In its most off-brand performances in recent years, Arsenal has finally found its identity.
No longer will Arsenal be a house of style and beauty, albeit one that is intermittently undermined by a systemic softness — as it has been for more than a decade.
With each week that goes by under new boss Mikel Arteta, Arsenal is finally learning how to combine its familiar attacking strengths with a pragmatism and togetherness that’s been completely foreign to the club for years.
Yes, such praise may appear strange in the aftermath of a 3-1 defeat to defending Premier League champions Liverpool — now eight years undefeated against the Gunners at Anfield.
But despite being faced with that grim record against a team widely considered head-and-shoulders above the rest given Manchester City’s struggles, Arsenal displayed a tactical nous that, on another night, could have delivered a different result.
Liverpool dominated possession and played the vast majority of the game in Arsenal’s half, but that was largely by design, in keeping with Arteta’s risk-reward paradigm.
By taking the risk of playing out from the back with the opposition in an advanced position, Arsenal was able to expose Liverpool with its speed on the counter to find reward.
Had Alexandre Lacazette not butchered a regulation one-on-one with the keeper in the second half, and Kieran Tierney not allowed Mo Salah to walk past him to set-up Liverpool’s equaliser, Arsenal could have walked away with at least a point.
The hosts were certainly still good value for their win but, as a team, Arsenal made many right moves and was ultimately let down by costly individual errors.
Playing on the counter away from home is a tough nut former head coach Unai Emery couldn’t crack with largely the same group of players.
Arteta didn’t quite pull it off on Monday night, but he’s enjoyed big counterattacking success recently in wins against Chelsea in the FA Cup final, City in the semi, and Liverpool in the Community Shield and last season’s Premier League.
That’s not to say Arteta is simply transforming Arsenal into a counterattacking team. The old short-passing, high-pressing Arsenal ways still have a place in the club’s DNA while quality passers, such as Dani Ceballos, still make it a viable tactic against easier opponents.
You only need to look as far back as Gameweek 1 to see Arsenal can still control a game with a familiar, possession-based authority.
And that’s why Arsenal, after multiple false dawns since losing the Champions League final in 2006, could be on the verge of a real one.
It’s taken years of heartache and embarrassment — and there could still be some to come — but Arsenal has become a multidimensional team with an astute, modern footballing mind at the helm.
While Arsene Wenger refused to depart from his trademark style and Emery failed to impose his own, Arteta is starting to belatedly move the club into the modern era where even the most elite attacking forces — like City — can be stifled by weaker opposition.
His team is flexible, both tactically and in terms of its personnel. New faces such as Gabriel and Willian add a freshness and confidence to the grounds of London Colney while club talisman, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, has signed a contract well into his thirties.
Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher is so impressed with Arteta that be believes he could be on a similar path to Reds boss Jurgen Klopp.
“I think (Arteta has) almost an identical job to what Klopp came into,” Carragher said on Sky Sports.
“Arteta’s not taking a Champions League club. The first thing for Arsenal is to get back into the Champions League. That was a big thing Klopp did in his first season and … I think there’s a good chance Arsenal can (this season).
“I didn’t think that before the start of the season but having watched a lot of teams, I know it’s early, but I like a lot of what Mikel Arteta is doing.”
Carragher added that Arsenal’s squad still needs improving over the years if it’s to challenge for the title again.
But he believes it at least has the right man in charge, saying: “I don’t think it’s possible for him as a manager to get any more out of the group of players he’s got.
“I don’t think that’s a top four group. But I think the way he’s organising them and what he’s actually doing when I watch Arsenal, I think they could get into the top four because of his management.”
A top four finish is nothing for Arsenal to scoff at because, as we now know, things can quickly snowball from Champions League qualification.
Transfer targets have greater incentives to join and, more importantly, the current group greater incentives to stay given both the professional and financial rewards of top-flight European football.
A genuine title challenge could still be years away for Arsenal, but Arteta is well and truly forging the path forward.
From the top four, the end of that path becomes harder to see.