Arsenal are entering the final stages of ‘The Process’ – installing a backbone
Football

Arsenal are entering the final stages of ‘The Process’ – installing a backbone


From the Emirates Stadium – It had all been going so well. Top of the table coming into the weekend, at home to a Fulham side who had looked less than entirely convincing through three games. A dominant performance in the first half, in the ascendency early in the second.

Then Arsenal happened.

In hindsight, it had all the hallmarks of The Arsenal Game. Playing against a former Arsenal goalkeeper, the man deposed by Aaron Ramsdale. Arsenal being no-doubt favourites for a game against a newly-promoted team. Dominating the first half without reward.

Then Gabriel got sloppy at the back and allowed Aleksandar Mitrovic – a man about as stealthy as an entire brass band with disco lights attached to their instruments – to rob him of the ball inside the box and finish. In short, Arsenal happened.

Boos. Whistles. Gabriel being asked, in not so many words, if he wouldn’t mind awfully explaining exactly what he was thinking, and whether he left his brain in the changing room at half time.

The fears were all there. Had those first three games been a false dawn? They came against teams with a combined eight points in their first 12 games combined, after all. Is a back four with Ben White at right-back actually good? Do this team still, not to put too fine a point on it, have all the mental fortitude of a block of cheese being smashed by a hammer?

And then Martin Odegaard, the genuinely fantastic Martin Odegaard, God alone knows how Arsenal picked him up for a song from Real Madrid and how nobody else got there first, equalised with the help of a horrible deflection. The kind of goal that Arsenal concede when they go 1-0 down at home, not the kind that they score.

Arsenal pressed, pushed and battered for 25 minutes after Fulham scored, trying guile and force, and made it through. Twice. Gabriel even atoned for gifting Mitrovic Fulham’s opener by scoring the winning goal himself in a scrappy goalmouth scramble following a corner.

There’s something there now. This team showed more backbone in the last half an hour of Saturday’s game than they did in the last three matches of last season, and the secret is making that a habit. Why does everyone soil themselves when they hold a late lead against Real Madrid in Europe? Because they’ve got the habit, they’ve got the knack. The only way do to it is to, well, do it.

It’s not a seismic result, it’s not a seismic comeback, and it came against a team who very well might go down this season, but this Arsenal side under Mikel Arteta is all about the baby steps. They’re all about the performance that makes the next performance possible, and that’s exactly what they showed against Fulham.

There have been false starts. There have been oh, so many missteps. There have been a few years of Arsenal being not just the most toxic fanbase in the Premier League, but also the most pessimistic. Being at the Emirates in the 2010s was a fascinating study into just how quickly a crowd’s collective head can go down without their team actually going behind. If they go behind to a worse team, forget it, the sky is falling.

The Emirates didn’t feel like that, even at 1-0. Arsenal fans trust this team more than they have in a good while, rather than latching on to how good they might be in 18 months, or with a few more signings, or once a few youngsters develop a bit. This might, finally, be the Hale End inspired Arsenal team that was promised.

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