In the 90th minute, Mikel Arteta finally had to start enjoying himself. Hard work, sacrifice, suffering: most of the time, these are the foundation stones of the Arteta method. You work, you fight, you suffer, and if you’re lucky you get to do it all again in five days. Even in the closing stages here, as Arsenal gleefully toyed with Tottenham and the Emirates lapsed into calypso mode, Arteta had lost none of his skittish focus: still urging his team forward, still whirling his arms round and round like a damaged toy.
But as Kieran Tierney let fly from distance, almost scoring a spectacular fourth at the death, something in Arteta finally broke. As he turned to his bench, he melted into a broad, shimmering smile. It was the moment he realised – possibly the last man in the stadium to do so – that after 13 long days of waiting and worrying, of running through the permutations of this game over and over again in his mind, everything was going to be fine.
When you are operating at Arteta’s rarefied level, these moments are vanishingly scarce. The week is consumed by strategy and anxiety; the day itself disappears in a torrent of emotion and adrenaline. By Monday, maybe earlier, the glow of victory has already given way to the next thing. Bodø/Glimt on Thursday, Liverpool next Sunday. Lose those two and you’re back in crisis. Sorry, those are just the rules.
So these are the moments that need to be cherished. Not as a statement of intent or as a stepping stone to where you want to be, but as a triumph in its own right, a fleeting outbreak of pleasure in a world that seems intent on making you miserable, even a vindication of sorts. And whether they win or do not win, this has perhaps been the greatest achievement of Arteta’s Arsenal to date: the ability to grow happiness.
There are many differences between Arsenal and Tottenham right now, but perhaps this feels the most basic of them. Do Tottenham genuinely look as though they’re having fun? Results have been good. There is a system, a method, a plan, a collective buy-in, five shouting Italians on the bench to enforce order. But with the possible exception of 20 lawless minutes against Leicester, there has been precious littlejoy to them.
You might argue that this is the Antonio Conte way, and he has the medals to back it up. Tottenham finished above Arsenal last season playing a very similar kind of football, and may yet do it again. But which of these two clubs would you rather be supporting right now? Which side would you rather play in? Whose arm would you rather have draped around your shoulder in the warm aftermath of victory?
To an extent this is a matter of personal taste, and certainly the divergence here made for a fascinating clash of styles: Arsenal’s high-wire attacking act against Tottenham’s high-wire defensive rearguard. You felt, on some level, that this is what Conte’s Tottenham want. The claustrophobia, the close contact, the pheromones of danger. They draw in tighter, clench like a fist, and then punch you with it.
For a while, it worked. After going an early goal down, Harry Kane’s penalty against the run of play felt like the ideal platform for a Tottenham burglary. So what do you do in these moments? You trust the process. You trust that if you create enough pressure, keep taking risks, eventually you get what you came for. And when you do it feels all the more satisfying, because in a way it is a reward for your faith.
And really, this whole project is one giant leap of faith. If Tottenham have taken a sharply pragmatic turn in recent years, Arsenal have spurned it like a treacherous friend. Where might pragmatism have got this Arsenal team? Pragmatism means you ditch Granit Xhaka a couple of years ago. Pragmatism means you give Nicolas Pépé as many chances as he needs. Pragmatism means you sign an experienced international goalkeeper rather than the guy relegated with Sheffield United. Pragmatism means you approach these games in a spirit of caution. Pragmatism means you sack Arteta after last season’s start. In fact, pragmatism means you don’t hire Arteta at all. Pragmatism gets you Max Allegri. Which, to be fair, lots of Arsenal fans wanted at the time.
There was no guarantee that any of this would go right. There still isn’t. But maybe that part doesn’t matter just yet. For as autumn sun dappled the pitch and the stands shook with song and Arteta took his curtain call in front of the North Bank, you got the feeling this was a memory that would stick: a moment of grace and communion as precious as any silver pot.