Tottenham supporters can take comfort that all is not lost following Spurs' 1-0 defeat in today's North London Derby.
Much was made by the media, and a Gunners fan or three, of this being a contest between the suddenly big-spending Spurs and the no-spending Arsenal. It wasn't quite that. For anyone paying attention this summer, the money spent by chairman Daniel Levy was no reckless spree but rather proactive reinvestment of the projected windfall from the now-confirmed megatransfer of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid--along with smaller-headline sales in Clint Dempsey, Steven Caulker, Scotty Parker, and Tom Huddlestone. The club has yet to reap the fruit of last week's signees Christian Eriksen, Vlad Chiriches, and Erik Lamela (who did make his debut albeit as a late sub today), all of whom stand to see significant time in the Spurs starting XI by season's end. There's also been a bit of mythology in recent years to the celebrated frugality of Arsenal, a club with a wage scale significantly higher than that of Spurs and in shouting distance of Manchester United's. (And today's goal scorer, Olivier Giroud, is not exactly home-grown.) Going into the match, conventional wisdom was Arsenal needed the win more than Spurs did. Dropped points would've blown air onto the mutinous fires at the Lighbury, er, Emirates; win, draw, or lose, Spurs are a well-positioned work in progress, and their "Magnificent Seven" summer acquisitions should make significant contributions as they work into manager Andre Villas-Boas's squad and system.
Even in recent NLDs won by Spurs, Arsenal had had much more of the possession. Today, they often looked like a counterattacking team and in the end were reduced to parking the bus on their own home pitch. Spurs controlled the better part of the game flow today, a feat that not too long ago would have been unimaginable without either Bale or Aaron Lennon in the starting XI. Paulinho and Etienne Capoue once again formed a dominant unit while lining up with Moussa Dembele (though Dembele was a weak link today, more on this below). Although the Gooners were the more dangerous team in the attacking third, Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris emerged as the best player on the pitch, frequently coming out of his 18-yard box like an extra sweeper to thwart Arsenal and making a brilliantly timed clearance in the face of the oncoming Theo Walcott. Many commentators had ranked Lloris among the league's best keepers, but let there be no doubt about it after this match. The only question is whether he's the best in the Barclays.
The score sheet does not lie (much) and after three league matches, Spurs have yet to score from open play. Andros Townsend, an early-season bright spot, seemed the only one capable of putting shots on goal today; he's paradoxically poised to take Lennon's job on the wing at the same time he stands to lose it to Lamela. Unfortunately for Tottenham, its three-headed midfield core offered little going forward, and striker Roberto Soldado received little service overall. I've heard a number of supporters argue Dembele should play in a more advanced role, but I have yet to see where his skills set would fit the bill on a consistent basis. It doesn't help that, after being dogged by injuries and overused by Villas-Boas last season, Dembele doesn't seem to have regained the fitness that enabled him to boss games early in his Spurs career.
Tottenham has given up just one goal in its first three league matches, but the back line, too, is far from a polished unit. Danny Rose remains a question mark at left back. He shows a high work rate but looked outclassed at times today, and he and Capoue were out of sync on Theo Walcott's feed to Giroud. On the other side, Kyle Walker linked up well with Townsend on a number of occasions, but the right back's decisions turned markedly poor near the end of the match as he seemed to be trying to relive memories of his wonder goal of NLD past. Michael Dawson, whose speculative lobs continue to be hit or miss, was exposed now and again as he sometimes can be, though not for lack of spirit. Jan Vertonghen, one of the league's best center halves, hides many a sin in this unit, but even he has not seemed fully fit since the season opener. It will be interesting to see how soon Chiriches can work his way into the starting squad.
A full season after last summer's shakeups, Tottenham have yet to field the type of player who can fill the now-proverbial "van der Vaart role." But Spurs supporters have reason to see hope on the horizon in the form of Lewis Holtby and the newly acquired Christian Eriksen. Holtby, hot off his U21 and Europa League performances for Spurs, would have been a smarter substitution than Jermaine Defoe today. Spurs were on top of the action and just needed some extra spark in the slot behind striker rather than switching to a two-forward formation. Erik Lamela brings over a load of potential from Serie A, though he seems to be more of a right-sided player than central creator.
Ultimately, the worst thing to come out of this match might not be the three points dropped to crosstown rival Arsenal but rather the apparent loss of Capoue for a significant spell after Santi Cazorla--Arsenal's Luis Suarez Lite, a world-class player who can display a lack of class, in my opinion--rolled onto Capoue's ankle and sent him off on a stretcher, not long after fouling the Spurs midfielder on an earlier trip. When Tottenham acquired Capoue last month, the read on him was he would provide versatile cover as a squad player who could play box-to-box like Paulinho, win balls like Sandro, and go forward like Dembele--but who couldn't do any of these things quite as well as those respective players could. So far he's been better than advertised, an imposing presence with intercepting passes as his specialty. His loss from the squad will be a huge blow, and the sight of Capoue being carried off might have reminded supporters of Sandro's crucial season-ending injury last January.
With Sunday's result, Arsenal climb into a four-way tie on points with Manchester City, Stoke (enjoy it while it lasts), and Spurs for third place. In the battle for Champions League qualification, Arsenal can point to history, while Spurs nevertheless might have higher hope and, arguably, a higher ceiling.
Follow Rob Kirkpatrick on Twitter: www.twitter.com/wrappedupinboox