Arsenal are Premier League frontrunners and a win over Wolves on Saturday will be enough to keep the Gunners top of the table over the World Cup break.
Given the team’s significant development under Mikel Arteta, fans are starting to believe their team could win the title for the first time since 2004.
But can the North London outfit last the course? Can they hold off defending champions Manchester City until the end of the season? Arsenal deserve to be top of the table, but they will need to maintain a level of consistency unmatched by anything they have produced before under Arteta to be champions.
Why is Arsenal so effective this season? For one thing, the team is more proactive team than last season, with the Gunners starting attacking moves an average of three metres higher up the pitch.
The return of William Saliba to his parent club following a loan spell at Marseille has helped facilitate this, with Arsenal using a higher defensive line.
This allows Arsenal to establish a more advanced foothold in the game on the pitch and makes it easier for them to suffocate opponents. The summer addition of Oleksandr Zinchenko has also strengthened the Gunners’ ability to keep the ball.
The Ukrainian averages more passes per 90 minutes than any other Arsenal player besides Saliba, Thomas Partey and Gabriel Magalhaes.
Arsenal’s full backs
Arteta has made good use of his full backs this season, but in a way that goes against the grain of the modern zeitgeist. Full backs are now widely viewed as wide attackers, but Arsenal frequently use its players in that position to occupy central areas.
Zinchenko is comfortable doing this with Ben White also more likely to pass inside than drive around the outside.
Tactically, Arteta has built from the back this season. Takehiro Tomiyasu was even used at left back to combat the threat of Mohamed Salah in a 3-2 win over Liverpool. Tomiyasu wins an average of 0.6 aerial duels per 90 minutes and was used to match up physically against Salah to stop him from getting on the end of the long diagonal passes Liverpool likes to play.
The summer signing of Gabriel Jesus was also significant in turning Arsenal into the Premier League’s top team. The Brazilian is one of the best attacking pressers in the sport and the Gunners are now winning possession in the final third more frequently than in any of the previous two seasons.
Jesus has received 83 progressive passes so far this season, more than any other player in the Premier League, fueling the 25-year-old’s effectiveness in his role as an attacking apex.
The likes of Martin Odegaard, Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka all use Jesus to construct passing sequences and unsettle opposition defences. He is just as much of an orchestrator as he is a goalscorer.
Zinchenko and Jesus have brought years of Pep Guardiola training to the Emirates Stadium. Arteta is also well-versed in the Catalan’s methods after working at Manchester City for a number of seasons. There is certainly overlap between the way Arsenal and City play, but Arteta has attempted, and so far succeeded, to evolve Guardiola’s ideology.
While Arteta likes his team to control possession, Arsenal also plays with a lot of vertical threat. Only Crystal Palace are averaging more dribbles per 90 minutes than the Gunners in the Premier League this season. At times last season, Arsenal’s possession was without purpose. That can’t be said of their performances this season, though.
Martinelli and Jesus have forged an understanding on the left side, frequently combining in tight spaces. This creates space for Saka on the right side to isolate opponents and create one-on-one situations. This asymmetrical approach gives Arsenal balance and ensures that it never becomes too predictable in the attacking third.
By almost any metric, Arsenal have improved this season. They have lifted their numbers in average possession share, passes attempted, successful passes, passes in the final third, passes in the opposition half and passing sequences of 10 or more passes per 90 minutes, reflecting Arteta’s coaching and instructions for his team to play a proactive, energetic game.
“How you measure success is lifting trophies, but as well you have to understand where we were and how fractured the club and the environment looked,” Arteta said when asked to reflect on how far Arsenal has come under his stewardship.
“I am very conscious that we can get much better than what we are today,” he said. “We have to do better to be the team that we want to be and the challenge now is to do it every three days. You always see the weaknesses that you want to improve.”
While there’s still a long way to go, the building blocks are in place for Arteta’s team to have an extremely successful season. Even if they don’t win the title, this foundation could keep the Gunners competitive for a long time to come.