A team’s standing on Christmas Day is traditionally upheld as a firm staging post for the season. Yet, wait another 24 hours and Boxing Day marks a more logical breaking point as halfway through most COVID-free campaigns.
Arsenal, despite their base in the Omicron hotbed of London, have tiptoed through the cancellations, completing their 19th game of the Premier League season with a 5-0 thumping away to Norwich City on Sunday afternoon.
Enforced postponements have left the Champions League-chasing pack vying for Arsenal’s fourth place position capable of leapfrogging the Gunners should they win their games in hand. However, when accounting for the results in matches teams have actually played, Arsenal still rank fourth in a points per game table at the midway point.
Exactly two years into Arteta’s reign, Arsenal are - most promising of all - showing hints of consistency in their displays as well as results.
The last time Arsenal faced a team starting the day bottom of the table, Arteta was focussed on the performance rather than the points: “The preparation is important but what is more important is [to] perform well, play as good as we can and then we will be close to winning the match,” he insisted to the club’s official website ahead of a 2-0 win against Newcastle in November.
Both aspects were fully present and correct in Arsenal's biggest Premier League victory under Arteta on Sunday.
Dominating large swathes of possession and territory Arsenal began the Boxing Day bout with a swagger that only grew as the goals flowed. Shortly after Bukayo Saka slotted in Arsenal's sixth-minute opener, Thomas Partey crystallised the confidence coursing through the team with a back-heeled flick out of pressure.
The Ghana international enjoyed one of his more memorable performances in an Arsenal career he would only rank 'four out of ten'. As the sole midfield pivot on the day, Partey had more options to pick penetrative passes between the admittedly disjointed lines of Norwich's setup.
More often than not Martin Odegaard was the recipient, ghostly floating away from the yellow and green shirts lagging in his wake, but Granit Xhaka - shunted forward - posed another outlet, whether or not his purpose leaned more towards a decoy.
In the aforementioned match against Newcastle, Arsenal recorded their lowest passes per defensive action (PPDA) figure since the opening day of the season. This proxy for pressing measures how many opposition passes a team - Arsenal in this instance - allows before attempting to win the ball back (via a tackle, foul, etc). The lower the number, the more intense the press.
Arsenal were able to retain the pressing intensity which has adorned the club's most commanding Premier League victories of late at Carrow Road.
Within the opening seconds of Arsenal’s 2-0 win over West Ham, Alexandre Lacazette was haring after Lukasz Fabianski, unsettling the Hammers keeper with the ball at his feet. Xhaka pushed up from midfield to support Arsenal’s front four as the north Londoners tried (and largely succeeded) to box their visitors in.
The Gunners followed up that capital derby triumph with a full throttle 4-1 win at Elland Road the following weekend. Arsenal rattled off six shots from high turnovers against Leeds in their previous top flight outing, scoring once from these advanced recoveries - both seasonal highs thus far.
Gabriel Martinelli scored three goals across those two games but provided the dogged running off the ball in a scoreless - but equally impressive - outing against the Canaries.
Collecting Kieran Tierney's snapping interception ahead of Max Aarons on halfway, Martinelli began a blurring passing move that teed up Saka for Arsenal's opener four rapid shuffles of possession later.
The ebullient Brazilian was even more integral to the Gunners' second. Steaming across the width of the pitch, Martinelli bullied Przemyslaw Placheta out of a 50-50 challenge. This again acted as the catalyst of a sweeping move from right to left - a pattern of play Arsenal regularly attempted throughout the match - that culminated in Tierney doubling the lead on the stroke of half-time.
Since a 4-0 humbling of their own at the hands of Liverpool last month, Arsenal have sixth-lowest PPDA in the division (i.e. only five teams press more intensely) having previously offered the limpest obstacle off the ball (per UnderStat).
With the game all but sewn up by the break, Arsenal gave their goal difference - which only became positive for the first time in mid-December - a healthy uptick through some truly spurious defending which underlined Norwich's position at the foot of the table.
The quality (or lack thereof) of Arsenal's opposition during their five-match winning run across all competitions (a feat they've achieved for the first time under Arteta, scoring at least two goals on each outing) does call for some caution to the unbound optimism their recent form entices.
However, Arteta - a man who earlier in the season claimed: “Every defeat is a crisis and it should be a crisis” - launched a pre-emptive strike against any such volatile sentiment.
"We are halfway through the season and unfortunately the season ends in May and there is still a lot of things to do,” he cautiously assessed pre-game, as quoted by the club’s official website. “There are still a lot of things we need to get much better at, to improve but I think the team is going in the right direction, that is the feeling that I have.”