It would be easy to get carried away by Arsenal's comeback draw against Manchester City on Sunday. It would also be easy to criticize the team for not finishing their chances and potentially leaving the Etihad Stadium with a victory. Both presumptions would have some merit, but the overarching takeaway is more nuanced.
Room for Improvement
The Gunners' already-challenging away matchup against the reigning Barclay's Premier League champions was compounded by the fact that their starting lineup was far from ideal. With three starters, in the form of Wojciech Szczesny (ankle), Thomas Vermaelen (flu) and long-term absentee Bacary Sagna (leg break) all missing, and Aaron Ramsey selected ahead of traditional wingers Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, it was not exactly a confidence-inspiring lineup.
As I argued prior to the match, the inclusion of Per Mertesacker could have been, and in some respects proved to be, a cause for concern given his matchup against Manchester City's Sergio Aguero. The lanky German stumbled on a few occasions, but made up for it with several key tackles, in the process repaying the faith that Wenger has shown in him through the beginning of the 2012-13 campaign.
Abou Diaby, for the second time in as many games, faded badly in the second half. While his technical ability and positional play shone up until the interval, he looked to be short of match fitness, and his usual forward-thinking play was stifled, in part due to the savvy introduction of City's Jack Rodwell to the fray.
Gervinho's Arsenal renaissance came to a grinding halt, as his characteristically heavy final touch returned with a vengeance. Though he frequently put himself in dangerous positions, he spurned almost every opportunity that fell his way, with criticism particularly deserved for wasting a rare one-on-one with City keeper Joe Hart in the first half.
Finally, Vito Mannone conceded his first goal of the season, having misjudged a City corner that allowed Joleon Lescott to nod home a frankly perfect header. Blame could also be apportioned to the defenders in front of the Italian, however, none of whom seemed to claim responsibility for marking the English international.
On a tactical level, Arsenal did well to maintain 59 percent of possession against the Manchester side, a statistic made all the more impressive considering they were playing away from home. Offensively, however, they could stand to be slightly more incisive.
Santi Cazorla was as lively as could be from his attacking midfield role, and as alluded to above, Gervinho displayed the movement of a veteran striker. The Ivorian's lackluster effectiveness as a distributor showed, though, as Lukas Podolski was demonstrably frustrated with his lack of support through the final third of the pitch.
In all, Arsenal played a strong game in an intimidating atmosphere, earning a deserved draw in the process. Yet there is clear potential and room for improvement in the squad, and that, rather than the match result, is what should leave fans cautiously optimistic prior to the welcoming of city rival Chelsea to the Emirates Stadium next weekend.
Reasons for (Cautious) Optimism
The upsides for the Gunners are not only manifest, but plentiful.
Santi Cazorla was arguably the best player on the pitch. He has finally replaced the Fabregas-sized hole in Arsene Wenger's attacking midfield role. Offering more consistency and equal industry to Wales captain Aaron Ramsey, and even better vision and movement than injured Tomas Rosicky, he has proven to be the North London side's best summer purchase.
As Gervinho and Olivier Giroud continue to adapt to the requirements of playing centrally in Wenger's setup, the Spaniard will eventually produce the goals and assists that his current form portends.
Per Mertesacker continues to quiet doubters with another strong performance. Compensating for his lack of natural athleticism, the former Werder Bremen man was rarely found out of position, and he emerged from the match having made several key stops.
I maintain, as I did in my pre-game article, that the German should not have started the game. While his form has been excellent, I remain skeptical of Mertesacker's lack of pace, which occasionally leads to his being out of position. That said, it's fabulous to see Arsenal's third center-back maximizing his abilities.
Tactically, the visitors played as well as could be expected. They dominated the midfield and possession for large parts of the game. The Spanish tandem of Arteta and Cazorla were tidy with the ball, and wingers Podolski and Ramsey did well to offer lateral defensive support when Arsenal were on the back foot.
More impressive was the defense. They are playing with an uncharacteristic assuredness that makes the back line look far different than Pat Rice-inspired units of the past. Steve Bould should be given huge credit.
Pundits and fans alike were quick to criticize the lack of transfer movement for defenders over the summer transfer window. Yet with the same personnel as last season, the rear guard looks infinitely more composed. Particular praise should go out to Carl Jenkinson, who, opening match against Sunderland aside, has looked terrific both defensively and going forward.
Forgoing the high line employed in the past, Arsenal sit deeper and enjoy consistent help from midfield keystone Mikel Arteta to cushion any pressure while on the back foot. Bould also asks more of Gervinho and Podolski, who have both tracked back to make key tackles over the opening weeks of the season. This kind of team pressing when out of possession has been used to good effect for several years by Barcelona, and the tactical shift has paid dividends.
Most impressive, however, is not what Arsenal has so far done on the field, but what they could do going forward. Bacary Sagna and Jack Wilshere are back in full training, and both are likely to regain starting spots when they attain match fitness, with Jenkinson and Diaby, respectively, making way.
Czech Republic international Rosicky rejuvenated his Arsenal career this past spring, and his creativity will offer excellent competition and support for Cazorla topping Arsenal's midfield trident. If Giroud can find his rhythm and touch around the 18-yard box, then even the Robin van Persie-less offensive unit will have some goalscoring depth.
While the return of these players will also include an appreciable increase in individual talent, it's the team-wide contribution that fans should find most exciting. A back five of Sagna, Koscielny, Szczesny, Vermaelen and Gibbs could prove to be as well-rounded as any contingent in the league, with copious amounts of pace, intelligence and cohesiveness.
So too with a midfield that sees Diaby gradually replaced by Wilshere. The sheer technical ability on offer between the likes of Arteta, Cazorla and Wilshere is borderline obnoxious. Whether Wilshere can replicate his pre-injury form with neither Alex Song nor Cesc Fabregas to support him remains to be seen, but it's a promising possibility.
In my estimation, a draw away to Manchester City was a very good result. A home win against Chelsea next weekend would be even better. But if the existing starters can continue their run of form, and players like Sagna, Wilshere, Rosicky and Giroud can find their old form, Arsenal's only worry this season will not be ending the season in a Champions League spot, but arriving in May without silverware.