Perfect does not exist in Premier League circles, but if it did, it would look something like the football Arsenal are producing this season.
The Gunners are a side who look at home when they are away. They delicately balance youth with experience. They drive results with flair and faculty but can also win ugly – consider them 1-0 victory over Leeds back in October as testament.
Sunday’s North London derby triumph also exhibited similar hallmarks.
Arsenal’s success isn’t sudden, it’s methodical. It’s been cultivated over time. Refined and finessed by a practitioner whose standards are relentlessly high, and whose methods are as detailed as they are precise.
Mikel Arteta’s long-term project is beginning to bear fruit.
Arsenal have, perhaps belatedly, overtaken Manchester City as favorites for this season’s Premier League crown, but Arteta takes no comfort in bookmakers’ estimations. He leaves nothing to chance, no stone unturned.
Like any reasoned head coach, he measures progress by tangible landmarks – such as a first league double over age-old nemesis Tottenham for the first time since 2013-14.
Or the five-point advantage (and game in hand) they currently hold over nearest rivals Man City.
Or more compelling still, their impressive points total (47 from 18 played) – the most they’ve accumulated at this stage of a league campaign since, well, ever. They are even outpacing Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ from 2003-04.
So, how have we got here and can such a remarkable form be sustained?
“The plan was always to get better, and get better quickly, but the reality is different,” Arteta began. “Unfortunately the curve is not always [upwards]. The curve is up and down,” he illustrates with a wave-like hand movement.
“I was lucky because I’ve had the support I’ve needed in every moment. We’ve had difficulties that I never planned for, like with Covid. We needed time to evolve the team, to evolve the squad – it was in a state that needed big improvement. Now we’re in a much better position.”
The position the Spaniard is referring to is top of the table. If they were to stay put until May 28 Arsenal would lift their first Premier League trophy in 19 years. They were 40/1 outsiders before a ball was kicked, now the Gunners are odds-on – it’s theirs to lose.
“The demands the club puts on its players makes them hungry,” Arteta continued, making sure to also convey humility in the subsequent sentence. “Nothing is won yet, it’s too early, but the supporters assimilate that fire and desire – confidence is very much related. That has to be there at this level.
“We haven’t done it [win the league]. This team is new to it. We have to give ourselves all of the possible arguments to try to achieve it. The desire is there, that’s for sure. I am very happy with where we are – I wouldn’t change that.”
Arteta himself is obsessed with improvement – which is understandable if you consider his tutelage. Working under Pep Guardiola at Man City he won two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and two league cups. Fast forward a few years, then a couple more, and Pep’s protege now stands as the most credible threat to City’s fifth title in six seasons.
Arteta wouldn’t be drawn on the irony of usurping his former educator, but is nevertheless enjoying the battle emerging between the red side of north London and the blue sky of Manchester.
“It’s strange,” he said. “We worked together for many years. We have incredible experiences together. We have a very special relationship and when you face that kind of person it’s always strange. But I knew, the day I made the decision [to leave Manchester City and join Arsenal]that was going to be the case.”
While Guardiola’s tortured soul is busy trying to illicit perfection, bemoaning his “unrecognizable” team, Arteta has been doing the opposite. He’s lit a fire under his players than him. The Arsenal DNA, so recognizable in teams during the Arsene Wenger era, is finally back. The football is easy on the eye, electric at times, but more importantly it is predetermined to win.
“We defend and represent our club in every possible way,” he said. “We can be much better as a club and as a team. Those are the demands we have to put on ourselves. We are the first to say we want to be the best, that is the desire of this club. Our main focus is doing the right things every day.
“Winning brings everything together, believe me. Winning is just so helpful. It’s the whole point, everything we do. The way I talk here, everything we do on the football pitch, every decision we make is to win. That’s the most important thing.”
Man City’s mini-slump is Arsenal’s gain, but stormier waters lie ahead. Indeed the target on the Gunners’ back is growing bigger by the week, as Manchester United attempt to insert themselves in a narrowing title race. Arsenal are now considered a threat – and a sizeable one at that. A contest so delicately poised is bound to have “twists and turns,” Arteta says.
Arsenal on the up
Arsenal have not finished inside PL top four in last six seasons, since Mikel Arteta’s final season as a player in 2015-16.
Sunday’s meeting with Erik ten Hag’s United, therefore, has arrived at an interesting juncture. Coping with big occasions has previously held this youthful Arsenal side back, so with sterner examinations arriving thick and fast, how will they fare?
“We’ve had big lessons. You have to understand that setbacks have certain context – some things we could control, some things were out of our control. We have responsibility to learn from mistakes.
“It’s true that the team has learned to deal with those hard moments in a very efficient way. It’s something that is important. There are moments where it’s rainy, windy, the pitch is not good and we play three days ago. But you have to still win in that context.
“So winning in any circumstance is what a great team should have. You cannot win the same way every three days, it’s impossible. It’s about finding a way – what triggers that moment to get you over the line and win a football match.”
This season has been packed full of momentum-shifting moments. Some to Arsenal’s advantage. Just as United began displaying green shoots of recovery, snatching a win against rivals Man City last Saturday, their star midfielder Casemiro gets booked for a foul on Wilfried Zaha in a midweek encounter against Crystal Palace – ruling him out of United’s trip to the Emirates. The Brazilian’s absence may well give Arsenal a competitive edge.
This fixture, throughout the nineties and noughties, was synonymous with the ‘dark arts’. Think Patrick Vieira vs. Roy Keane. Think bust-ups and brawls, fisticuffs and fracases. It’s a grudge that predates both managers and certainly all playing staff. But this weekend’s encounter has the potential to reignite the flame. A throwback to bygone eras, if you will. It’s “meaningful,” Arteta acknowledged.
“I have memories [of Arsenal vs Man United] from when I was younger – I used to see those battles. I remember how intense and passionate it was, that really got my attention… Every game is massive right now, but we’re really focused and determined.”
Indeed both clubs are on a similar upward trajectory after respective periods of transition, but have, until very recently, been prone to a wobble. We are likely to get a better indication of who is further along the sequence of evolution on Sunday.
Arteta finished by offering his thoughts on Arsenal’s latest newcomer, Leandro Trossard, who he hopes can aid their title tilt: “He is a player that gives us a lot of versatility and quality in the final third. He knows the league. He was available and he wanted to come – he was desperate to come.We welcome those kinds of players to the club.
“He had a smile on his face and he believed it was the right moment for him to move. It was really nicely done, between the player, agent and the club. I really like the process and the outcome at the end, obviously. He’s ready and will be available on Sunday. I’m very happy.”
Question is, will Arteta still be rubbing his hands together come Sunday evening, or will United’s resurgence prove too hot to handle?
Watch Arsenal vs Man Utd live on Sky Sports Premier League on Sundays from 4pm; kick-off 4.30pm