It’s difficult to trace all great teams back to a single point in time. The Invincibles didn’t come into being overnight with a puff of smoke and some strobe lights any more than the great Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990s did.
The path that leads to bigger and better is rutted and cracked at its start and riddled with pitfalls along the way. But, by the end, that promising path is a four-lane superhighway paved with Tarmac and joyously smooth.
While nobody is going to claim that Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal side are cruising along unblemished roads free of potholes – two wins in the last five leagues games is testament to that – there have been moments this season when a feeling of change, some shift in momentum towards something bigger and better, has stirred.
The key to that shift in momentum has become more tangible over the last 12 months and is starting now to come into its own, or, should I say, they are coming into their own: Arsenal’s own Generation Z.
This time last year, Bukayo Saka was thrust into the limelight by Unai Emery, with most Gunners fans unaware of his existence until he suddenly appeared on the teamsheet. Twelve months on and the young man is considered by most to be a generational talent, the like of which we haven’t produced since Jack Wilshere.
At the same time Saka was making his debut, Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah and Emile Smith-Rowe were on loan, Ainsley Maitland-Niles was headed for the exit, Joe Willock was pondering his own future in red and white, and the likes of Folarin Balogun were a name we’d only ever see in a Jeorge Bird Twitter update or Arseblog piece.
Consider where all these young men are now, 12 months on. Their talents are making an impact in a tangible way, so much so that they are winning games and, for some, are serious contenders for starting berths in a senior squad that you can charitably say is lacking imagination.
But it is also a senior squad, for all its limitations, that has something now that it lacked this time last year – a spine. The arrival of Gabriel Magalhaes and Thomas Partey has added a steel and competence to this side that hasn’t truly been seen for almost a decade. Matched with the talent of the Hale End contingent, which is maturing rapidly, and you can’t help feeling hope is on the horizon. Steel and silk.
It may only take a game like the one we saw on Thursday in Molde, when the young Guns ran the show, to see this potential realised. It may simply be a goal or two, a piece of brilliance, an exquisite passage of play that breaks the dam, that means the rising tide of talent can be held back no longer.
The older, wider heads in this squad will play their part, of course. Experience is, after all, crucial and should not be swept aside with the tide. That was a mistake (or perhaps a consequence of financial restraint) Arsene Wenger made as he attempted to build a new side in the post-Highbury years. He could never quite match experience with youth, often trusting too much in his talented, but green, young stars as the older heads took their pay-days at rival clubs.
Make no mistake, for now, we will need the likes of David Luiz, Willian, Granit Xhaka, and Alex Lacazette. Their role in holding things together while the youngsters come through will be essential and should not be so lightly cast aside, however indifferent their form. Eventually, though, their time will come and the promise of Willock, Nketiah and co will, we hope, be ready to fill the void.
It may not be this weekend’s match against Wolves that breaks the dam but watch out now and in the months ahead for who makes the bench. After impressing in midweek, can Arteta continue to exclude Willock and Nelson? How long can Nketiah and Maitland-Niles be kept happy on the bench? Do players like Kolasinac, Elneny, or Willian need to make way now and then so we can give the likes of Smith-Rowe and Balogun some match-day experience and a target to aim for.
Saka has shown what is possible in 12 months by taking his chance and using the platform first given to him by Emery. Think where we could be in another 12 months with the right level of risk, patience, and faith. And, let’s not forget, we have Gabriel Martinelli to add into our mix, and the likes of Ben Cottrell and Miguel Azeez, Mark McGuiness, Zech Medley, and Matt Smith impressing in the academy and on loan too.
I don’t think anyone should expect miracles when the wily Nuno brings his team to north London today, our attacking struggles are unlikely to disappear in the space of a week after all.
But, more and more, it feels like something is happening at this club that we need to have the patience to allow to properly develop. It won’t happen in a puff of smoke or with the flash of strobe lighting but it might just with a little more time and a ounce or two of luck.