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Thu, 05 Sep 2013 20:15:00 GMT | By Barney Ronay

Arsenal vs Spurs: Not so much rivals as brothers in arms

The Premier League has always loved a grand, sweeping pungently operatic and – at times – entirely misleading story line.


Arsenal vs Spurs: Not so much rivals as brothers in arms

At first glance the first North London derby of the season, Sunday's 1-0 victory for Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium might have seemed to offer something seductively authentic along these lines, an alluringly pointed contrast of means, styles and apparent corporate ambition. Arriving as it did amidst the gurgling dregs of an unusually overheated summer transfer window this seemed an irresistibly bold type two-hander: Tottenham, a club that has aggressively refreshed and restocked its resources over the summer; versus the almost comically reinforced austerity of Arsenal, a cobwebbed, liver-spotted Miss Havisham of a club, striding about the corridors of its vast glass and steel North London enormodrome in cobwebbed veil, fondling its ancestral trophies, swishing its curtains shut against the garish modernisms of the European transfer market.

Chuck in the spectacle of the Premier League's oldest and longest-serving manager, the Ozymandias-like Arsene, versus the league's youngest Andres Vilas-Boas, backed by the dynamic commercial wiles of Daniel Levy and Franco Baldini, and it seemed possible Tottenham, in particular might have used the occasion to make a definitive statement of shifting fortunes, of a decisive ambition-gap. There had already been much deserved cooing over the conjoined potential of Spurs' seven major new signings, three of whom have extended the club's record transfer fee. Here was a sweepingly emphatic rise-and-fall drama in the making, a tale of contrasting methods, of leveraged upwardly mobile ambition and a miserly petit-bourgeoise stasis.

Except, within a day of Arsenal's narrow but deserved 1-0 victory the entire picture had shifted. Confirmation of Gareth Bale's hyper-inflationary sale to Real Madrid effectively erased Spurs' summer spending and sent them scooting back to a zero net balance. Even more bafflingly Arsenal took the opportunity to spend some actual real money, the £42m signing of Mesut Ozil a new record for an incoming Premier League player and an almost recklessly muscular statement of intent. Oh dear. Confusing. Where were we again?

Of course this was always more a case of blurred lines, and of a pair of north London neighbours with some heartening fraternal similarities. Never mind the parochial snarls. The rivalry here is in many ways purely geographical. At the end of a transfer window that has seen yet another summer spending record these are in their own conjoined way a pair of Premier League clubs from exactly the same side of the tracks, brilliantly well-run European middleweights who occupy pretty much the same ground, that well-maintained periphery beyond the carbon-fuelled Oligarch elite.

In Premier League terms these aren't so much rivals as brothers in arms, a fraternity of the economically sane. Even in the process of tripling their own transfer record with the deal for Ozil, there is a sense of fiscal rectitude about Arsenal: Ozil cost half as much as Bale, is the same age, and has fewer variables to contend with. Beyond this the club's transfer market austerity is legend: since 2009 Wenger traded at a £30m profit on players pre-Ozil. Over the same period Spurs are now trading at dead level on players in and out.

And these are in the end two clubs of commendably rigid shared fiscal probity, at the top end of the table pretty much the only sane people in the room. Of the clubs around them Chelsea have managed, commendably, to wring a minor profit out of the last fiscal year, but overall this is a club wading back through years of overspend to reach the distant shores of financial fair play. Manchester City have debts of almost £300m in the last two years, albeit, again 2012 was only half as bad as 2011. And Manchester United seem bent on using energetically reaped global commercial profits to prop up assorted American shopping mall concerns. Against this Spurs supporters may point to Arsenal's wage bill - £143m plays £90m – as evidence of hidden extravagance, but this is still proportionate given the Gunners' vast £243m turnover. The only real sign of loopiness in Wenger's management of his squad is its furious turnover: in those last four years Arsenal have signed 21 players and offloaded 50, where Spurs – even withinthe nexus of the Redknapp years, a period of self-aggrandising pseudo wheeler-dealery - have signed 33 and sold 39, an indication of Wenger's own mild speculative vices when it comes to the dream of a profitable, Kids From Fame-style youth team.

In fact the only real distinguishing mark between these two is Arsenal's possession of the kind of urban super-stadium Spurs have tried and failed to land. It is good business sense that has allowed Spurs to spend like a duke this window: the sale of Bale has funded the kind of spree only an oligarch's plaything has ever to date undertaken. But it is a similar bricks and mortar prudence that has funded Arsenal's own heft among the heavyweights. Wenger has, in effect been saving up for eight years to buy Ozil.

This, then was not a derby of opposites, but a meeting of two teams whose destiny it is to scuffle together on the expertly tended fringes of the elite. In fact the differences, such as they are, are simply textural. Tottenham's summer of carefully balanced extravagance has created a team that, for now at least, looks it could be the real deal if you could just stick Gareth Bale in it (or similar rampaging left-footed creative force) But there is additional muscle and compared to last year's Redknapp-remnants: a more athletic, more mobile spurs team, but one that is also less explosive on the counter attack and less obviously redolent with goals.

By the same token Arsenal's decisive derby day strengths were almost accidental: a sense of continuity borne of exactly the stasis for which Wenger has been so shrilly criticised. From here the route is familiar: Spurs and Arsenal will be competing again for the same ground, from the same state of continual and energetic rebuilding. For both teams, with Christian Erikson settling in at Spurs, much will depend on the progress from here of a box-fresh big money creative midfielder. For now, despite the enduring traditions of geographical proximity, to the objective eye they remain allies as much as enemies, surrounded on all sides by the mixed effects of outright billionaire ownership, and an island of good husbandry amid the spendthrift and the triumphantly incontinent.

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