Last August, Arsenal lost their first three matches, by a combined score of 9-0, including ultra-humbling ass-whoopings by Chelsea (just about the only time Romelu Lukaku looked menacing with Chelsea) and City. The Gunners would recover, of course, only to break their fans’ hearts in even more agonizing fashion by puking up a Champions League place in the final weeks of the season. Such has been Arsenal since Arsene Wenger packed up his office, moments of progress and excitement shrouded and smothered by the need to blow their own toes off.
So it wouldn’t be a surprise if Arsenal fans everywhere (whoever the most annoying person you know is probably one) are still stepping out on their glee with this season’s start like an iced over lake. Sure, it might feel pretty solid now, and the risk is exhilarating, but the suspicion that the next step will plunge one into the icy depths still rules over all.
It’s hard to ignore the facts though. Three games, three wins, nine goals for, only two against (and both of those Leicester goals came after that match was pretty much decided), top of the table depending on how City do against Newcastle. You couldn’t ask for much more.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect is that new additions are leading the way. While signing Gabriel Jesus away from City was questioned by some, as he never quite convinced anyone in Manchester that he could play as a center forward full-time, there certainly has been scant evidence in North London that he should have been playing anything else.
That’s just bullying an entire opponent because you feel like it. Jesus scored twice last week against Leicester, but his better touch and vision than Alex Lacazette was providing last season has opened up the game for the three attackers behind him, as in Martin Odegaard, Bukayo Sako, and Gabriel Martinelli.
Even as exciting as Jesus has been, and there are few things more galvanizing than a talented striker with a point to prove, it’s William Saliba in defense that has the faithful truly purring. The story of Arsenal’s season so far has been their defense, as they’re giving away nothing. And Saliba has been a huge part of that. While he’s been as solid as can be as a defender, it’s his passing that has really been the show-stealer. Yesterday against Bournemouth, he completed 100 percent of his passes. Didn’t misplace one. On the season, he’s only misplaced 11 out of 98, and he’s not merely knocking the ball over to his defensive partner with every attempt. And he’ll, apparently, occasionally do stuff like this for the fuck of it:
You know you’ve done something when your own teammates can’t even take it:
Speaking of Oleksandr Zinchenko, he’s been yet another suave buy. While he could never break into the City team regularly, his per 90 stats mark him out as one of the most creative fullbacks in the world, and can also play in midfield when Arsenal require. Zinchenko’s greater adventure has brought a new dimension to Arsenal, as he’s far more adept at getting the ball forward and into the opponent’s box than Kieran Tierney or a gaggle of others to rotate into the left-back spot could.
Are there caveats? Sure. Arsenal have gotten to play two relegation candidates of their three games (yes, Leicester are absolutely a relegation candidate based on their form and the fact that their manager hasn’t stopped bitching and throwing his board under the bus instead of getting on with it, a Brendan Rodgers trait when things start to go off the boil). And in their opener against Crystal Palace they were on the backfoot for long stretches (only 44 percent possession).
Secondly, they’ve benefitted from over half their shots on target finding twine, which won’t continue, no matter how much of a gift Jesus might be (see what I did there?). Their margins aren’t as big as they might have looked, because they aren’t really creating more chances or more shots than they did last season (14.8 shots per 90 this season, 15.3 last season, 5 shots on target per 90 this season, 4.8 last season). Like has always been the case with Mikail Arteta’s teams, they don’t really press that much anywhere on the field, keeping things pretty low even.
But it’s in that low event style that Arsenal have really jumped forward this time around. They’ve been downright miserly in what they give up, allowing only 7.3 shots per game compared to 11 last season. Saliba’s greater control, and his allowing Ben White to shift out to fullback to lock down that wing, is a big reason why. Having a healthy Thomas Partey in midfield is another factor.
And even if you want to pick at the soft opening to the schedule so far, it’s going to stay that way for a bit. They only face one other member of the top six until October 1st, and that’s Man United, which doesn’t look to be an ascending-Mt.-Doom type task at the moment. They’ll see Fulham, Villa, Everton, and Brentford in that time, so they could rack up near maximum points before the season’s first dance with Spurs.
The numbers might suggest there will be a flattening of the curve somewhere soon. But it might not be for a bit, and Arsenal are certainly going to enjoy the sunshine in the meantime.