Why Arsenal are actually a lot better than you think

There remain lots of reasons why they may not, but the return of the Gunners as a considerable force feels, queerly, less fanciful with each undeserved scoreline

Unai Emery discusses his hopes for Arsenal youngsters

Around 70 minutes into Arsenal’s game against Nottingham Forest, the heavens opened, and in more ways than one. As the rain lashed down on north London, a game that for much of its length had maintained a defined if largely predictable pattern broke in thrilling fashion. First Rob Holding headed in Reiss Nelson’s corner. Then Joe Willock smashed home from close range. Then Nelson took a hopeful punt on a cross from Calum Chambers. Then Gabriel Martinelli bundled one in late on.

Five-nil, and an extremely puzzled Sabri Lamouchi, who in his post-match interviews bore the nonplussed look of a man who had spent the whole night closely guarding his wallet, only to look down and realise someone had stolen his trousers.

“Cruel,” was the verdict of the Forest manager. “Five is too much. At one down we were always in the game. We started much better in the second half, then the second and third goals went in, and we gave up a little bit.”

But then, this has been something of a recurring theme for Arsenal this season: befuddled opposition managers sadly shaking their heads at the scoreboard. “The scoreline didn't reflect the performance,” bemoaned Eintracht Frankfurt manager Adi Hutter after a ridiculously open game that ended in an improbable 3-0 Arsenal win. “We’ve defended fantastically, made a mistake and got punished,” Steve Bruce complained after Newcastle’s barrow 1-0 defeat on opening day. “We could have won the game comfortably,” Aston Villa’s Dean Smith lamented after a heartbreaking 3-2 loss on Sunday.

We all think we know Arsenal. They’re the team with the soft underbelly. The team that will always give you a chance. The team that wears its neuroses like a shellsuit. The team that virtually invented football banter. The team with a back four that couldn’t defend a cat flap. And in a way, recent high-profile reverses against Watford and Liverpool have merely reinforced the opinion that most people already had of them: of a club only ever about two misplaced passes away from total disintegration.

And yet, peer beneath the bonnet and you may be able to glimpse something quite different happening. Players who, for all their imperfections and inexperience, look genuinely invested. A club with a recognisable structure that isn’t just one guy in an oversized coat. Exciting young players getting decent game time. The sharpest marksman in the Premier League. And a happy knack of conjuring goals out of very little, from all over the pitch, winning them games they really have no right to win.

This wasn’t necessarily one of those games. Arsenal were always going to win here, and comfortably too. And, look, I sense your unease at where all this is going, your instinctive distrust of drawing any sort of conclusions at all from a performance against a second-tier side making six changes from a 1-0 win over Barnsley. Even so, there’s a weirdly arresting quality to the way Arsenal occasionally look as though they can score at will, one that even in their vulnerable periods makes them a mercurially dangerous opponent.

Look, I’m just going to come out and say it: I think Arsenal are potentially a lot better than people think they are. More importantly, I think they’re only a couple of tweaks away from being extremely good. Good enough, at least, to establish themselves as the main challenger to the top two in a moment when their closest rivals are in various states of disarray. It’s an extremely fragile case, one that stands in complete contrast to the one I made seven months ago, and every so often Arsenal do their level best to try and argue me out of it. But against the fatalism of their fans, the pessimism of the pundit class and the scepticism of the stats Gestapo, Arsenal just keep scoring.

It’s been 13 games and almost five months since anyone managed to keep them out. And yes, the defence is still a dumpster fire, the midfield a movable feast, the ball retention in their own third a rich farce, the mentality still hopelessly brittle. But equally, this is a young team getting younger, still learning on the job but gaining in belief, developing the sort of muscle memory that in their toughest moments will remind them that no cause is ever lost. And they keep scoring.

Really, is it so hard to imagine the return of Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney, the re-emergence of Chambers and Holding, shoring up that listing defence just a little? That’s an entire new back four there, and even if the fundamentals of Emery-ball will always see them giving up a good chunk of chances, it wouldn’t take a huge injection of sanity to lift them beyond the likes of Spurs, Leicester and Manchester United. Throw in the rapidly maturing Willock, the exciting Nelson, the wildly promising Bukayo Saka, the improving Nicolas Pepe, and you have the bones of a genuine resurgence.

Perhaps we’re overplaying our hand a little. We’ve been here before, of course, and perhaps this latest dawn is simply a reincarnation of the illusory 07-08 dawn or the chimeric 10-11 dawn or even the fleeting 13-14 dawn, when Arsenal led the Premier League at Christmas only to come down with the festive decorations. Arsenal fans have heard this song many times over, and the chorus - for now - is always the same. But in a league where the tightrope between glory and disaster seems thinner than ever, a league being remade and reshaped by the week, a league being increasingly defined by attacking bravado rather than defensive chops, the return of Arsenal as a considerable force feels, queerly, less fanciful with each undeserved scoreline.

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