If you squinted, you could be forgiven for thinking that last night's 2-1 victory over Manchester City was a throwback to 2013-14. Arsenal didn't dominate the ball, but held their opponents at arms length before going two goals up, and then brought on two defenders to see the game out and help absorb pressure. It was the functional system that saw Arsenal top the league for the most time in 2013-14, and, as two seasons ago, was dependent on the powerful running of Aaron Ramsey, the intelligence, subtlety and precision of Mesut Özil, the battling qualities of Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott's darting runs, and the unity of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny at the back. Yet, of the top five that season, Arsenal only beat Liverpool; this season, Arsenal have already beat Manchester United and Leicester City, before beating Manchester City last night. Two years ago at Christmas, like this campaign, Arsenal were second, but had lost to Manchester City 6-3 and drew with Chelsea 0-0. This season, Arsenal will spend Christmas in second place, but will do so having beaten Manchester City and with Chelsea and Liverpool an irrelevance to the title race.
Last night's performance was the typical 2013-14 performance, but with improvement and development that enabled Arsenal to get a signature, title-race defining win that was so lacking in 2013-14. A large part of the added solidity this season is down to Petr Cech in goal. While Wojciech Szczesny is a fine shot-stopper, he cannot be counted on to consistently make sound decisions, whereas Cech is not the type to go haring off his line. He was not tested much yesterday, but when called upon he was reliable and unfussy.
There there is, of course, Mesut Özil. Özil has given his teammates much of the credit for his improved assist numbers, and there is some truth to that, as proven last night: Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott are far more clinical, especially in big moments, than they were in the past two seasons (and credit goes especially to Giroud, who has now scored against Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Bayern Munich in the past thirteen months). But Özil has also improved: he is stronger now, more able to withstand the physical challenge of playing in the Premier League, and has also become the team's technical leader. All of Arsenal's very best play goes through Özil, and even though he was less influential throughout the entirety of the game yesterday, he was still very much decisive, with his movement into the half-spaces always a threat.
Özil was given the platform to perform by the much-maligned midfield duo of Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini. Before the match, there was unfounded concern that Ramsey would be too indisciplined for the midfield, with much of the angst coming from Frank Lampard and Jamie Carragher cherry-picking a few clips of Ramsey being very advanced against Aston Villa. That is, of course, because Aston Villa are not a very good side, and against not very good sides, Santi Cazorla also spent much of his time in the final third, just perhaps not as noticeably. Aside from the first twenty minutes, when Flamini made some questionable decisions, and the final ten, when Ramsey let Toure go and Flamini was marking empty space, the midfield pairing was excellent: Flamini made three interceptions, whilst Ramsey the centre of Arsenal's build-up play, while also leading the team in ball recoveries, as well as making some crucial interceptions. Whereas Ramsey is usually more attack-minded against the lesser sides (shooting 7 times against Sunderland, for example), he chose his moments to go forward carefully here, and on another day, would've finished past Joe Hart.
There is one final trend that marked Arsenal's development over the past two seasons. Laurent Koscielny has become more important in Arsenal's attacking game--it was his pass to Özil that led to Arsenal's opening goal--with his passing becoming more incisive, whereas Mertesacker's passing is more controlling. In that sense, it is a development from the Coquelin/Cazorla midfield, when Arsenal would need the extra passer from the back to make up for Coquelin's lack of ability in that area, and it has continued with Matheiu Flamni in midfield. Flamini, though, has a much better sense of how to make decoy runs, and thus, Koscielny was often able to bypass the midfield to quickly feed the attacking trident of Giroud, Özil and Walcott. It is an extra weapon in Arsenal's ability to transition quickly, and play with different styles, and means that unlike 2013-14, Arsenal can beat better sides in the league, as well as the league's weaker teams.