In determining the changeable health of this Arsenal team, it is usually enough to study the expressions of Arsène Wenger.
|Main man: the arrival of Mesut Özil has helped to transform Arsenal|
As Bob Wilson, his friend and former goalkeeping coach, has noted, there is a physical change in Wenger according to how his team have performed.
“When I see his face if we have won, there is a relaxation in every muscle,” Wilson says. “I see that same face after we have lost or not played particularly well and it is a man 10 years older.”
Wenger will turn 64 this month but the ageing process has undoubtedly been aided over these past six weeks by a run of 10 successive wins. Much has been made about the soaring confidence of some of his players, but the biggest transformation is arguably in Wenger himself.
He might have dismissed a question on Monday about winning the Premier League title as “ridiculous” but his recent body language tells a rather different story.
So, too, do some of his answers. Wenger has talked positively over the past week about the prospect of accepting an impending contract offer to remain at Arsenal into a third decade. He has also suggested that he genuinely believes this squad has the potential to mount Arsenal’s more lasting title challenge since 2006.
“After we moved into the new stadium, even if some seasons we were close to winning the championship, we couldn’t win it,” he said. “Maybe we missed that little bit of experience and quality that makes the difference in April. I think if we are in April this time competing for the championship we will be in a much stronger position than the years before.”
What has caused this transformation? And is it realistic to expect Arsenal to maintain their exceptional early season form?
On the first question, it is tempting to look back 47 days to Arsenall’s defeat against Aston Villa as the turning point. In truth, though, it came at least 159 days earlier in the aftermath of the 2-1 defeat against Tottenham at White Hart Lane.
A meeting was held among the defenders. Wojciech Szczesny and Thomas Vermaelen were both dropped for the match against Bayern Munich and the team have not looked back.
Arsenal are now on a run of 19 wins, two draws and only that one defeat in 22 matches. Those results have been the culmination of a rebuilding cycle that actually began two years earlier from the debris of a summer when Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Gaël Clichy were all sold.
The process was stalled by the departure last summer of Robin van Persie but has accelerated since Christmas when a strong statement was made about their future strategy.
Six young British players – Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Kieran Gibbs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Carl Jenkinson and Theo Walcott – all signed new long-term contracts. Arsenal have also since benefited from the natural progression of relatively recent arrivals in English football, notably Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny, Santi Cazorla and Oliver Giroud.
This improving base was the reason Wenger always looked so perplexed in the summer at the idea that Arsenal would struggle if they did not add top players. Even so, the signings of Mesut Özil and Mathieu Flamini have so far transformed a team that were just good enough to finish in the top four to another level.
The victory against Napoli in the Champions League on Tuesday was the most complete Arsenal performance since they were regularly winning trophies between 1997 and 2005.
The entire club have been tangibly boosted by the arrival of Özil, who still believes there is more to come. “What’s important for us is that we take the next step forward as a team,” he said. “You can see in training how technically good this team is.”
The appreciation is mutual. “When it’s about winning those big games or losing, he [Özil] makes a big difference,” Mikel Arteta said. “It gives you a step forward quality-wise. I think it was a great message from the club because everyone was expecting a top, top player, probably a striker rather than a No 10.
"We got an amazing player and I think he lifted everyone. Not only us but also the crowd. The atmosphere was terrific on Tuesday. When you feel that, it is positive instead of everyone being nervy every time someone misses the ball. You play in it, so it does affect you.”
There are still caveats. Arsenal also had moments during the 2007-08 and 2010-11 seasons when a sustained challenge looked likely and they faltered. The question of cover for Giroud remains a big issue, although Wenger has funds to address this in January. It should also be stressed that the fixtures so far this season have been relatively kind.
November and December – when Arsenal play Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton in the Premier League, as well as Champions League trips to Dortmund and Naples – will be far more revealing.
“We have just got to put the brakes on slightly,” former Arsenal striker Paul Mariner said. “They’ve got the real ‘meat on the bones’ Premier League fixtures coming up.”
Crossing that final hurdle come May will also be a big psychological test after nine years without a trophy.
But the omens are good. The depth, quality and resilience in this group looks superior to any Arsenal squad since 2006. In Wenger, they also have a manager whose mojo has returned.