No one fell in love with Dennis Bergkamp because he put the ball in the back of the net. Likewise, there aren't YouTube compilations dedicated to Thierry Henry's statistics. Robert Pires managed 24 goals and assists combined in 28 league games across Arsenal's double-winning 2001/02 season. But frankly, no one cares.
These guys earned their adoration not from the end result but from the swagger they scored with. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can score goals but when Arsenal were good, they were stylish. They were giants who lit up a tiny Highbury, with its compact camera angles looking even smaller when they strode across that pitch in an unchoreographed ballet every week. They created more than history. They created memories.
No one replays the clip of Patrick Vieira lifting the title. It's the drive-by Henry solo run across Tottenham and the did-he-mean-it Bergkamp swivel against Newcastle that sees repeat plays (yes he did, by the way). The 90-point Invincibles themselves were outdone statistically just 12 months later by Jose Mourinho's 95-point Chelsea side – but how much of that Blues season is remembered by neutrals?
It's not that Arsenal were better. They weren't. It's the football that they played. The great thing about an entertaining style is that even if you don't win, it gives the crowd a bit of excitement. We're 17 years on and the club that brought sexy back to the Premier League have forgotten that.
Arsenal weren't likely to win all three of their opening Premier League games this season. The COVID-enforced absences of Ben White, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alex Lacazette struck major blows; Thomas Partey missing out and Bukayo Saka struggling for fitness compounded the issue. A difficult transfer market for everyone hasn't helped either, with deadwood hard to shift and thus new faces difficult to bring in early.
But with every crisis comes opportunity, as Mikel Arteta said only this weekend. Which makes it all the more baffling that Arsenal have wasted the chance to treat newly re-welcomed fans with anything other than turgid, aimless crossing.
Oh, how the entertainers have fallen. And not just from the days of Thierry and Dennis: Arteta himself even played in brighter Arsenal sides than this. His version have nothing on Rosicky and Wilshere, let alone the Invincibles. No imagination around the box; set-pieces yield no threat. They're sluggish to counter. The right flank offers nothing if Saka isn't operating at the controls. Arteta's side scored 55 goals last season, 19 fewer than in Arsene Wenger's worst campaign.
No one expects Arteta's Arsenal to challenge for a league title just yet, but for the team to not so much as quicken the pulse? That's damning. Even with a youthful team at their lowest ebb against the European champions, there are small victories to be found: play the ball quicker in the final third and encourage take-ons from the likes of Nicolas Pepe. If you can't match how clinical Chelsea are – and that's difficult when it's Romelu Lukaku vs a 20-year-old Gabriel Martinelli – at least try to match them in xG.
"#CFC are toying with Arsenal!" 🪀Chelsea double their lead as Reece James finds himself in acres of space in the #AFC penalty area! 🎯 pic.twitter.com/R8pn8rHV24August 22, 2021
It's not easy. The attack is the most difficult part of any team to coach. Defences rely on structures and Arteta's initial solidifying of the backline with the same players as before was mightily impressive. Bedding in White, Gabriel and Aaron Ramsdale will improve the build-up – perhaps even at a cost to this solidity – and no doubt make Arsenal stronger going forward long-term.
As will the maturation of such a young attack. Martinelli, Flo Balogun, Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Albert Sambi Lokonga are all 21 or under, making Martin Odegaard an elder statesman at 22. Even Pepe was playing third division football five years ago: you'd expect all of these players to improve their output over the next two years and become far more consistent. Arsenal don't sustain pressure in the final third like Liverpool or Manchester City – that comes with time, not least with Partey sidelined.
Arsenal fans have never been the most patient: they need reminding more than ever right now that this will probably will remain a work in progress so for another year at best. But during this transitional period, fans need excitement to cling onto: moments like the one-touch Saka goal against West Brom last season, the way Arteta's young Guns tore teams apart when they won the FA Cup, or how exhilarating they were in patches at home to Chelsea last season. The Spaniard has shown glimpses of how his team can perform going forward – but these have to become the rule, not the exception.
If not, it could threaten his job. The rush of excitement is what defined Arsenal far more than the trophies they lifted under Wenger. Looking at this Arteta side right now, it's hard to see what defines them at all.
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