Five teams at the top of the Premier League, divided by a single point. Even their goal difference varies by only two. Yet it’s impossible not to view all five teams differently, in part because of the fixture list and in part because past performance inevitably affects how we view the present.
That’s why while Arsenal have played some undeniably brilliant football this season, most notably in the 3-0 Premier League win over Chelsea and in the 6-0 Champions League victory over Ludogorets Razgrad, it probably doesn’t pay to get too carried away. After seven straight wins, the draw against Middlesbrough on Saturday, when a win would have taken Arsenal top, was an all-too-familiar intrusion of reality.
Looked at in its bleakest light, this is the Arsenal story in microcosm. They play some searing football, they crush a moderate side in the Champions League and then they come up against a doughty northern opponent who blunts their edge by defending in pragmatic numbers and threatens on the break essentially by looking quicker, sharper and stronger than the Gunners. In their complex psychological tapestry, the tendency for complacency is perhaps the least forgivable strand.
But maybe that’s overly harsh. As manager Arsene Wenger noted as he contemplated his 67th birthday, winning football matches isn’t as easy as it looks—and Arsenal at least had the wherewithal not to lose after the game had begun to turn against them. And there have been a number of positive signs this season.
One of the most striking came in that Ludogorets game. The Bulgarian champions had a number of chances before half-time, so much so that Theo Walcott’s 25-yard strike, Arsenal’s second, not merely came against the run of play but as a relief.
Even by the end of the match, by which time they had racked up six, each goal shimmering with aesthetic quality, Arsenal had enjoyed less possession. A year or two ago, that would have been highly unusual. The one constant in Arsenal’s fragility was their domination of the ball. Their method was to control it, always looking to pass teams to death.
When it worked, it could be stunningly beautiful. The problem was when it didn’t work, Arsenal never seemed to have any alternative.
There was a phase, which probably began in around 2006, when Wenger seemed to lurch into a quest for radical purity. His early days at Arsenal had been characterised by a happy balance between the defensive solidity he inherited, the power of the likes of Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, the pace of a Nicolas Anelka or a Thierry Henry and a basic philosophy of intricate passing.
But gradually, the passing began to outweigh everything else. It felt as though every player Wenger signed was a technically gifted but physically slight attacking midfielder. He was like a gourmand who came to insist on eating only finer and finer iterations of the same sophisticated dish.
The change came when he discovered Francis Coquelin at the back of the cupboard before the Premier League game away to Manchester City in January last year. Arsenal sat deeper, pressed with unusual discipline and won the game 2-0.
Since then, it’s an approach they increasingly take in big games. Wenger, after his curious period of tactical fundamentalism, has begun to be flexible again. Even in the recent 3-2 win over Swansea City, Arsenal had less possession than their opponents.
Part of that new flexibility has been a renewed willingness to bolster unglamorous but necessary parts of the squad, most notably at the back of midfield. After years without a true defensive midfielder, Arsenal now have not only Coquelin and Santi Cazorla, who has flourished in his reinvention as a deep-lying scamperer, but also Mohamed Elneny and the energy and erratic tackling of Granit Xhaka.
The belated arrival of Shkodran Mustafi brought a much-needed organiser to the back four. A more reliable finisher than Olivier Giroud would probably have helped, but Alexis Sanchez is, for now, thriving at centre-forward, his pace and mobility bringing Walcott, Mesut Ozil and Alex Iwobi into games.
That’s the good news. After the strange stagnation in the search for purity, Arsenal are evolving again. The bad news is they’re only ninth in the Premier League in a list of most shots per game, per WhoScored.com, and joint-sixth in terms of shots conceded. Neither of those are crushing statistics, but they’re enough to dull any possible sense of euphoria.
There are other reasons for doubt. In the opening quarter of the season, whereas Liverpool have played other members of a putative Big 6 four times, three of them away, Arsenal have played just two, both at home. And it’s not just the Middlesbrough game that was a struggle.
Only Laurent Koscielny’s handled, offside goal got them past Burnley—who admittedly have made a habit of frustrating grandees at home—while the 3-2 win over Swansea was far edgier than it needed to have been.
In making any kind of true assessment, process is always far more important than mere results. The Burnley game could be marked down as the sort of hard-fought victory champions will achieve. There was fortune, yes, but there was also character and spirit, a willingness to keep pushing to the end—qualities whose key importance is that they tend to become self-perpetuating; teams that score vital late goals start to believe they’re the sort of team that scores vital late goals, just as a team that lets commanding positions slip begins to lose faith in itself.
And that’s why the Swansea game is such a concern. Arsenal, over the past few years, have had an awkward habit of failing to win games they’ve dominated, of lacking the hardness to make their superiority tell. At 3-1 up, they seemed to be cruising, at which their intensity slackened and they allowed the Swans back into the game. They got away with it on that occasion, but that sort of laxity can rapidly undermine a title bid.
For Liverpool or Manchester City, perhaps even Tottenham Hotspur despite the end to last season, existence around the summit still feels fresh and exciting, an expedition into unknown lands. Arsenal know those lands well and have experienced their dangers. The question is whether they have changed enough to overcome them.