Arsenal are showing the mark of champions in waiting

Declan Rice of Arsenal celebrates after scoring the team's fourth goal to make it 4-3 during the Premier League match between Luton Town and Arsenal FC at Kenilworth Road on December 05, 2023 in Luton, Englan

Before you even contemplate using the c-word, always risky territory in a family newspaper, we must use another c-word: caveat. It is only the beginning of December. Nothing is decided at this time of year, not even December’s goal of the month.

So it would be unwise to talk with certainty of any club as potential champions. Still, Arsenal are putting together a compelling case. We cannot anoint them for at least another four months, but their win in adversity at Kenilworth Road on Tuesday night suggested a team who are in it for the long haul.

Even before this season started there were many reasons for Pep Guardiola to fear the side managed by his former assistant. Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal have improved every year since he replaced Unai Emery in December 2019, exceeded expectations with their title challenge last season and added the seemingly safe bet of Declan Rice to their midfield.

Rice’s brilliance so far has been at the heart of another improvement. After 15 games with only one defeat and a five point lead at the top of the table, albeit with a game in hand, the 4-3 at Luton was the moment Arsenal’s season graduated from promising to proper.

Such assessments come from the heart, so let us examine some statistics. At this point last year the eventual champions Manchester City had conceded 15 goals, Arsenal have conceded one fewer this season, a number which would be even more impressive without an uncharacteristic three against at Luton which matched their previous tally of away goals conceded all season. Six clean sheets have been kept already, a little behind the seven and eight City had managed by this point on their way to the last two titles, but shutting out Brentford away and City at home were impressive achievements.

Arsenal's Ben White in action with Wolverhampton Wanderers' Hwang Hee-chan
Luton game aside, Arsenal's defence has been rock solid all season - Reuters/Hannah McKay

It is more than the numbers which strengthen Arsenal’s case. Late goals and recovering from bleak spots never hurt and when they come together, as on Tuesday night, the momentum can last for weeks. A lifetime of Premier League Years repeats makes it hard to resist picturing goals like Rice’s in montages for eternity, like Alex Ferguson and Brian Kidd leaping onto the pitch after Steve Bruce’s header against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993, or the holy trinity of Sergio Agüero, Ilkay Gundogan and Vincent Kompany who scored at critical junctures on the way to City titles.

Most promising of all for Arsenal is the feeling they have become a little less fun to watch. Title winners are rarely the neutral’s favourite, they are the team best at grinding, taking advantage of minor opposition errors to win narrow games. That seemed to be the template after Gabriel Martinelli’s opener on Tuesday, when a lively spell of Luton pressing was broken by one shonky back pass, a clearance for a throw and Arsenal brutally punishing the mistakes to take the lead.

The game unspooled rather from there, but most of this season for Arteta has been about control. Liverpool made a similar transition under Jürgen Klopp, going from unmissably thrilling in 2017-18 to a cagier but still brutal outfit in 2018-19. They were beaten to the league by a point that year, despite only losing one game. They won it behind closed doors the following season, a blueprint for how an occasionally callow team can grow up and win titles.

Many challenges will follow and the usual potholes must be swerved. Uncertainty in goal looks a problem of Arteta’s own making which requires further thought. Another injury to William Saliba, which derailed last season’s title challenge, might be disastrous. City will surely tighten up, some close games will not fall Arsenal’s way and their players must manage the pressure which builds microscopically every time an optimistic article like this is published.

For now it should be enough to savour a memorable night at Kenilworth Road when anything seemed possible. Arsenal’s celebrations were the final clue that something might have shifted in their mentality. The players looked ecstatic, but free of the whiff of disbelief, which was there after last year’s similarly fraught 4-2 win at Aston Villa. This group of players have now been here before. This time they can write a different ending.