On the face of it, Arsenal haven't gotten off to a bad start in the Premier League this season. They've lost just once – away at a rampant Liverpool side in the best run of form in their history – and after eight games they sit third in the table, just a point behind Manchester City.
A quick look at the goal difference will illustrate why there's some unease about the way Unai Emery's team are performing, though. They've scored 13 and conceded 11, and their +2 lags far, far behind City's +15 and Liverpool's +14 tallies. At the same stage last season, Arsenal were scoring an average of 2.4 goals per game; this time around it's just 1.6 and the performances have been worryingly pedestrian.
The second half at Watford felt hugely damaging, and in general there hasn't been one league display that’s been truly convincing. Arsenal’s four wins have all been by a single goal, and dropped points at Vicarage Road and Old Trafford have highlighted the difficulties Emery has had to play the kind of football that makes a team serious contenders for the top four.
It's a problem he still has to solve, but in the meantime, those points on the board provide him with a bit of a cushion. So too does the goodwill generated by the young players at the club who are the real positive of this campaign so far.
Emery deserves some credit for playing them, but it's worth pointing out that in selling Alex Iwobi and loaning Henrikh Mkhitaryan to Roma, the club took away a couple of players who he certainly would have leaned on before the likes of Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson and Gabriel Martinelli.
Nevertheless, Emery has seen their talent and potential, and been unafraid to use it. This summer, during their tour of the United States, the stand-out Arsenal player was – by some distance – Joe Willock. The 20-year-old midfielder did everything he could in games against the likes of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Fiorentina to tell his manager that he was ready and, in fairness, he was rewarded with a start in each of the Gunners’ first three league games (including that trip to Anfield).
Willock has scored three goals so far, and while it's early days, his potential is obvious. In letting Aaron Ramsey go on a free transfer, Arsenal were losing a player who scored regularly from midfield without any obvious replacement. There are shades of the Welshman in Willock's game, not least his ability to arrive in the box at the right time, and he also brings a forward thrust from deep positions that’s reminiscent of Patrick Vieira at times. Clearly he has a long way to go to be as good as either of those players, but there is real talent there and it's showing during the course of this season.
Saka’s emergence in recent weeks has been an interesting development, too. He would have been considered to be behind Nelson, who is older, more experienced and had a year of development on loan at Hoffenheim last season. However, a storming display in the Europa League against Frankfurt was enough to earn him league starts against Aston Villa, Manchester United and Bournemouth.
The 18-year-old winger is one of the most highly-rated prospects to have come through Arsenal’s academy in years, and at a young age he looks both mentally and physically ready for the step up to first-team football. The intelligent assist for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at Old Trafford belied Saka’s relatively tender years, and he looks like a young man who is ready to take his chances.
The same has to be said of summer signing Martinelli, also 18. He has two braces in two starts at the Emirates, having scored twice against both Nottingham Forest and Standard Liege. The quality of his goals caught the eye, not least because Emery insists that centre-forward is not his best position. If that's him out of position, and that's what he can produce, then it bodes well for when he does find his true place in the team.
Even Nelson, while a little less eye-catching than the others, has made progress in recent games. A knee injury will keep him out for a few weeks, but after that he'll have Europa League chances and an opportunity to fight his way into contention. There's fantastic talent, but also a genuinely competitive environment – and the players are thriving knowing that hard work and good performances will be rewarded by their manager.
So far, those four young players have nine goals and six assists between them. Considering their age and relative inexperience, and how early it is in the season, there's real cause for optimism about what they can bring to the team between now and May. They've shown they're not only willing to take their chances when given them, but also that they're able.
As Arsenal rebuild towards a more youthful-looking team, it's hugely encouraging for the club and fans.
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