There’s a meme that goes around Arsenal Twitter whenever the Gunners start doing well. It’s of a young man in a red Arsenal kit, leaning back with a hesitant smile that belies bone-deep anxiety, with the text “You know, as an Arsenal fan, it’s the hope that kills you.”
That’s the attitude Gooners have adopted for nearly the past two decades, since Arsenal last won the Premier League in 2004. In that time, promising young squads have turned sour, prospective star signings have opted for greener pastures—oftentimes scoffing at the idea of playing for the North London side—and encouraging starts have ended in heartrending finishes.
So when the full-time whistle blew on Sunday at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, with Arsenal emerging 2-0 victors over their bitter rivals and moving eight points clear at the top of the table, it was hard for some fans not to let the celebrations feel a bit muted. Yes, teams don’t generally lose out on the Premier League title with a point cushion this large this late into the season. But surely the Big Bad Wolf lurking in the blue half of Manchester or, hell, even the reinvigorated United side it shares the city with will dash these hopes.
How did we even get here? A team that had its season crumble before its eyes last year and had footage of said deterioration beamed worldwide in an All or Nothing documentary shouldn’t be capable of this season’s start. A team that has the youngest squad in the Premier League and whose captain is 24 and only in his second full season with the club shouldn’t be pulling this off. A team with a manager who, despite being a cult hero as a player for the club, is in his first senior managerial role shouldn’t be able to keep this up.
Yet after 18 games this season, Arsenal are the odds-on favorite to be crowned champions.
There’s no one reason for the Gunners’ run, and there is no lack of excuses that opposing teams and fans can point to. The 2022 World Cup broke up the schedules and fluidity of teams across Europe, just as several of the so-called Big Six in England were struggling to establish or rediscover an identity. Injuries, both before the World Cup and as a result of it, continue to ravage key players in the league.
But many of those problems also affected Arsenal. The Gunners sent multiple players to the World Cup and watched their first-choice striker, Gabriel Jesus, suffer a potentially season-ending injury in Qatar. What has separated Arsenal from the pack thus far is an almost dogmatic belief in manager Mikel Arteta’s philosophies. Multiple young players have stepped up and continued to build off impressive campaigns from 2021-22, and the team refuses to flinch in situations in which it faltered before.
Any conversation about this season’s hot start has to begin with the three attacking players who lead the line for Arsenal (apologies to Eddie Nketiah, who has been excellent so far but hasn’t had enough time in the first team to be included among this trio).
Bukayo Saka has been a sensation on the right since first showing promise in the 2020-21 season. His ability to mix intelligent dribbling, cunning cutbacks, and laser-guided shots helped him become a mainstay in both the Arsenal and England starting XI and earned him the England men’s player of the year award in 2022. The team simply can’t function without him, which is why every time he’s pushed to the ground, you hear the collective gasp of millions of Arsenal fans praying he’s OK. His six goals and seven assists in the league so far have been pivotal, and his production will continue to be as Jesus recovers from his knee injury.
Another forward helping the Gunners’ title push is Gabriel Martinelli, who has been equally impressive, though a bit less heralded. He continues to flummox defenders with his changes of pace and ability to knife straight through the opposing defense. And his partnership with left back Oleksandr Zinchenko has been a huge bright spot for Arsenal. Martinelli’s direct running allows Zinchenko space to gallop across the pitch, creating new passing lanes and overloading opposing midfields with clever interplay.
And, of course, there is the magician in the middle of all the action: Martin Odegaard. Many fans thought it was a bit strange when the young Norwegian was named captain in July, but he has proved invaluable this season.
If you pull up a compilation of Odegaard’s best passes this season (go ahead, I’ll wait), it would be easy to make lazy Mesut Ozil comparisons. That does a disservice to both players. Ozil was brilliant during much of his time with Arsenal, but the Norwegian moves around the pitch differently. Whereas Ozil frequently upset fans with his seemingly languid style, he often made up for it by popping up in the right area and distributing the ball as a world-class playmaker. Odegaard certainly brings similar passing vision, but he also shows a willingness to drive into the teeth of the defense and track back when needed. And while he can be a reluctant shooter—you can almost see the gears turning in his mind before he uncorks a shot—he makes it count when he commits. Many of his goals aren’t unstoppable blasts but rather precisely placed shots where no one can stop them. Take a look at his goal against Tottenham that doubled Arsenal’s lead on Sunday. You could argue that Hugo Lloris could have done better, but not many goalkeepers are stopping a shot aimed that deep into the corner.
Odegaard is the straw that stirs the drink, and his brilliance is one of the biggest reasons Arsenal are so far ahead in the table.
There are multiple other stories worth exploring in this Arsenal squad: Granit Xhaka looking like an entirely new player after it appeared he might be gone last summer, the center back partnership between William Saliba and Gabriel, Aaron Ramsdale playing like a top-five keeper in the league, and Ben White making the transition from the center of defense to fullback look easy.
Add all of that to Arteta’s vision for how this team should operate, with players all over the pitch who can change position, press deep into the opposing half, and force mistakes from the opposition, and it becomes easy to overlook all the silly motivation tactics and team talks.
But rest assured, this could still fall apart. Arsenal rarely alter their starting XI in the Premier League because they are short in many positions, predominantly in the forward spots and defensive midfield. What would happen if more injuries strike or players simply fall out of form? A tough run of fixtures awaits with the upcoming visit from Manchester United, who have won five straight in the league and have been the only team to beat Arsenal so far. That’s followed by a litmus test against Manchester City in the FA Cup fourth round and a banana slip game against second-bottom Everton, who defeated Arsenal late last season even as Everton were staving off relegation. Then there are home fixtures against the surprisingly good Brentford, and City once again. These games should tell us where the team truly is.
But enough with the doomsday talk: The Gunners are nearly halfway through the Premier League season and are looking like real title contenders for the first time since Leicester won it all in 2016. Arsenal agonizingly finished second that year. What much of the footballing world considered a celebration of defying near-impossible odds and achieving all-too-rare parity only compounded Gooners’ despondency, as their chance at winning the league for the first time in a decade slipped away.
Now Arsenal comfortably sit in first place with half a season to go. It’s tough to remove the skepticism that’s permeated the club for an entire generation. But for the first time in a while, hope is slipping through the cracks. We’ll see whether it remains by the time a champion is crowned in May.