“WE have to respect the process,” said Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta after an FA Cup semi-final victory over Sheffield United in June last year. “We will get it right, I’m convinced of that. We need a little bit of time, that’s all.”
Arsenal, of course, went on to win the Cup shortly after, beating Chelsea 2-1 in a behind-closed-doors Wembley final. But signs of progress under the Spanish coach have been difficult to discern ever since. The phrase “trust the process” has often been repeated in the most sarcastic tones, to mock a manager many have felt was out of his depth – especially after a £143m summer transfer spend was followed by three successive defeats to begin the 2021-22 campaign.
Earlier in the season, Sky Sports pundit and former Manchester United captain Gary Neville excoriated Arsenal’s transfer business at the end of a window which saw them part with unexpectedly high fees for the likes of centre-back Ben White (£50m) and goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale (£24m).
“I'm not sure what Arsenal's transfer strategy is,” Neville railed. “It seems a bit over the place. Maybe there is one, but it's not clear. Sometimes you can see a left-field signing and think you can see where it comes from, but there's quite a few of them at Arsenal.”
But, after last Sunday’s 3-1 demolition of neighbours Tottenham at the Emirates – in what was easily the best performance of Arteta’s tenure and perhaps of the post-Arsene Wenger era – the thinking behind the transfer strategy drawn up by the manager and Edu, the former midfielder who is now the club’s technical director, is becoming apparent.
The Gunners signed six first-team players this summer, all aged 23 or younger. White and Ramsdale, respectively signed from Brighton and Sheffield United, were both members of England’s Euro 2020 squad and add a quota-satisfying homegrown element. Full-backs Nuno Tavares and Takehiro Tomiyasu and midfielder Albert Sambi Lokonga come with top-flight and international experience to varying degrees, while Martin Odegaard, signed for £30m from Real Madrid after a loan spell with Arsenal last term, provides genuine top-class creative quality and continental pedigree.
Some of the fees might have been surprising, but the thought process is evident. And Arteta’s faith in youth extends not only to the players brought in this summer. Bukayo Saka, a breakout star at international level at the Euros, and Emile Smith Rowe are two lifelong Arsenal fans and products of the club’s Hale End academy who have been given prominent roles at the Emirates. Faith in the latter’s quality and potential is evidenced by the club’s decision to grant his request to wear the No.10 shirt this season.
And Saka and Smith Rowe combined to devastating effect against Spurs. Stationed on either flank, each notched a goal and an assist, with the pair linking up for Smith Rowe’s strike, as 20-year-old Saka burst clear down the right side of the Tottenham penalty area and squared for his 21-year-old colleague to finish.
Arsenal’s line-up against Spurs had an average age of just over 24 years. Granit Xhaka (29), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (32) and Thomas Partey (28) were the only players older than 24 among the starting XI.
They now have the 11th-youngest squad among Europe’s top five divisions, with an average age of just 25, and only Norwich (14.1%) have given more Premier League minutes to under-21 players this season than Arsenal (11%).
“We can achieve anything, no matter what age,” Saka said after the north-London derby victory in which he and fellow academy graduate Smith Rowe glittered.
“With age comes experience but we have a lot of experience in this squad anyway which helps us every day and teaches us.
“I believe we have a lot of quality and enough experience to achieve a lot. We’re going to take it game by game but if we play like this we have enough quality to win trophies.”
The win over Spurs was Arsenal’s third in a row, taking them from bottom of the pile and pointless just a few short weeks ago to within five points of leaders Liverpool, looking up at those occupying the European-qualification positions and ahead to a bright future as their young stars blossom.
It is, of course, too early yet to begin chiselling an Arteta statue to take pride of place alongside those of Herbert Chapman and Wenger outside the Emirates. The first two wins of Arsenal’s current hot streak came against struggling opposition in the shape of Burnley and rock-bottom Norwich, and Spurs were every bit as bad in the north-London as Arsenal were cohesive, vibrant and adventurous.
There is at last, though, reason for optimism at the Emirates, some long-awaited proof in the process.