Arsenal fans haven’t had too much to smile about over the last couple of years, but this summer has seen the team finally start to evolve.
Three games isn’t a lot on which to base an assessment of a team’s season but with a 100% record, there’s been little fault to find in Arsenal. They’re the only team to have won all their first three Premier League games and thus they sit atop the table, two points clear of the rest.
Cynics might say, ‘Lads, it’s Arsenal. This is the pride that comes before the inevitable fall’. But this season something feels different. Arsenal feel like a solid unit. They look cohesive, with a remodelled team built around a group of highly talented individuals. Their new signings bring not only quality but versatility.
When Arsenal have had false dawns in the past, even at their peak you could see where the cracks might form. Even now, there are matters that could blow their season off course. But on the evidence of what we’ve seen, they’ve been the best team in the Premier League this season.
Here are six reasons why it looks as though their supporters have got a lot to look forward to.
1. The reported ‘ease’ of their early fixtures may be a red herring
It’s been said quite a bit since the start of the season that Arsenal had an easy ride to start off with. But how true has this been in reality?
The most simple way to calculate how easy or difficult a start to a team’s season has been is to add up the combined final positions from last campaign (with 21 for Fulham, 22 for Bournemouth and 23 for Nottingham Forest), and there is a team whose name starts with an ‘A’ who are streets ahead of the rest in terms of their first three games.
Step forward Aston Villa, whose first three opponents had a combined final league position last season of 50. Wolves are second on the list with 42, and Arsenal are in third place on 41. Everton and Manchester City are on 40 each, and Liverpool on 39.
So was the fixture list, as has been widely claimed, ‘kind’ to Arsenal? Well, they clearly could have had a much more difficult start (for the record, by this methodology the team with the most difficult first three games was Crystal Palace, with 19). But when we consider the troubles that Steven Gerrard has been having at Villa Park and Frank Lampard has encountered at Goodison Park, things could have been worse for them, too.
Certainly, the idea that Arsenal had an especially easy start to the season doesn’t seem to have much substance.
2. Raiding Manchester City seems to have paid dividends
Of all the summer’s transfers, among those that made absolute most sense of all were those of Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko from Manchester City.
These two players were hardly among the most celebrated City players of the modern era, but they played more than 350 games in all competitions for the club between them, and it’s difficult to believe that any player arriving from the Etihad Stadium wouldn’t come with good habits burned into them.
Mikel Arteta worked with Jesus and Zinchenko while he was with the club himself, and both players seem to have fitted effortlessly into the new system at the Emirates.
Crucially, both offer versatility. In a squad game – and with European football returning to Arsenal this season, squad management may well turn out to be one of the defining factors in how successful they end up being – player flexibility is crucial. Both Gabriel and Zinchenko can play in a variety of different positions.
3. The development of William Saliba is an ‘unexpected’ bonus
There’s a long way to go yet, of course, but it might just be that Arsenal’s most significant arrival at the club over the summer will turn out to have been someone returning after several periods on loan.
They paid £27m to sign him from Saint-Etienne in 2019, but it wasn’t until the opening game of this season that he made his debut, having spent the last three years on loan at Saint-Etienne, Nice and Marseille.
The player that has started this season is clearly transformed from the one they signed three years ago. Saliba’s performances for Marseille last season earned him a place in the Ligue Un team of the year, as well as being crowned as the league’s young player of the year, after Marseille reached the semi-finals of the Europa Conference League and qualified for this season’s Champions League.
This year has also seen Saliba collect five caps for France, and such has been the quality of his performances that he is now expected to be in their squad for the World Cup finals.
Big clubs sign a lot of players and put a lot out on loan as well but few would have guessed at the start of last season, as he headed back to France on loan for a third time, that Saliba would return a year later with the possibility of him becoming one of their key players looking very real.
But here he is, having chipped in with three excellent performances and scoring an early contender for goal of the season with his effort at Bournemouth.
