Antonio Conte remembers the last north London derby and he was not even the Tottenham manager at the time. “It was a difficult period for my team,” Conte says, and there is no doubt the 3-1 reverse at Arsenal in late September was the nadir. “For sure, at that moment, the confidence was down.”
Pierre-Emile Højbjerg shudders at the memory. It was not just the defeat but the manner of it. At times, during a nightmarish first half, it looked as if he was manning the Spurs midfield alone. Arsenal tore through, running in three goals inside 34 minutes. Their dominance was total; the lead unassailable.
“It was not good and it hurt a lot,” Højbjerg says. “It’s something that, as a player, you cannot accept. What happened the last time at the Emirates is absolutely a no-go, absolutely something that is not worthy [of us].”
For Spurs, the derby is always the game of the season, a reference point, and it is often tempting to plot their progress from one to the next. Back in September, Spurs were only six matches into the Premier League season and the managerial tenure of Nuno Espírito Santo. But everybody knew. It was over for him.
Nuno would limp on, although not for long, being sacked at the end of October after the 3-0 home loss to Manchester United. At which point, enter Conte with a brief – in his words – “to try to improve the situation … the club didn’t ask me to go for a place in the Champions League or Europa League”.
Spurs were eighth after losing five of their previous seven matches. Not good, as Conte says, and “only a crazy person could imagine that with three games to go we’d be in the race for a Champions League place”.
But as Spurs prepare, belatedly, to welcome Arsenal to their stadium on Thursday night, it is precisely where they are. Conte’s record in the league reads: W14 D5 L6 Pts 47 and, when transposed across 38 games, it adds up to a 71.4-point season. He has galvanised the squad. And now comes the reckoning in a showdown that is heavy on juicy plotlines: revenge (as above), huge significance for the future direction of both clubs and, frankly, litres of bad blood.
When Spurs last hosted this fixture, it was December 2020, José Mourinho was their manager and a 2-0 win had them on top of the table. It feels like a lifetime ago. There were no fans in attendance because of the pandemic and nor had there been any for the stadium’s first derby in July 2020, which Spurs won 2-1.
This will be the first at the venue in front of a crowd and, if the atmosphere promises to be electric, there is also the possibility of it falling horribly flat for Spurs, adding further to the tension.
Conte’s team know that in all likelihood they must win if they are to take the fight for a top-four place into the penultimate or final round of fixtures and even then they would be relying on a favour from elsewhere. But if Arsenal were to win, they would secure a Champions League finish at the expense of their neighbours. This is not what the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was built to witness.
The game was originally scheduled for 16 January, but Arsenal successfully applied for a postponement as they contended with a selection crisis, although not one related to positive Covid cases. Spurs were fuming and released a spiky statement that got their feelings across with absolute clarity. When Conte reflects on the episode, he continues to use words such as “strange” and “unfair”.
Conte does admit that “it is right to play this type of game with all the players available” and says what matters to him are the improvements his own have made since then, tactically and physically. And the bigger picture, too. Winning a derby must be a means to reach a grand target, not an end in itself.
“There is a big rivalry [between Spurs and Arsenal], we know it very well, the players know it very well and we want to give satisfaction to our fans,” Conte says. “But when I have played other derbies, with Inter or Juventus, I’ve always said that a derby is one game, or two games, in a season and a big team has to win the derby, not because it’s your rival but because you get three points and they bring you nearer to winning something important. Our mind has to be open for an important target, for winning a derby to be a way to reach this.”
Conte can be proud that he has driven his team from a low starting point into contention for a top-four place, a prize he describes as being “like winning a title in another country”.
It has come to hinge on a derby like few others and, Conte hopes, nothing like the last one. “I think and I hope to see another type of game because many situations have changed,” Conte says. “We want to show that we are a good team and we can fight for the Champions League.”