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After three Premier League matches this campaign, Arsenal amassed no points, with nine goals conceded and none scored. At this point in the season the Arsenal comparisons were being drawn with Norwich rather than the bigger clubs their name ultimately belongs alongside. It seemed as though this was destined to be another year filling the role of the league’s laughing stock with inconsistent performances, embarrassing results and ultimate disappointment. Is Arsenal’s ‘banter era’ coming to an end.
A little look into some context offers up plenty of explanation for Arsenal’s poor start. They were dealing with injuries to key players, they were introducing new blood with a number of new signings who hadn’t previously played together and they’d faced two pre-season favourites for the league title. Unfortunately, the average football fan doesn’t care all that much about context, and naturally Arsenal were the butt of everybody’s jokes.
Arsenal’s early losses were at the hands of Brentford, Chelsea and Manchester City. Sure, losing on the opening day to newly promoted Brentford wasn’t the greatest result, but I think it can largely be agreed that we’d expect Chelsea and City to be beating near enough every side they face. If we gloss over the five-goal margin of the City defeat, is there really any shame in losing to those two sides?
Brentford have also since taken points off Liverpool, as well as being incredibly unlucky to suffer a 1-0 defeat against league leaders Chelsea in a match that they probably deserved to win. They’re clearly no mugs. Arsenal’s start was terrible, of course, but any of those results in isolation really aren’t the end of the world.
Since the poor start, Arsenal have not lost in the league. A comprehensive victory in the North London Derby, a decent win against an Aston Villa side who had started the season looking pretty solid but are now faltering, and just this weekend the Gunners went away to beat a Leicester side that most would have in the discussion for European places. Arsenal have recorded a couple of draws that could perhaps have been wins so it hasn’t been perfect by any means but it certainly has been better.
The Gunners now sit sixth in the table, level on points with a perceived stronger outfit in Manchester United, and now only three points behind West Ham in fourth. It’s going to take time to get back to the heights the club once enjoyed – and there will be more bad results along the way – but I firmly believe Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal are heading in the right direction.
Anybody who’s watched Arsenal in recent years knows that although the entire squad has not been good enough, their biggest problem has probably been their defence. Last season for example, David Luiz making regular calamitous errors at centre-half encapsulated these issues. Following this summer’s transfer window, Arsenal have developed a much stronger core to their defence, and it’s a core that could realistically enjoy the best part of a decade playing at their peak for the club.
The new additions to the defence – Ben White at 24, Takehiro Tomiyasu aged 22 and Nuno Tavares at 21 – join the likes of Kieran Tierney and Gabriel who are also in their twenties. It looks a talented back line that could realistically be playing together at the top for the next ten years, but of course these players need more time together to develop their relationship before one could see Arsenal’s defence as a truly formidable outfit.
The days of worrying about regular mistakes from experienced, supposed leaders such as David Luiz or Shkodran Mustafi look to be in the past. Ben White’s particular deal was one that in true Arsenal style, prompted ridicule from rival teams’ supporters. Arsenal paid around £50m for White, which was met with the general opinion that they were massively overpaying. For me, discussion over big clubs with bottomless riches overpaying for players serves mainly to fuel agendas, and little else. If White is coming to Arsenal and improving them, and prospectively going to be at the club for the next ten years, do you think they’re bothered about spending £50m when some fella down the pub thinks he’s only worth £30m?
Look at the deal Manchester United made for Harry Maguire. Nobody in their right mind would suggest he’s actually worth £80m, but his leadership has improved United’s defence, in spite of recent bad results. Nowadays he’s almost left his price tag behind him as people accept that he is a solid international centre-back, and he’s important to one of the biggest clubs in the world. We can discuss transfer fees until the cows come home, but the truth of the matter is, most clubs don’t really care about overspending, especially on English players.
It’s not just Arsenal’s defence with a new, youthful core to it, it’s a theme across the whole squad. Martin Ødegaard, Aaron Ramsdale and Albert Sambi Lokonga join the likes of Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Gabriel Martinelli, Eddie Nketiah and Folarin Balogun as part of an ever-growing list of young talent in and around the Arsenal first team squad. Smith Rowe in particular is really hitting some form for the club right now.
The likes of Thomas Partey and Nicolas Pepe pepper in some experience, whilst also being young enough themselves to spend many more seasons playing at football’s top level. I cannot look at this Arsenal squad and see anything but a bright future, especially given a couple more years to either sign or develop long-term replacements for aging but reliable strikers Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.
Ramsdale was another signing this summer that prompted discussions of overpaying. Now personally I don’t particularly rate him and I think £25m is a lot of money for a goalkeeper that isn’t guaranteed a starting place, but who cares? The man has been in and around England squads at a young age and he’s consistently been chased by clubs that represent a step-up in his career. There has to be a reason those in the sport seem to see potential in him, and even I’m starting to be swayed following his performance against Leicester.
Goalkeepers tend to reach their peak much later than outfield players, and Jordan Pickford won’t be England’s starting goalkeeper forever. In five years time we could realistically be looking at a prime Aaron Ramsdale as England’s starting goalkeeper, and a man worth considerably more than Arsenal’s £25m investment.
If there was one thing Arsene Wenger’s great Arsenal sides had it was a tactical identity, and therein lies the final piece of my argument that Arsenal are on their way back from the brink of fading into irrelevance. Under Arteta, you can finally see some sort of philosophy in the way Arsenal play football again, it’s no longer a random style of play designed around the hope that Aubameyang’s goals will win the club points.
It’s not the most fine-tuned system by any means, but it’s something more emblematic of a step in a positive direction at the Emirates. It’ll be a gradual process, but at some point over the next few seasons I expect to see a return to the Champions League spots for Arsenal, or at the very least a battle for them.
If you’re looking for a ‘banter club’ to mock, perhaps Arsenal are no longer your guys. Arsenal’s North London counterparts have sacked Nuno Espírito Santo after just four months at the helm, and Manchester United (who happen to lack the aforementioned tactical identity Arsenal have rescued under Arteta) have opposition fans singing their manager’s name. I’d say there are easier targets out there than Arsenal right now.