Who's better, Tottenham or Arsenal? Ask Michael Laudrup.

Richard Heathcote

Michael Laudrup's contrasting tactics against Arsenal and Tottenham shows how other teams are viewing the two North London clubs.

I remember the general sense of misery among Tottenham Hotspur supporters when they fell to a 5-2 defeat against Arsenal in November. "For the second season in a row", one lamented, "Spurs kick-start Arsenal's league campaign." At the end of that game, Arsenal had gone above Tottenham into sixth, sending their rivals down to 8th. Yet here we are now, with Arsenal now lingering in 8th, level on points with Stoke City, while Tottenham moved into fourth with their defeat of Swansea City last night.

If you were looking to decide who has the best team out of the two, it's a difficult choice. Spurs now have an exceptionally well-balanced squad - in contrast to the usual set-up of mid-table teams that put together a good side, they have good players in every position, rather than relying on a small number of great players who are too good for them. In the long-run, it gives them a far more secure foundation to built from. In the short-term, it leaves them with very few match-winners in their side.

Arsenal, meanwhile, are harder to pin down. Thomas Vermaelen returns to the centre of the pitch to be bestowed with much praise and man-of-the-match awards, but continues his infuriating tendency to be drawn up the pitch and leave space behind him. Gervinho veers wildly from unfair criticism to undue praise. Olivier Giroud has similarly gone from being slated to adored. They are, simply, a rabble of a football team. They have immense quality, but it can't be deployed effectively, with all of their players (Per Mertesacker and Santi Cazorla two notable exceptions) flickering wildly in and out of form while the spectre of mental weakness sits as the albatross in the room, ready to undo any good work at any moment.

Michael Laudrup, however, appears to know. Yesterday when he visited White Hart Lane, he showed a rare negativity in setting his side up to contain and counter-attack, hoping to frustrate Tottenham and maybe steal a goal on the break. Contrast this with when Swansea visited the Emirates in November and went straight for Arsenal's throat, hoping to overwhelm them in midfield and outscore them, eventually coming away with a 2-0 victory. In other words, Laudrup believed that his side was capable of outplaying Arsenal at the Emirates but not of doing the same to Spurs at White Hart Lane.

Now, there are a few caveats here. Firstly, Laudrup's plan almost worked at White Hart Lane, largely due to Tottenham's weakness noted earlier - they possess few match-winners. Secondly, over the course of the season, being able to find a way through a team determined to frustrate you is probably worth more points than being able to resist a team which goes hell-for-leather at your goal.

This would miss the point, however - there is a robustness, a solidity to Tottenham that Arsenal simply do not have. Now that all their midfielders are not injured at the same time, it's difficult to imagine them having any particularly disastrous results, that red-card-induced 5-2 aside. You can see them drawing where they should have won, perhaps enduring an unlucky 1-0 defeat away to a good side, but you can't see them ever offering as little as Arsenal did against Manchester United, or having a full-strength team be defeated by a League Two side.

Most worryingly of all for Arsenal, that solidity appears to extend itself beyond what's happening on the pitch. When Tottenham first qualified for the Champions League, it was easy to see them enduring a poor season, losing Luka Modric and Gareth Bale, making poor buys, and essentially ending up another mid-table side - it has happened to a lot of clubs that flew to close to the sun before. Now, however, they look established, like they belong there. And with Manchester City's rise completing the four places at the top of the league, it's very bad news for Arsenal.

Wenger's problems are more complicated and more numerous, albeit relatively minor ones, but there is the sense that he is being asked to do the impossible by asking such a rabble to come together into a coherent unit. Michael Laudrup knew what he was doing when he set his side out to attack at the Emireates, because he knew that Arsenal didn't have the discipline or control to counter it. Wenger is admirably devoted to fluid football, but his side now appear to have declined to the point where it is asking too much of them. They have enough quality to defeat most teams in the league, but they can no longer be sure of outplaying them.

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