Inch over the line as Arsenal did against Cardiff on Saturday, it did feel as though the Gunners made progress at last in their efforts to move into a new era.
The progress may have been microscopic in relative terms but progress it was, even if the way the match played out bore a lot of the hallmarks of Arsene Wenger’s latter years at the helm.
There were the all-too-familiar mistakes on display against the Bluebirds, the sort that crippled the team away from home last season, and a dash of wastefulness in front of goal that meant we kept our opponents in the mix far longer than we ought to have done.
Both flaws cost us a bagful of points last time out and, at times today, one wondered if we were destined for more of the same as the hosts pulled level not once but twice.
Where this season and last parted ways, however, was the manner in which the team responded to adversity. Last year, this team would have retreated into itself and doubt and panic would have spread like wildfire through the ranks.
Under Unai Emery, there was on display a certain surety that meant the team didn’t founder and heads didn’t drop. Twice they responded to being pegged back with further goals and, ultimately, a much-needed win.
Nowhere was the progress from last season to this more noticeable. It was all in the attitude. It may not be a winning attitude just yet, but it has a lot more steel and focus about it.
There were other areas of progress, too. The collective pressing was consistent and better co-ordinated, and the need to break up the play high up the pitch, to prevent those three-on-threes, or two-on-twos developing from one of our own attacks, was also much smarter, targeted and, ultimately, effective.
One of the benefits for a new manager at this stage of the season is the amount of time between matches. In its infancy, the Premier League demands only one game a week from its teams, allowing coaches like Emery the chance to really work with and drill his players. He has had plenty of time to iron out the very obvious flaws in this squad and, thankfully, it appears to be showing some early signs of success – at least in a few areas in a few small ways.
However, as has been noted a thousand times before, there is still a marathon left to run before this side is functioning half so well as the teams at the top end of the league.
Granit Xhaka, for example, is still playing high-risk, low-percentage passes in ridiculous areas. His tendency to do so probably cost Arsenal three or four goals last season and cost them another goal at Cardiff today. It was an indefensible piece of play that needs no more assessment from me. In short, he has to reign himself in or he is going to cost his team points in what is an important stepping-stone season for the club.
Another unwanted vestige of last year was Arsenal’s propensity for putting themselves under unnecessary pressure with passages of wasteful football, which was still very much in evidence.
Passes can go astray in any game, most people accept that. When Arsenal are under pressure, though, one of the first things to go is their collective decision-making. Instead of finding a team mate and playing simple balls, the players opt to try silly mid-to-long range passes into midfield. The result is almost always a turnover and teams who press us high can often find themselves in promising situations as a result.
Though the Gunners largely controlled the game against Cardiff, there were passages of play that boggled the mind and allowed the home side the sort of opportunities they had no right to. If Emery wants his team to go on picking up points, they have to drop the silly habits, be calmer under pressure and make smarter decisions both in possession and without.
This team is still its own worst enemy at the moment but I think there is a general feeling that progress is coming, albeit steadily. That said, if we can carry on inching our way to success, even when not at our best, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful for the weeks and months ahead.