He clearly has the potential to add a level of stability to Arsenal’s back line which has been missing for a very long time. And this isn’t a new signing; this is just somebody coming back from loan.
4. They have clearly struck gold with Bukayo Saka
Arsenal were leading 1-0 against Crystal Palace in their first game when Palace had a bit of a foray into the Arsenal penalty area.
It looked for a moment as if they’d be able to find themselves in a position to create a goalscoring opportunity but then, from out of nowhere, Bukayo Saka appeared on the edge of the six-yard box, nicked the ball off the toe of the Palace forward, carried it to a safer position and then released it to a teammate.
A combination of injuries and poor form seem to have afflicted a number of England players over the last year or so, but Saka has bucked that trend. He ended last season as Arsenal’s Player of the Year despite showing signs of burnout, and he started this campaign by becoming the second youngest player in the history of the club to make 100 appearances.
Even the apparently imminent arrival of Pedro Neto from Wolves doesn’t seem to be a major issue, with Nicolas Pepe leaving on loan. Considering the sheer volume of games that are coming with the group stages of the Europa League, there will come a point at which Saka will need to be rested, but he continues to impress, and Arsenal could have a talent who could do them a considerable amount of good for a considerable amount of time.
5. More than one of their top six rivals appear to be in transition
How far can Arsenal go this season? How would success be defined?
The good news for Arteta is that, if nothing else, the expectations of the club’s supporters have been tempered by five years without Champions League football and longer without a serious challenge at the very top of the Premier League.
This isn’t to say that expectations are ‘low’, as such, but they could certainly be a lot higher.
Furthermore, this has been a summer of flux in the transfer market, with significant changes at many clubs. Manchester City might be uncatchable – though who knows? – but some of the other contenders for a top four place are having issues.
Liverpool have only taken two points from their first three games. Manchester United, despite their win against Liverpool, had an atrocious first two games. Chelsea’s performance at Leeds showed that Thomas Tuchel has to work to do on his much-changed team. Even Spurs have hardly set the world alight since putting four goals past a very leaky Southampton in their opening game.
Arsenal are looking like the most cohesive of these teams. If all of the Big Six sides below City are undergoing some sort of rebuilding work, they are the furthest down the line.
They have bigger challenges to come, but if this is to be something of a transitional season near the top of the Premier League, Arsenal seem at least as well prepared as any of their rivals. And if the Premier League title can’t be secured this season, a return to the Champions League certainly seems more likely than it has for several years.
6. Patience with – and backing of – the manager seems to be paying off
In August 2021, after three games of the Premier League season, it looked as though it was only a matter of time before Arteta would be fired by Arsenal. Three straight defeats to start the season – and with the club having spent a lot of money – saw anger growing, after consecutive eighth-placed finishes.
There has been considerable criticism of the owners of the club over the years, much of it very much justified, but on the matter of Arteta there are signs that not having bowed to previous pressure from the stands and the media is reaping rewards.
The club has a clear transfer policy, but not one it is completely dogmatic in following. On the pitch so far this season, they have looked considerably more cohesive than most of their peers.
And furthermore, the owners have put their money where their mouths are. Arsenal spent heavily last summer and have done so again this time around. But this does seem to be the result of something coherent, rather than the apparent policy of some other clubs (who shall remain unnamed) to simply chuck money around in the hope that something will eventually stick.
Sporting director Edu has come in for considerable criticism in the past. If he has learned from his previous mistakes and is involved in the building of a strong team, then he should be praised.
It’s Arsenal. It could all yet come crashing down again. It’s happened before when they’ve started to look like they could become a force again, and no doubt it’ll happen again in the future.
There was, for example, a point in the no-too-distant past when it looked like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang could be the missing piece in the jigsaw.
At the moment, the team is functioning as we can only assume it’s intended to, and until such a point that they do start to feel those tremors again – whether it’s days, weeks, months or years – Arsenal fans should hold onto this feeling and savour it while they can. It’s been a long time coming, and as they already know, it can be a long time gone again.