Arsenal and the twin critical tests that show they are now the real deal
One of the secrets of Arsenal’s title surge has been how judiciously Mikel Arteta has managed the mood of his players, “grounding their confidence”, but even he struggled to find the words in the aftermath of a win like this.
“It was electric,” the Basque said. It has also led to something “extraordinary”, as Arteta added.
Arsenal are at exactly the halfway point of their league campaign, with 19 games played, and have 50 points. Only four sides in history have ever had more at this stage. It is as emphatic and clean an illustration as you could have as to how Arteta’s side have so far passed every test.
Before wondering about what next, and how their main challengers were one of those four teams, it is worth considering what they’ve come through.
This is why that late win against Manchester United not only naturally felt more than three points, but even more than that.
Had Arsenal come through these last two matches against their two biggest rivals with, say, four points, it would have been seen as pretty creditable. Consecutive matches away to Tottenham Hotspur and then home to United represents a demanding duo, especially as it gets to the point where the long run-up turns to a title race.
They might have taken credit from such a return, but it would have also allowed an opening, as well as the sense they are fallible.
Arsenal instead look anything but fallible right now. They look like they can’t be stopped, propelled by a preciously rare momentum in seasons like this.
That would have only been deepened by the manner of this victory. As so many around the squad and in the stadium gleefully said, “there’s nothing like that”. There’s nothing like a late winner, especially in such a famous fixture, and when the champions underneath you had cut the lead to two points beforehand.
Others might quibble that United had a midweek game and were missing Casemiro, even though Erik ten Hag himself was unwilling to make such allowances. He was furious with goals that he described as a “pack of cards”, and relayed this to his players.
That’s fair in the event but maybe harsh if you stand back. That thrilling 3-2 win was really a pretty fair reflection of where the teams are right now, and how Ten Hag’s side are two years behind Arsenal in terms of development, even if they are aided by greater resources.
The Dutch coach has a very defined idea of how he wants to play, but clearly doesn’t think United can face Arsenal on those terms yet. It would be to play into Arteta’s hands.
Arsenal instead just took the game and the ball right to United’s area. The last 20 minutes were probably the best realisation of Arteta’s own football so far, and maybe even the most impressive spell of football from his entire tenure so far.
It was the real deal.
As to whether it means they can really win the title, that is something that is going to be said until they actually do it, or a certain inexperience tells.
A few things can still be said right now.
The manner of Arsenal’s momentum makes it feel like Leicester City’s championship victory in 2015/16. That’s despite Arsenal actually being a better team than that Leicester, which may sound unfair on one side that’s won a title and one that hasn’t yet. It’s difficult to dispute that the 15/16 win was largely the product of a freak combination of circumstances, that a good Leicester team surfed until they were so far ahead that nothing else made a difference.
That’s perhaps the closest similarity to this Arsenal, as well as how a defined best XI has played together in so many games. They have still had the Gabriel Jesus injury, though, which has only brought better levels out of Eddie Nketiah. There are then the levels of the team as a whole. They have risen to what the modern post-2016 Premier League has required; those seasons of 90-plus points, as Arteta has discussed. This isn’t a freak season in that sense. City may not yet be at the levels of the last two years but they are close enough that the threat is always there.
That hasn’t gone away.
There’s still a sense they can go on one of those runs.
It already looks like so much is going to hinge on their face-to-face meetings, that events have pushed back to maybe ensure they are real title fights.
That could yet be one of those moments of reality, as defending champions show challengers what it really takes. Think of United themselves against Newcastle United in 1995/96.
Then again, there was the way City themselves lost to Leicester in 15/16.
For now, as Arteta has insisted, Arsenal can’t cloud themselves with such speculation. They need to retain a focus.
That has been how they have passed every test so far, be that West Ham United going ahead on the first game back or Manchester United again looking like they have the beating of this Arsenal.
The remarkable thing is that loss at Old Trafford remains their only defeat. They’ve actually only been behind five times, and three of those have been to Ten Hag’s team.
It is why they haven’t yet been behind anyone else this season.