Arsenal fail to win the league again but besting Tottenham is all that matters
I'm not one of those foolish dreamers who took a flyer on Leicester City at the beginning of the season. I tend to bet on sure things: you know, like Arsenal finishing above Spurs in the table. And though it came down to the last Sunday of the season, the end result was never in doubt as far as I was concerned. In fact, I predicted it at the end of March.
No need to thank me. I consider it a public service.
You watch Arsenal's "rivalry" with Spurs long enough -- like, say, 21 years of Premier League supremacy -- and you realize that certain facts of life are immutable no matter how much the Soccer Gods tease us to believe otherwise.
Granted (and the following admission is painful for me), this was the most dynamic, most watchable Tottenham team in decades. Harry Kane and Dele Alli are two of the most exciting young prospects to carry English passports in recent memory. And yes, none other than Sir Alex Ferguson has anointed Mauricio Pochettino as his kind of manager, which is no doubt the crafty Scot's way of trying to lure him to Old Trafford to avoid the spectacle of Jose Mourinho besmirching the hallowed ground.
With all the praise being lavished on this Tottenham side, it's easy to forget that Spurs are still Spurs. Just as Arsenal appears destined to never again win the league under Arsene Wenger even if he signs another 87-year contract, it is Spurs' cruel fate to always finish behind the Gunners although sometimes it takes until the last day of the 38-game season for the standings to reflect that ineluctable truth.
Spurs out-Spurs'd themselves this season, mounting a credible title challenge that saw them chase champions Leicester (it still boggles the mind to type those two words together) all the way to the final turn before collapsing in a collective heap and taking a total of two points from their last four games.
This death spiral, culminating in Sunday's humiliating 5-1 beatdown by relegated and 10-men-for-the-final-20-minutes Newcastle coupled with Arsenal's 4-0 thumping of hopeless Aston Villa, handed second place to the Gunners who, if we're being honest, really didn't deserve it. Yet judging from the delirium that engulfed the Emirates once news of Spurs' capitulation filtered through midway in the second half, Arsenal fans will happily accept their annual St. Totteringham's Day gift as a much-needed consolation prize for a season that promised so much and delivered the customary reward of frustration and disappointment.
It's a pity that there is no scheduled open-top bus parade through North London because there are certainly moments worth commemorating. For instance, the Gunners could show off a plethora of imaginary silverware: there's the "Beating Leicester Twice this Season" trophy; the perennial "Qualifying for the Champions League" award; the equally annual "Going Out in the Last-16 of Champions League" prize and the "Beating Jose Mourinho In A Game That Doesn't Count" trophy (also known as the Community Shield).
Unfortunately in the tangible world, it speaks volumes about Arsenal's season that Gooners went beserk on Sunday celebrating their team's achievement of finishing a single, solitary point above Spurs when only a year ago, the gap between the two teams was a far more respectable nine points. But there's plenty of time in the upcoming offseason to examine what went wrong and for Wenger to dither around not buying anybody recognizable. For now, though, why be a buzzkill when Arsenal fans can wallow in the perverse joy of once again denying Spurs the chance to lord it over their bitter rivals for the first time since 1995.
Even Le Prof had to laugh at the absurdity. When Olivier Giroud, a player whose popularity is perhaps only matched by the American strike force of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, completed his hat trick in the 80th minute to rapturous applause by the Arsenal faithful who had jeered his introduction, Wenger turned to his granite-faced, chief assistant Steve Bould and said something so funny that Mount Rushmore cracked a wide grin. While lip reading is not my specialty, I am pretty sure that Wenger went with, "Sacre Bleu! How the hell did this team finish second?"
Well, one way to assure that you come in as the best of the losing sides is to be chasing Spurs for the honors. Having seen their championship hopes take a mighty hit three weeks ago when Alli, their thrilling but quick-tempered PFA young player of the year, received a season-ending ban for punching Claudio Yacob in the stomach during a fraught, chippy 1-1 draw at home with West Brom, Spurs responded with a choke job of truly Tottenhamesque proportions. The following week, they lost both the title and their heads in an ugly brawl of a game with Chelsea that saw Eden Hazard seal their doom eight minutes from time with an exquisite finish that simultaneously eliminated Spurs and confirmed Leicester's first league crown. Who says the Belgian doesn't score big goals?
Still, going into their final game, away to Newcastle, Spurs only needed to secure a point against a team headed for the Championship to exorcise their two decade North London inferiority complex. Yet apparently Newcastle's desire to retain Rafa Benitez -- "Rafa the Gaffa. Please stay. The Toon need you," implored one banner -- was far greater than Spurs' motivation to avoid a losing streak that is now the same number as the legal drinking age in the U.S. Or maybe Benitez's locker room oratory was simply more Churchillean than Pochettino's, despite the latter being the recipient of Sir Alex's wisdom. At the very least, the Argentine should have reminded his beach-bound charges that there are 38 games in a Premier League season, not 37.
When Spurs awoke from their first-half coma to pull within a goal of Newcastle at 2-1 in the 60th minute, Arsenal were still clinging to a 1-0 lead and wasting chance after chance by over-elaborating in the box until a Villa defender had no choice but to tackle the ball away. Not even the return of Santi Cazorla from a long injury layoff, one that had left Arsenal rudderless in midfield, could inspire the Gunners to take the game by the throat.
It was squeaky derriere time at the Emirates with Wenger hunched forward on the bench, a look of familiar pain on his pinched face. He was no doubt aware that had Arsenal been playing any team other than Villa, it would have already conceded the equalizer. Then, without warning, Arsenal and Newcastle went up a gear, with Giroud scoring a brace in two minutes and that beautiful Magpie, Georginio Wijnaldum, notching his second of the contest in the 73rd minute to release the tension in both stadiums.
Listening to the sonic boom of noise radiating around the Emirates, you might have thought that the Gunners had actually won a trophy or something, such was the party mood when the supporters realized St. Totteringham's Day had finally dawned, not quite on schedule but cherished nonetheless. The crowd chanted the names of two of their departing heroes, the gifted but oft-injured midfielder Tomas "Little Mozart" Rosicky and the helmet-haired, one-time captain Mikel Arteta whose cameo resulted in Arsenal's final goal. They even afforded Wenger a warm ovation on the traditional lap of appreciation, a show of enduring respect that would have been inconceivable only a month ago, after the Gunners had lost three straight home games for the first time in 14 years.
As for Spurs, it was a depressingly predictable end to a memorable campaign in which they finished ahead of Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool. But that will come as small consolation to a team that dared to dream of greater glory.
"It would have been a really good feeling," said Harry Kane, to have beaten out Arsenal for second. Not to despair, Harry. There's always next season. Or the one after that. Or the one...
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.