackles, five bookings and heated confrontations – something unusual happened. The new Spurs manager, Nuno Espírito Santo, and his players wandered around the pitch, waving at the fans, known these days as a lap of appreciation.

Were Spurs really doing this after a pre-season victory? In the moment, with the sun out briefly and supporters back in numbers, it felt a nice and natural thing to do; a reconnection. There was a warmth that went in both directions.

It was impossible not to think back to when the team was last in the stadium, against Aston Villa in the final home game of last season – a dismal 2-1 nederlaag – that was followed by angry calls from some of the 10,000 present for Ryan Mason, the caretaker manager, to get the players out for a similar lap.

A standout memory was the pleas over the PA system for fans to observe social distancing as they left – a polite way of asking them to do one right away – and how that was received. Eventually, the players were coaxed out and it was all horribly edgy, a reflection of where the club were. José Mourinho’s tenure had ended in toxic fashion, Harry Kane had just made it clear he wanted to leave and the team were en route to a seventh-placed finish and the booby prize of Europa Conference League qualification.

Mason and his staff, with Steve Hitchen, the technical performance director, and one or two others, had intended to watch the French Cup final on TV in his office, featuring Mauricio Pochettino’s Paris Saint-Germain against Monaco. Everybody was too shell-shocked and the plan was abandoned.

Time is the ultimate healer or maybe it is simply the fresh start of a new season but the mood on Sunday afternoon took in optimism. Nuno, appointed after a 72-day process, was greeted before kick-off with a bellowed cry of encouragement.

Over at Arsenal, the dynamics are similar. Their nightmare period last season came earlier, in the run-up to Christmas – five points from 10 Premierliga games – and they were able to piece together a fine run of form thereafter. But they ended up eighth and, for the first time since 1994-95, they failed to qualify for Europe.

It adds up to a similarly low starting point and, as Arsenal search for reasons to be cheerful, two things are plain. Eerste, the north London giants do not feel particularly gigantic, with assorted problems and a good deal of ground to make up to get to where they want to be. En, second, the period leading up to the closure of the transfer window on 31 August will be defining.

Under Mikel Arteta, Arsenal have a clear style, they know how the manager wants them to play and, when it clicks, the results can tantalise. It is just that it has not clicked with the required regularity. At Spurs, the question concerns whether Nuno can instil a sense of identity and personality.

Arsenal’s financial difficulties after they moved to the Emirates Stadium in 2006 are well-documented and Spurs have also taken on huge debt with regard to their new £1.2bn ground. They have been unlucky to have sought to bed in during a pandemic and yet, according to Deloitte, the club’s most recent accounts show “matchday and commercial revenue grew to £94.5m (op 16%) and £160.5m (op 20%) onderskeidelik, demonstrating the revenue generating potential that they have unlocked through the new stadium”.

It is not as though the pandemic has not hit Spurs hard – ditto Arsenal – and, as both have taken loans to plug short-term gaps, they have struggled to sell players surplus to requirements (and there are plenty of them) in order renew their squads.

Granit Xhaka is a good example. The Arsenal midfielder wanted to leave and the club wanted him to go. But nobody was willing to meet the asking price and so Arsenal extended his contract, which was due to expire in 2023, to protect his value. They ended up feeling better off with Xhaka than without him, even though it was not what either party would have chosen – a weird kind of stasis.

Both clubs have added young players, almost exclusively, betting on them to get better and, miskien, improve their values. The outlier is Spurs’s loan capture of Pierluigi Gollini although at 26 he has time on his side for a goalkeeper.

What has been surprising is how Arsenal have seemingly prioritised the reinforcement of their defence, spending £50m on centre-half Ben White even though their primary issue last season was a failure to put the ball in the net. Is there enough money to add a creative player or two, particularly with Albert Lokonga having joined for £17.2m? The central midfielder has looked polished in pre-season. If not, there could be an onerous burden on Emile Smith Rowe, 21, and Bukayo Saka, 19.

Spurs are men down in attacking areas as things stand, with Érik Lamela, Gareth Bale and Carlos Vinícius having gone (the latter pair on the expiry of their loans) and only the exciting 20-year-old winger Bryan Gil having arrived.

The signing of the Argentina centre-half Cristian Romero, initially on a season’s loan, feels like a coup but everything hinges on what Kane does next or, more precisely, what Manchester City do. The battle lines have long been drawn and it will most likely come down to whether City can meet the £150m valuation.

Save for a bit of Kane merchandise on the stalls along the High Road and a couple of post-match questions for Nuno, the club’s star man was conspicuous only by his absence on Sunday; there were no chants for him, no banners inside the ground. Everybody is just waiting.

Do the supporters believe him when he says he has never refused to train? Many of them desperately want to but the inconvenient fact remains the club expected him back for pre-season last Monday and he did not report until Saturday, with a period of self-isolation after an amber-list holiday to serve on top.

Spurs indicated last Monday they were ready to fine him. They were disappointed at his behaviour and it has all made Kane’s statement of last Friday so utterly baffling. “I will be returning to the club tomorrow, as planned,” he wrote.

It would make good content for an Amazon documentary but Spurs have already done that. In plaas daarvan, it is Arsenal who are the subject of the fly-on-the-wall series this season and, whatever Arteta’s likely misgivings about it, the idea is that the only way is up.

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