Arsenal display more reason for optimism than they have had for years | Jonathan Wilson | Football

It was only the Community Shield. It’s unlikely to be remembered in a month, never mind in a year or five or 10. Sports historians of decades to come will probably not be basing grand theses around some slightly tentative probing between two undercooked teams on a damp and blustery afternoon at Wembley. But it was another success for Mikel Arteta, further evidence that he might be building something exciting at Arsenal.

Nobody at the Emirates Stadium should get carried away. This, fundamentally, does not matter – go on, without checking, what happened in the Community Shield last year? (Manchester City won on penalties, after Joël Matip had cancelled out Raheem Sterling’s opener.)

Arsenal have now won four of the last seven Community Shields and nobody would claim this has been a golden era for the club. And it probably matters even less this summer than most given the bizarre compression of the calendar that meant it came only six days after last season’s Champions League final but 14 days before the start of this season’s Premier League.

But a trophy, however minor, is a trophy and few Arsenal fans will not take the opportunity to note that Arteta has won more in the past month than Tottenham have in the past 21 years: a parochial jibe perhaps but, for clubs with little chance of winning the league, such things come to matter.

Where the Community Shield has had a function in recent years has been as an indicator of what may be to come. The most notorious example, perhaps, came in 2015 when José Mourinho’s sloppy tracksuit and unshaven indifference, and his first defeat against Arsène Wenger, offered the first signs that something had gone badly awry at Chelsea over the summer. There was nothing quite so striking on Saturday, but rather a confirmation of Arteta’s approach and its effectiveness.

Again and again, against the best pressing side in England and, alongside Bayern, probably the best pressing side in the world, Arsenal played out from the back, working in tight zones even within their own box. It won’t always work and there may be occasionally embarrassing mishaps – in fact in the phase of Arsenal possession immediately before the one that brought their goal, David Luiz was pressured into passing the ball out for a throw-in by his own corner flag – but the willingness to do that is evidence both of intent and confidence. This is how Arteta wants his side to play, and he is not going to compromise that even against the best opponents.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles had a brilliant game at Wembley against the Premier League champions. Photograph: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC/Getty Images

And it is working. From the start of 2016-17 to Arteta’s arrival in December last year, Arsenal won eight and lost 21 of 44 games played against top-six opposition in all competitions. Under him they have won four and lost three of 10. But what feels really significant is that since the middle of July, they have beaten Liverpool in the league and Manchester City and Chelsea in the FA Cup before holding their own against Liverpool on Saturday.

Clearly, there must be caveats about the circumstances. These are not normal times and in the league game particularly there was a sense that Liverpool’s race was run. But Arsenal are also operating under the same conditions and in the past two months have, in a way that hasn’t been true in perhaps 15 years, seemed to thrive against high‑level opposition.

Allied to the willingness to work the ball out in controlled passing from the back is Arsenal’s press. Liverpool dominated possession 60-40 which obviously skews things: the more the opposition has the ball, the more you have to try to win it back. But still, against a team as good at pressing as Liverpool, it can only be a positive for Arsenal that their midfield four (including the two wing-backs, Héctor Bellerín and the exceptional Ainsley Maitland-Niles) regained the ball five-and-a-half times more often than Liverpool’s midfield three, and their front three two‑and‑a‑half times more often than Liverpool’s front three.

Pressing has increasingly come to seem the key battleground among the elite clubs. It is the hallmark of the German model that has become pre-eminent. It’s where the biggest doubts exist about Frank Lampard and Ole Gunnar Solskjær and where Jürgen Klopp seems to have gained an advantage over Pep Guardiola. In Wenger’s declining years, as they suffered those regular maulings at the hands of Bayern and Barcelona, it was their pressing that really let them down. But in eight months, Arteta has them looking as sharp as anybody in that regard.

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There are lot of reasons for Arsenal to worry. The arm’s-length ownership style of Stan Kroenke, and the collapse of the structure put in place to replace Wenger and the influence of one particular agent should inspire concern and scrutiny. For all it has been rationalised recently, the squad remains a curious mix and Mesut Özil’s continued presence is only the most obvious issue.

But all the early suggestions are that in the dugout they have a manager of exceptional potential. He has a modern plan and the authority and personality to put it into effect. On the pitch at least, there is more reason for Arsenal to be optimistic than for years. A Community Shield may not mean much in itself, but on Saturday they again appeared to be a club moving in the right direction.

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