Mikel Arteta has turned Arsenal into genuine Premier League title contenders just months after missing out on a Champions League place.
The Gunners face Tottenham away in Sunday’s north London derby on Sunday – eight months after their humilating defeat at Spurs.
It proved costly with Arsenal missing out on the top four, as they followed up the defeat with a loss to Newcastle, leading Spurs to pip them to fourth by two points.
But few would have expected the Gunners to be enjoying the stunning season they have so far as they sit five points clear at the top of the Premier League table.
Having won 14 out of their opening 17 Premier League matches, there is a genuine belief that the club could win their first top-flight championship since 2004.
Retuning to the scene of the crime this weekend, Arsenal can go a whopping 14 points clear of Antonio Conte’s side should they win their first game at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
And the credit has to go to Arteta, with a number of Arsenal fans – including Piers Morgan – urging the board to sack him last summer.
Here talkSPORT takes a look at what Arteta has got right since that painful defeat in north London in May 2022.
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No longer a soft touch
Arsenal have long been criticised for being a team susceptible to being rolled over, with Jamie O’Hara stating last season they will ‘crumble’ when the pressure is on.
Fast forward to this campaign, and the ex-Spurs midfielder has labelled Arsenal as ‘special’ and a team that will no longer ‘get bullied’.
And the stats back that up, with the Gunners boasting the second best defensive record in the league having conceded just 14 goals from 17 games.
After as many matches last year, they had shipped in 22 goals, with an expected goals against being 26.5, compared to 15.2 this term.
Arsenal now impose their physicality on the opposition rather than the other way around, where they have also registered more bookings and conceded more fouls after 17 matches.
At this stage last season, Arsenal had already lost six times, with the club being defeated just once so far – which came back in September.
Part of their newfound defensive resilience is from their new centre-back partnership of William Saliba and Gabriel, who have started every game together.
And once again Arteta deserves credit for his handling of Saliba, where he allowed him to have an extra season on loan in France to toughen him up for the Premier League.
Prior to last summer’s window, Arsenal invested heavily in players for their long-term project at the Emirates.
But they switched their approach at the end of last campaign, where they brought in proven winners in Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko.
Between them, the pair have won eight Premier League titles where they were a key part of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City squad.
And their impact in north London has been immediate, with the duo raising the standards and the expectation to win, rather than hope.
And despite Jesus currently sidelined through a knee injury, winger Bukayo Saka revealed he remains in his ear and is just as influential in the dressing room.
Speaking after the Boxing Day win over West Ham, Saka said: “Of course they [Jesus and Zinchenko] are both champions so they bring that belief that we can win every game and go all the way.
“Every game they are telling us how important it is. Today Jesus wasn’t even on the pitch but we can still feel his presence.
“He was speaking to me in the dressing room and the other boys, which is so important.”
Having primarily used a 4-2-3-1 formation, Arteta has tweaked up his tactics where he now operates a 4-3-3 formation, with Thomas Partey acting as a lone holding midfielder.
This has finally granted Granit Xhaka licence to move up the pitch and become the box-to-box midfielder he is for Switzerland.
And Xhaka has thrived his new role – chipping in with four goals and as many assists.
In the previous three seasons combined, the 30-year-old had scored just three times altogether.
While Arsenal field four defenders, in reality, their left and right-backs operate as central midfielders where they help Partey out with defensive work in the middle of the pitch.
Left-back Zinchenko is often playing line-breaking passes through midfield to open up space for free-roaming No.8s Xhaka and Martin Odegaard to move forward.
And Arteta’s decision to move Ben White into right-back has been an inspired decision, with the England international now more involved in the build-up of play.
Towards the end of last season, Arsenal fans didn’t know what starting XI Arteta was going to put out.
Kieran Tierney and Nuno Tavavres battled for a left-back role, with Xhaka then forced to play there at times towards the back end of the campaign with Tavares not trusted.
The right-back slot was also an issue with Cedric and Takehiro Tomiyasu vying for the position.
Gabriel also had to play alongside both White and Rob Holding at the back, while Partey’s constant injury niggles limited his game time.
Mohamed Elneny and Albert Sambi Lokonga deputised in his absence, but none can offer Arsenal the same physical presence that Partey does.
It’s a different story this season, as barring any injuries, supporters know what Arteta’s preferred line-up is.
Arsenal were criticised last year for having a ‘lack of leadership’ by club legend Perry Groves.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was axed as skipper halfway through the 2021/22 season, with his replacement Alexandre Lacazette losing his place in the team before he was released.
And Arteta put his faith in 24-year-old Odegaard, who has thrived when being given the responsibility, with the midfielder the club’s joint top scorer with seven goals.
But it’s not just his dazzling displays that has earned him plaudits, with Odegaard praised for bridging the gap between the players and fans.
talkSPORT host and Arsenal fan Laura Woods said: “I love this Arsenal side.
“I think the vision as well from Arteta to give Odegaard the captaincy as well, they see things we don’t, how this guy operates around the club and I think that was an inspired move to give him the captaincy.
“I’ve not seen an Arsenal team this connected to each other for years! For years and years.
“Not for my lifetime, obviously there was the 2004 team who were incredible and that kind of spirit that came all the way through the ’90s as well was wonderful.
“But then there was this huge gap and an absolute fall off, a real void and division between Arsenal fans. What we’re seeing at the moment is absolutely marvellous.”
Another criticism of Arsenal in the past has been their lack of wins against the ‘Big Six’.
But they have already beaten Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea, while also claiming victories away at Brighton, Brentford and Crystal Palace – three grounds they didn’t claim three points at last season.
The only game they have lost this term has been away at Manchester United where Erik ten hag’s side ran out 3-1 winners.
The scoreline was harsh on Arsenal who dominated the game, but Arteta showed naivety in attacking too much with the game poised at 1-1, with United hitting them twice on the counter.
And Arteta has learned from his mistakes, where he now understands he must keep a defensive shape despite going in search of a winner.
Arsenal are by no means the finished product, and they may very well miss out on winning the Premier League despite at one stage leading Manchester City by seven points.
But there will be no uproar from fans like last year with supporters knowing full well of the juggernaut they are up against in City.
Arteta told fans to trust the process, and the supporters are now fully behind the Spaniard.
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