Setting off at a blistering pace always comes with one obvious drawback, and to their cost Arsenal learned that the hard way last season when running out of gas on the home straight.
This time around, with five fewer points after 12 matches, Mikel Arteta’s side don’t have the full brunt of that title-chasing headwind blowing directly in their faces.
And this is no bad thing.
More measured, less spectacular, and certainly more efficient in terms of the energy they’re expending, the team will feel satisfied they’re tucked in a point behind the leaders with almost a third of the campaign gone.
Pacing themselves more sensibly, this Arsenal side is very much part of the title conversation.
Yet to click into top gear
The eye test will tell you there’s less dazzle about Arsenal’s attacking play, and you’re not being deceived.
Not quite as fast, fluid or devastating – and certainly less devil-may-care attitude wise – there are 11 Premier League teams (including previously shot-shy Everton and Wolves) who have a higher xG tally from open play than Arteta’s class of 2023.
That is remarkable given how dominant they’ve been in most matches played so far.
A bad thing? Yes, but also no.
Personally, I view it as a positive because this aspect of Arsenal’s game is nailed on to improve. With the players they have, it has to.
What’s been the issue?
A constantly revolving starting XI is also something new they’ve had to contend with.
Injuries and the need to keep certain players fresh for Champions League action has influenced in part a downturn in Arsenal’s rhythmic excellence. Providing Arsenal qualify for the knockouts next time out against Lens, this won’t be an issue until February…
And chaos-creator Gabriel Jesus has also been a colossal miss as central striker.
The effervescent Brazilian has scored three in three while leading the line in the UEFA Champions League, yet in domestic action he’s made just one top-flight start as centre forward, making his other three out wide.
Not enough has been made of this, or the impact it has had.
Jesus’ irrepressible movement always creates space for teammates, especially Saka, Odegaard and Martinelli – and he never stops unsettling defenders. He also delivers match-winning moments.
Breaking down obdurate opponents is significantly easier for the Gunners when Jesus it fit and firing…
Lessons have been learned
Arteta has also introduced more pragmatism.
Defensive? No. But their game management is noticeably more circumspect than it was during that joyous, often chaotic 2022-23 campaign.
Overlaps from full backs are now carefully chosen rather than automatic, which is symptomatic of an approach that’s matured.
The colossal William Saliba-Declan Rice axis down the spine helps of course, but risk-taking has been lessened.
Arsenal’s 1-0 victory at home to their nemesis Manchester City is a case in point.
Despite the wishes of a fan base that craved attack after attack, the Gunners produced a calm, risk-averse performance that limited the champions to just four shots. Grinding out victories against the best is something new to put on their CV.
Clean sheets were just an ‘away thing’ for much of the previous 12 months, but shutouts are suddenly accumulating home and away.
Not everyone is an xG fan but just two visitors to Emirates Stadium have managed to exceed one expected goal in a match this term, with five of their last six opponents all dipping below 0.6.
Arsenal’s expected goals against total is now the best in the division from open play.
Expected Goals Against in Open Play
Manchester City: 7.89
Newcastle United: 9.67
Shots Faced in Open Play
Manchester City: 65
Building from a reliable defensive base, the Gunners have quietly become a tough nut to crack.
Playing with greater control and less inclination to go all gung-ho just for the fun of it, their game management is significantly shrewder.
The Rice Factor
There’s Declan Rice too.
Delivering 8/10 performances without fuss, Arsenal’s record signing is proving to be worth every penny spent on him.
Oozing assurance, his decision making has been immaculate, and his footballing IQ will be worth multiple points over a 38-game season.
Rice holds this team together, so providing he stays fit the Gunners are going to be in with a chance against anyone.
Better equipped to stay the distance
Results and performances may not be as eye-catching, but I sense this Arsenal side is stronger than the group who finished 2022-23 as runners-up.
They should beef up the group in January too. I’d love to see a striker come in to offer Jesus added competition, while a new central midfielder would also be welcome just in case Thomas Partey’s fitness issues don’t improve.
That’s all that’s needed.
Being honest, Havertz for Xhaka is not looking like an upgrade at the moment – although we are seeing signs of progress – but outside of that Arteta’s talented youngsters are all a year older and wiser.
Crucially, so too is the manager, who is building up a playbook of in-game scenarios that he just didn’t have before.
Putting my own allegiances aside, I have faith that Arsenal will begin to click in the middle third of the season.
They are currently on course for 85 or 86 points, without scaling any kind of unsustainable heights.
Manchester City remain hot favourites, and Liverpool’s challenge can’t be discounted either, but it might not require huge improvements for Arsenal to finish ahead of both by the time we get to May.
I’m optimistic, and genuinely excited to see what happens next.