What exactly are Arsenal this season? Watching them clamber to the top of the table is a different experience for supporters who were enrapt a year ago.
Results are similar but the feeling is slightly confusing, the enjoyment not quite as accessible. Where is the high tempo attacking abandon? Why do they deliberately do certain actions more slowly? What the hell has happened to the goalkeeping situation? Declan Rice is incredible but who else brings the best balance in midfield?
Arsenal look like they are struggling to make that difficult second album. They have gone in a mystifying new direction and getting into it is taking a bit of doing.
And yet…here they are leading the Premier League, on merit, and for those last few elating minutes at Brentford they showed Mikel Arteta qualities to make him purr about how much he adores his team.
High spirits and affection poured forth, from the visiting corner, from the substitutes and coaches, from team-mates after a dramatic 1-0 victory. The fondest ovations were directed at Kai Havertz, who liberated Arsenal with a ghosting run of a late winner, and Aaron Ramsdale, whose game fell to bits in the awkward spotlight of the first half before he pieced it together for an assured and emotive ending. Football, eh? Makes fools of hasty judgments and hurls emotions all over the place and back again.
It is hard to measure progress and performances sometimes in such a results orientated business. There was plenty to ponder of Arsenal’s foibles during the first 80 minutes of this game, as Brentford presented a formidable barrier and were aghast to see two gaping chances repelled by outstanding goalline clearances from Rice and Oleksandr Zinchenko.
Teams need moments during a season to change the course, moments that make things click (or crumble). Will this be one? Arsenal hope so, and the headlines from the game cement things a little bit in terms of two of the problem areas this season.
Perhaps this helps Havertz over the hump of his assimilation into his new club. “He’s an example for all of us to do what you have to do when you have difficulties,” Arteta said. “If things came easy then he wouldn’t have got the reception he got today with everybody hugging him and telling him how much we love him.”
Presumably this cements the position of David Raya as the chosen keeper, although the signs were fairly clear beforehand. Arteta did not want to elaborate on the subject other than to compliment Ramsdale’s character. “He has big courage and big personality and that’s why we love him.”
In a torrid first half Ramsdale looked like a faded facsimile of the bold, confident goalkeeper that made him so popular at Arsenal. It was hard to watch. But by the end he was out claiming a high ball, blowing kisses, smiling to himself with his tongue sticking out the side of his mouth. Quite what the future holds remains to be seen, but Ramsdale will be OK.
In the end there was a lot of love going around. But essentially one of the shifts at Arsenal this season is an attempt to be more pragmatic. Last season they were accused in some quarters of being too emotional — that is something that propelled them towards a title run and also overwhelmed them when they faced challenges during the run-in.
Finding an improved balance is part of the aim now — tactical and technical balance as well as clarity in their mental approach — but it remains a work in progress. It is hard to avoid the feeling that Arsenal are still in a transition of sorts, trying to evolve into the next phase of the Arteta plan. It is not always an easy watch, but if they can continue to garner results while they try to find a more refined and coherent style, that is fairly remarkable in a division as competitive as this.
Arsenal have sacrificed something of last season’s brio because it has been a priority to solidify defensively. The backbone provided by the William Saliba-Gabriel Maghalaes partnership, with Rice just ahead, has tremendous presence and there are not too many foundation stones in the league as imposing as they are.
Arteta has experimented and twiddled with his selection frequently to try to click into the kind of zone that captured the imagination last season. Some caution was thrown into the chill breeze as Arsenal kicked off at Brentford with just about all their best forward players on the pitch. Gabriel Jesus was flanked by Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, with Martin Odegaard and Leandro Trossard just behind in attacking midfield. In theory it was a kind of ultra-attack. But in practice it was not dangerous enough.
Arteta admits it has not been easy to find their best groove. “I hope we can be better and better and adapt because the reality is we lost a lot of attacking players in this first period of the league and the team continued to find ways to win,” he said.
Arsenal are still working on their harmonies. But the idea they can improve from a position at the top, should make for interesting times ahead.
(Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)