Top of the Premier League, leading their Champions League group with first place guaranteed through a victory tomorrow: Arsenal are "exactly where they want to be," as Mikel Arteta noted on Tuesday afternoon. It is worth starting out with those simple realities given that the buoyancy one might associate with such a strong start to the season has not been particularly evident around the Emirates Stadium.
In no small part, that is merely a reflection of the standards that Arteta has set for this club. Twelve months ago Arsenal found themselves in a position they could not possibly have imagined, rinsing their way through the Premier League at the start of a title challenge that electrified north London. Arsenal's horizons have been raised, what was miraculous a year ago is now the baseline for what is to come this year.
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Still, you would not suggest that the Emirates Stadium has already begun to take for granted the prospect of competing for major silverware on multiple fronts. The crackle has been quelled, the noise dimmed, because there is that much less to get you out of your seat. Through 13 games of last season they had 31 goals to their name. This year that figure is only four lower, but it is boosted significantly by putting some of the worst sides to the sword. That is always more true than fans might think, but what matters is how it all feels. And right now Arsenal can feel that the shots, expected goals, take-ons, big chances and touches in the penalty area are down. The results remain, but the football just doesn't move you.
Arteta would note that just as Arsenal's self-estimation has improved, so they have grown in the eyes of opponents. That means dealing with teams who are more than happy to cling to a goalless draw if that's what it takes. Like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang racing to a North London Derby, the Gunners have too much traffic to get through.
"I take satisfaction from where we are," Arteta said in his pre-match press conference ahead of Wednesday's Champions League clash with Lens. "We have to find a way to be where we want to be. This is exactly where we want to be.
"It's not going to be as fluent, it's not going to be as hectic, because there's no space to run. When you're sitting in traffic I want to go 100 miles an hour but I have three buses and 55 taxis and motorbikes around me so it's tricky.
"We need to want to get to where we want to get. In order to do that we have to be really solid. We've been really, really solid."
Equally, Arteta notes, Arsenal have not played matches that have bust open at the earliest occasion. Last season his side scored 13 goals in the first 15 minutes of Premier League games. A third of the way through this term, their earliest goal is the 17th minute strike by Bukayo Saka at Bournemouth. It is the only time they have scored in the first 25 minutes of a top flight match.
"Game state is a big thing," said the Arsenal manager. "Last year, we scored a lot of goals in the first minutes of the games and then the game becomes different, the opponents are more open up and have to do many other things.
"We haven't been able to do that that often. So, when you compare the time that we have spent in winning moments last year to this year it is different.
"In the Champions League what happened? We were really exciting. We scored early against PSV, we did that against Sevilla. That's a big thing."
What went unsaid by Arteta is the volume of injuries his side have had to deal with. Certainly it has never been a crisis on the scale of Newcastle's. but, from the minute Jurrien Timber went down in the opening weekend win over Nottingham Forest, Arsenal have found themselves niggled at on a consistent basis.
At this stage of last season the common refrain was that Arsenal would struggle when the big injuries came (it was probably right). Thirteen games through 2022-23 nine players had played over 990 minutes, the equivalent of 11 full matches. In 2023-24 that number stands at three.
Of the front four who romped through defenses before the World Cup, perhaps only Saka has delivered commensurate quality. Then again he has shared the pitch with Martin Odegaard, Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli for a total of 147 minutes, none of which have seen all of the quartet fully fit and fresh. Thomas Partey, so crucial in getting quick ball to forwards, might have 251 minutes to his name by February, with Arteta only able to offer a vague hope that the Ghanaian might recover before the January break, after which he would likely jet off to the Africa Cup of Nations.
The left eight position that was Granit Xhaka's last season has had no convincing incumbent this. Fabio Vieira might have hoped to push for the role against Lens, but he underwent groin surgery on Monday and is not expected back until the new year. Emile Smith Rowe, meanwhile, could be available in late December, according to CBS Sports sources.
"We've got a problem with him," said Arteta of Vieira. "He's been having some discomfort. We tried to have some conservative treatment with him. It wasn't improving so we sent him to see a specialist and the advice was to have an operation in his groin. We did that yesterday. We expect him to be out for weeks now."
As to Partey and Smith Rowe, he added that a return before the FA Cup third round is "a possibility but it will depend how they evolve. Emile has already been on the pitch, doing some jogging. I don't know weeks wise how long it's going to take. Emile is a quick healer. Thomas is the same.
"They are both going to push but we have to make sure when they come back they are at their best as well. We don't want to rush them but as well the team needs them because at the moment we are missing some key, key players as well."
In such circumstances it is perhaps no surprise that Arteta's side are cruising along a year on from hurtling towards their goal at top speed. Whatever the pace, though, Arsenal have still ended up in the same destination during the winter months. It would be altogether easier to maintain that trajectory if they could just get the engines of their squad firing.