If you are anything like me, you have been basking in the afterglow of Sunday’s massive North London Derby victory over Tottenham Hotspur. Maybe you have watched and re-watched the highlights, or read and re-read the countless articles, or fallen down the rabbit hole of the overwhelmingly positive social media reaction to the match. However you have relived it, Sunday was the cathartic release that everyone from the fans to the players needed after weeks of doom and gloom surrounded the club. Demons were exorcised, heroes were born, and The Emirates overflowed with electric jubilation.
Some time afterward, though, after the euphoria wore off, I couldn’t help but feel a strange, creeping sense of Deja Vu, like this was all too familiar; like this was a replay of a memory that I had begun to forget but was still holding on to by a thread. Amidst the deafening sounds of celebration, a faint voice of pessimism in the back of my mind kept breaking through.
You know how this story ends, it said. Quietly, it repeated itself despite my best attempts to ignore it.
Hope is all Arsenal fans have had to hold on to for a while now. Ever since Arsene Wenger left the club at the end of the 2017/18 season, the Gunners have struggled mightily to regain their form that saw them finish in the top 4 for over twenty consecutive years. The end of the Wenger era left Arsenal searching for their first new manager since 1996, with fans hopeful that their slow slide into mediocrity would be but a blip to be corrected by a newer, more modern manager.
Following Wenger was Unai Emery, whose hiring was met with intrigue and trepidation. It looked like things were taking shape out of the gate, as the first stretch of Emery’s tenure at Arsenal was punctuated by a rampant display at home against Spurs. The 4-2 victory was explosive. On that night, the Gunners showed fight and promise and it felt, to many, like the beginning of a true shift back to the traditional order, with Arsenal firmly above their cross-town rivals on the scoresheet and in the power dynamic.
But we all know how that story ends.
At the time of that match, Arsenal were in far better form than Arteta’s squad entering Sunday’s North London Derby. Emery’s Arsenal were in the midst of a 14 match unbeaten streak in the league under their new manager. Everything felt hopeful. That match, to eager Arsenal fans, was a shot across the bow to the rest of the Premier League and soccer community that Arsenal were back. And then, well...the next 12 months happened. Wheels fell off. Injuries piled up. Performances waned and wins came less often. By the same time the following season, Arsenal had canned Emery, the 4-2 victory proving to be a false dawn.
And now here we are, fresh off of a resounding victory that has filled the fans with hope and has pundits talking once again about Arsenal turning a corner as they vie to return back to the ranks of the elite. Sunday’s win felt very much like Emery’s 4-2 domination - confident, inspiring, and total. But despite the creeping sense of deja vu and that nagging, pessimistic voice, I cannot help but feel that this win has a different tenor about it - something wholly unique and promising in a way that hasn’t been seen in quite some time.
Maybe, just maybe, this time will finally be different.
From a big picture perspective, the Arsenal squad that took the pitch on Sunday is a far cry from the lineup in 2018, and a major reason for believing that the best is yet to come. After one of the most active transfer windows in club history, this Arsenal iteration is younger, far younger, with what looks to be a solid foundation for the team to grow around as the core of the players reach their prime over the next five years. Gone are the Chelsea rejects, the countless aging players on bloated contracts, and the caustic attitudes. With most of the deadwood purged from the roster, they have made way for young, promising talent who are eager to prove to the world that Arsenal are far from fading into the shadows.
Tactically, Arteta had it pitch-perfect. There is no doubt that he benefitted from the the fact that, for the first time all season, Arsenal were completely healthy. But beyond that, Arteta put the right players into the right positions and let their talents shine. Every segment was on their game in ways the 2018 team often were not. The attack was direct and fluid. The midfield, metronomic and incisive. The back line, confident and composed. The turnaround from the rudderless team of the first three weeks to the cohesive side on display on Sunday is close to unbelievable, but for 90 minutes, Arsenal were magic.
All of this praise and rose-colored fawning, however, is meaningless unless the Gunners can do what they have struggled to do for so long - maintain this level of play going forward. Hindsight makes us all look brilliant, and the 2018 team is a prime example of that. But they are also a cautionary tale for the current team and manager to look at and learn from.
Maybe I’m just being foolish. Maybe I have just been watching too much Ted Lasso. But whatever it is, I think I’m starting to believe that this time, things will actually be different.