Second in the ‘recent form’ table. Nine games unbeaten in all competitions. Six clean sheets in that run.
No, it’s nothing to do with Newcastle’s start to life in the second tier after spending £200m next summer, nor a prediction of Spurs’ upturn in fortunes after running away from Antonio Conte in training for two months. It’s Arsenal, here and now, ahead of a home match with Watford which they’ll be comfortable favourites for and which could see them head into the international break in the top five of the Premier League with the most settled and optimistic outlook around the club since, well, probably since they won the FA Cup in the fledgling months of Mikel Arteta’s reign. This fixture marks game No100 in charge for the Spaniard.
So is this the path Arsenal have been trying for so long to get back onto, the requisite number of corners finally turned to see the fabled process lead to a successful reality? It would be miserly to dismiss results entirely, but neither can the line of Ws be simply taken as an indication of incoming success, that the good times are ready to roll again. For starters, Arsenal have been here before. Secondly, those matches were not, let’s say, all against the most intimidating of opposition. As ever, the real truth requires more digging and a little more patience to fully unfurl.
Arsenal’s recent mini-run began at home to Norwich. Considering nobody in this league against that opposition has yet tasted defeat, in and of itself a 1-0 victory is nothing to shout about. Nor too are League Cup wins over third-tier AFC Wimbledon and an under-strength, semi-rotated Leeds side. Then there are the games the Gunners didn’t win: battered but survived a goalless draw against Brighton and a 2-2 with Crystal Palace, a point earned with late fortune having been distinctly second-best.
For big performances and deserved victories, Arteta must look to the points taken from Spurs – where the Gunners started fast and furious and were rightly lauded for a superb early derby showing – Aston Villa and Leicester. Those are all teams who harbour ambitions of being in and around similar areas of the table to Arsenal, the fighting-for-fourth-but-in-the-top-seven-if-not category.
Arsenal won each of them with at the very least convincing spells and, at the better end of the performance spectrum, outright domination. They also caught each of those three perceived rivals in moments of real poor form.
In the most recent of them, the Aaron Ramsdale-inspired victory at the King Power Stadium, the same truths can be taken as warning signs or reasons for genuine praise and progress: Arteta was indebted most of all not to his expensive forwards or his homegrown attacking gems, but his defensive pillars. His goalkeeper made a series of top stops, for sure – notwithstanding the wild exaggerations of just how incredible that free-kick save was – but Gabriel Magalhaes put neither a foot nor a header wrong all game. The centre-back, and his slowly blossoming relationship with Benjamin White, is where most pleasure should be taken so far in this run. So too the structure, ball-winning ability and vastly reduced unreliability of the zone in front of them, Thomas Partey and Albert Sambi Lokonga shining as a pairing in back-to-back league wins of late. The recent absence of Granit Xhaka in that area and the more cohesive foundation is not a coincidence.
Emile Smith Rowe has been sparkling, Bukayo Saka has match-winning moments, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has found the net. All of those are true. But they’d be true (if in more irregular fashion) even if those behind them were not finding form and consistency. When the defence is severely and repeatedly tested, it suggests that issues remain. But, conversely, when the defence comes through successfully, that’s the platform which gives reason to think this run of form could be different to previous ones.
For, as mentioned, Arsenal have been here before.
They went on a run of only one defeat in nine across the turn of the year 11 months ago. They followed it up with one win in six; a false dawn. The 20/21 campaign behind closed doors started with silverware at Wembley in the Community Shield and six wins from seven (including shoot-outs), but had unravelled by winter. Lest it be forgotten, Arteta himself took over toward the tail end of a run which saw just one victory from 15, and despite him then going 10 unbeaten just pre-Covid, they have finished eighth both seasons under his watch. Even this term, up in sixth and with the current run, Arsenal have a negative one goal difference.
The Emirates club remain a team of spans of matches, runs of form, promising highs before humbling lows, most of which have come as soon as the possibility of progress truly opens up before them and the difficult, or meaningful, matches arise. When the pressure is on, this group of players has constantly been found wanting. It is there, in the mentality and the togetherness, in the cohesion and the reliability of the team, which will ultimately determine whether Arsenal are ready to deliver and push on, or are merely at the crest of another wave, right before the inevitable downturn.
Watford at home and fifth place in the table sounds nice. But the other side of the international break – Liverpool, Man United, Everton and West Ham in less than a month – will be the true test of any recent progress, and of how sustainable the recent rise is.
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