‘Trust the process’. The mantra has become synonymous with Mikel Arteta’s time as Arsenal boss after numerous false dawns since returning to north London in late 2019 – but have the Gunners finally found a winning formula?
There was an FA Cup final win in 2020, a spirited second half to the Covid-hit 2020/21 season, and last season’s flirtation with a return to Europe’s top table after a five-season absence.
However, these were all hit by late-season capitulations or runs of form that saw the club stand among the relegation-mix at Christmas – coupled with regular clashes between Arteta and high-profile players.
This time out, the club have won their opening three games for the first time in 18 years – the positive atmosphere around the Emirates is understandable.
The impact of summer signings Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko, combined with the long-awaited integration of William Saliba, should not devalue the process Arteta and his staff have been implementing gradually since replacing Unai Emery.
Of the starting XI Arteta named in his inaugural game against Bournemouth on Boxing Day in 2019, only two are currently involved in his first-team squad.
During his first interview as head coach, Arteta said: “We can create an identity… but we have to start somewhere to try to build that up.” Arguably, a high percentage of the squad he inherited were unable, or unwilling, to build that identity.
He has demonstrated ruthless decision-making when it comes to moving players on who aren’t on board with his philosophy, sanctioning numerous high-profile departures over recent transfer windows – with many leaving for free.
The club have also taken a financial hit when offloading the likes of Lucas Torreira, Bernd Leno and Calum Chambers, in order for Arteta to establish the squad he feels capable of achieving his objectives.
He has been afforded time to do this – a rare luxury in today’s game – and with seven of the starting XI at Bournemouth last weekend joining since summer 2020, this is certainly Arteta’s team.
The Gunners conceded 51 Premier League goals in each of the two seasons prior to Arteta’s appointment – their worst defensive records since 1983/84. Therefore, the fact only one of his first nine permanent signings was an attacker came as no surprise.
It may have come at the expense of the attacking style associated with Arsenal, but Arteta’s initial focus on improving the Gunners’ defensive stability was evident, in comparison to Arsene Wenger’s final seasons at the club and Unai Emery’s brief tenure.
The focus on implementing greater defensive solidity has paid dividends: their expected goals conceded is the best in the division after three games this season.
The £45m acquisition of Jesus this summer was the first striker Arsenal have signed since Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang joined from Borussia Dortmund in January 2018.
Prior to signing Jesus, Fabio Vieira and teenager Marquinhos this summer, only Martin Odegaard and Willian were signed to bolster Arsenal’s attack.
With the likes of Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Willian and Mesut Ozil leaving the club during Arteta’s reign over the past 18 months, the Spaniard has seemingly shifted focus to balancing defensive improvements with a more potent attack.
Last season’s Championship winners Fulham arrive in N5 for Saturday Night Football unbeaten in the league so far this season. Arsenal do, however, boast a formidable home record against the Cottagers, who have never won at Arsenal in all competitions.
If Arsenal avoid defeat again this weekend, it will equal the English record for a team facing a side most often at home without defeat – which is currently held by Blackburn, who remain unbeaten in all 31 home games against Grimsby.
Arsenal vs Fulham, all competitions
Arsenal will be confident of starting the season with a fourth successive win – a feat last achieved in the midst of their 49-game unbeaten run at the start of the 2004/05 season.
In fact, the Gunners have only won their opening four games in a top division season on four previous occasions – of which, three saw them crowned champions.
Arteta has slowly regained the trust of Arsenal’s frustrated fanbase after a turbulent post-Highbury period, galvanising the club and shaping the squad in his mould.
This will almost certainly be a defining season for the Spaniard at Arsenal as he looks to end their Champions League exile. His process has been trusted, but can it now reap rewards?