The wildest optimists and bravest adventurers would still tread with caution when considering Arsenal’s relentless cycle of false dawns. Volatility has, after all, been the one true consistency of Mikel Arteta’s tenure. Nine games into this nascent season, those swings between marvel and mediocrity have felt more violent than ever, from catastrophe at Brentford and collapse at Manchester City to the breathless blitzes of Tottenham and now Aston Villa. There is seemingly little formula to the chaos, with promising blueprints scribbled out at every turn, but few could refute the measure of quality on show on Friday night.
After eking out all their spirit just to salvage a point against Crystal Palace in a match that raised familiar questions of identity, Arsenal were, of course, utterly transformed and irresistible against Villa and there is a strong case for the first half being their finest of the Arteta era. If not that, it was certainly their most complete performance of this season: dynamic in attack, solid in defence, and bubbling with intent. It was the latter which was most impressive. Arsenal’s squad has always boasted talent, it has rather been a case of coaxing it into consistency. The vigour in which they set on Villa, though, seemed to drain the life out of Dean Smith’s side. From the first minute, when Ollie Watkins’s arm-wrestle with Gabriel Magalhaes set a bad-tempered tone, Arsenal were relentless.
Much of that can be credited Arteta’s change of system. Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka started as wide midfielders in a traditional 4-4-2 and Alexandre Lacazette partnered Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up front. It was something of a throwback, a tradition that feels a little simple and dated in the modern era, but rarely have Arsenal been so fluent in recent memory. Fourteen shots was their highest total in a first half under Arteta and the ease with which they cut through Villa’s defence was startling. Smith Rowe was the architect, cutting in off the left and carrying the ball forwards with purpose, constantly probing for openings. A beacon of creativity worthy of the No 10 shirt he inherited at the start of this season, his goal – Arsenal’s third – benefitted from a little fortune but could also be seen as the culmination of a salvo. If there have been quiet doubts over the 21-year-old’s cutting edge, there is also a certainty that it is getting sharper with each game.
Most striking about Arsenal’s victory, though, was that it didn’t rely on any individual and how their summer signings excelled. Aaron Ramsdale’s bullishness was a fine match for Emiliano Martinez’s immense shadow; Nuno Tavares offered a greater threat from full-back and his daring complemented Takehiro Tomiyasu’s discipline on the opposing flank; Ben White was composed and assertive as his partnership with Gabriel continues to blossom; and Albert Sambi Lokonga worked in wonderful tandem with Thomas Partey. There has been plenty of blunt scrutiny of technical director Edu, the wider hierarchy, and whether Arteta enjoys too great a handle on the club’s machinations. Those have formed a justifiable cloud of doubt, but this was a vision in action rather than a vague idea on the horizon.
Of course, there are caveats and countenances. Villa were distinctly and surprisingly limp in the sort of match that was supposed to breathe air into their assault for European football. Instead, their acrimonious crumbling only gave gravity to the heights they are struggling to broach without Jack Grealish. But the larger question – and time-honoured problem – revolves around repetition. Can Arsenal finally break out of the pattern of false dawns or will a tricky trip to Leicester scatter their momentum again? It is not a case of demanding perfection but solidifying their progressions where an average performance can grind out a result rather than see form dominated by anomalies and aberrations.
It is a learning process for a young team that will, undoubtedly, feature several more chastening trials. That much is inevitable. But there is a sense that they are getting close to the cusp and have picked up on their mistakes. There was an energy and belief at the Emirates on Friday night that told of the supporters, often sceptical, starting to believe in it, too. The false dawns have flickered like strobe lights. Now, it’s about turning a blind eye to the habit of a lifetime.