THERE’S always one. The boring one. The literal one. The one who sits back smugly after delivering one mic drop after another with gems like “it’s still early in the season” and “wait until Christmas”.
Every coffee shop has one. The prophet of doom, special subject “the bleeding obvious”, always working on the assumption that his audience went in for a group lobotomy.
And he’s having a ball right now with Arsenal. You can already see him, can’t you? He’s finger-wagging and ready to suck the joy from anyone foolish enough to suggest that the Gunners are offering a little fun in a season that is still likely to lead to a Norwegian Viking plundering his way to a Manchester City title.
To appease the tedious that walk among us, waving fixture lists around like they’ve cracked the Da Vinci Code, yes, the Gunners’ six victories in seven English Premier League games were acquired against opposition unlikely to trouble the silverware engravers. And the solitary defeat was a 3-1 humbling at Manchester United.
But consider the alternative. Ponder a more recognisable reality with Arsenal being more, well, Arsenal, throwing in daft goals against Brentford, Aston Villa and Fulham and dropping down the table like a retiree running out of puff halfway up Bukit Timah Hill.
That’s Arsenal ordinarily, sometimes pretty, sometimes pretty ugly, but always worth a giggle as the campaign marches on, inexorably, towards the coronation of Pep Guardiola’s oligarch-fuelled dandies (with an honourable mention for the spluttering Scousers.)
And the Scousers really are spluttering this time around. Caught between two eras – one prolific, the other promising but unpolished – Liverpool are relying on trophy-laden veterans and wide-eyed academy prospects to fill the gaps left by Sadio Mane on the pitch and by American investors in the boardroom (the Reds will never compete with City, financially.)
At striker-less Chelsea, Graham Potter is already one game closer to the sack. Manchester United go through more rebuilding processes than a demented Lego addict – and are now embarking on another – which just leaves Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. The battle to stay awake after Easter begins now in North London.
Arsenal may well do an Arsenal at some point, but they’ll remain top until October, thanks to the international break and the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Even royalty has boosted the underdogs’ cause.
The English Premier League’s obscene spending in the recent transfer window – effectively out-spending Europe’s other major leagues combined – left the Gunners in the absurd position of being financial underdogs, despite investing £120 million in new signings.
Chelsea, Manchester United, Newcastle United, Tottenham and even West Ham United and Nottingham Forest all out-spent Arsenal and yet Mikel Arteta leads the table – and hopes of a half-decent title race.
And to acknowledge the coffee shop bore, the greater challenges lie ahead, obviously, with Tottenham and Liverpool both visiting the Emirates in the first weeks of October, and there is always the possibility of Arteta’s boys flattering to deceive again.
But that’s the point. The Gunners are just boys, relatively speaking, playing on instinct and raw energy, like The Beatles in Hamburg. They are not the finished article. But the fearlessness that comes with youthful innocence is infectious. They don’t know how good they might be. But we are getting an idea. And that’s captivating.
A palatable alternative to crass Chelsea
History may judge the youngest EPL debut of Ethan Nwaneri, aged 15 years and 181 days, as the moment when Arteta’s Arsenal really arrived. Or an injury-time substitution against a beaten Brentford could come to represent Arteta’s hubris.
Who knows? At this point, who cares? The Gunners feel like a palatable alternative to the crass sums being thrown around at Chelsea – a quarter of a billion pounds at the last count – as the Blues chase the fantasy of being a bite-sized product for hundreds of millions of social media junkies to gorge on across America.
Arsenal offer an antidote that seems a little purer.
At centre-back, William Saliba is destined to become a defensive stalwart for both club and country. The Frenchman is 21. His partner, Gabriel Magalhães, is only 24. Arsenal’s attacking trio of Gabriel Martinelli (21), Fabio Vieira (22) and Bukayo Saka (21) were all in diapers when Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles swept all before them.
Fabio Vieira owed his debut in midfield to the absences of injured pair Martin Odegaard and Emile Smith Rowe, hinting at an improved squad depth. He operated on the right of a 4-3-3 against muscular opponents. It was a gamble.
Vieira is not built like his illustrious namesake. He doesn’t even move like him. Patrick Vieira, all long legs and sinewy muscle, accelerated through midfield like a gazelle. Fabio Vieira glided, moving away to link play before putting away a lovely, long-range strike. The Portuguese midfielder scored his first goal on his debut. It will not be his last.
And it’s not just the kids either. Granit Xhaka is devouring the space granted to him, for the first time in his Arsenal career, by a manager willing to let the Swiss roam where he pleases. While Gabriel Jesus just seems free to be. The Brazilian striker no longer drifts like the kiasu student, expected to excel in everything by a relentless parent. He’s the kid who’s just found out that tuition in other areas is no longer required. Every day is double PE day now. Just stay up front and put them away.
And he is. As Brentford manager Thomas Frank pointed out, sometimes it’s just a change in environment for forwards like Jesus. Frank also championed Arsenal’s title credentials.
And why not? The Gunners boast a captain with world-class aspirations in Odegaard. The armband elevates him. The wonderkid tag is no ball and chain, just added motivation. At 23, the Norwegian has the makings of a complete goal-scoring midfielder.
He didn’t even play against Brentford. Things will only get better.
At the start of the season, Arteta ran the risk of being a joke figure. The Amazon TV documentary invaded the inner sanctum in a sensationalist manner that Jurgen Klopp would never allow at Liverpool.
Arteta came across as maybe a little too Guardiola-lite: part-David Brent, part-Simon Sinek and a whole lot of Ted Lasso if the experiment imploded.
But his kids are all right and his veterans look liberated. Tougher fixtures are coming, but Arteta has reason to be optimistic and so do we. The Gunners have offered us a hint of a title race. And honestly, that’s more than good enough for now.
Tougher fixtures are coming, but Arteta has reason to be optimistic and so do we. The Gunners have offered us a hint of a title race. And honestly, that’s more than good enough for now.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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