I've deliberately avoided commenting on Arsenal since the end of last season, and am even now wondering if it is still too early to make any sort of reasoned judgement (6 league games in was my mental target before the season began), but the closure of the transfer window seems an appropriate time to make a few observations (the fans who chanted "spend some fucking money" during the Villa debacle were a tad premature). The first observation is that the window is helping, along with UEFA qualifiers and staggered games, to blur the sense of a definite start to the season. I'm not a traditionalist, but I would prefer all the opening fixtures to kick-off at 3pm on the first Saturday, and for the transfer window to have closed, so we have a real sense of a beginning, rather than the current ragged procession.
Paul Lambert looks like he may be able to fashion a mid-table team out of last season's relegation-flirters, but Villa's victory at the Emirates owed as much to Arsenal's slow start as their own hard work. The goals arose from mistakes by two of our better players, Wilshere and Cazorla, neither of whom looked fully match-fit. Generally the team were a fraction too slow and appeared to be still in pre-season mode. Fears that this might be 2011 all over again were allayed by hard-working victories over Fulham and Spurs, interspersed with a highly professional two-legged performance against Fenerbahce in the Champions League qualifier.
The victory over the Lilywhites left everyone feeling much more bullish, in no small measure because it highlighted the value of team familiarity, in the face of the neighbours' transfer splurge, and the rewards for patience, notably in the case of Aaron Ramsey. As I suggested back in May, our prospects for this season would be as much about who didn't leave in the summer as who arrived. In the event, Wenger deserves credit for moving on a lot of stale players (8 former first-team squad members), though this is being drowned-out by chuntering over the paucity of replacements: no new experienced striker or central defender. The signing of Mesut Ozil has lifted spirits, but some fans question whether we need another attacking midfielder.
I think this indicates that too many are still stuck with the old paradigm in which the front and back lines have equal weight with the middle. What the world record fees for Ronaldo and Bale should indicate is that attacking midfielders are the key to successful teams. In fact, the world record hasn't been held by a striker since Hernan Crespo in 2000. Arsenal were unwilling to meet Real Madrid's valuation of £30m for Higuain, and I suspect that £40m for Suarez wasn't far off their maximum bid (another tenner, perhaps). However, £42.5m for Ozil looks like an intelligent investment.
Wenger is often accused of being tactically out-thought (though anyone with eyes to see on Sunday knows he got the better of Villas Boas), largely because he tends to focus on maximising individual performance within a team framework rather than mastering drills and set-pieces (Spurs looked like a better Stoke, and I'm not being uncharitable in saying that). A characteristic of this approach is that he develops players' ability to operate in multiple roles and to dynamically switch during the game, which places a premium on intelligent midfielders. The debate last season over whether Walcott should play centrally ignored the fact that Wenger has long asked his players to be flexible: on the wing and down the middle are not mutually exclusive over the course of 90 minutes. Mathieu Flamini, who famously thrived as a full-back before settling as a midfield terrier, is an emblematic re-acquisition in this regard, while Ramsey's stint on the wing during his recuperation should be seen as part of his education rather than "easing him back in".
Having said all that, we are (as ever) only a couple of injuries away from a problem, so another striker and a central defender would have been nice. I suspect Wenger does not think the latter an issue, as he obviously considers both Sagna and Arteta capable of playing there (and was happy to let Miquel and Djourou go on loan), while it's worth remembering that Arsenal classify both Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain as strikers. A David Villa or Luis Suarez would have kept the fans happy, but the bigger issue in the event of an injury to Giroud would be the loss of his aerial ability, notably as an outlet for a pressed defence (he worked his socks off in this role against Spurs). Ba for Bendtner would have been good business. With the Great Dane still exit-bound, I suspect we might pick up the thread when the transfer window reopens in January.
It's a long way to the business end of the season, so we can expect further setbacks and surprises, but the signing of Ozil, and the revelation that we really do have a war-chest after all, will probably keep the fans in a glass-half-full frame of mind for now. It's all hype of course, both the extremes of "Wenger's reached his sell-by-date" and "Ozil is the new Bergkamp" (no pressure there, then). The one thing you can predict is that Arsenal's midfield is going to be the most interesting to watch this season, which will probably leave messrs Mourinho, Pellegrini and Moyes feeling a bit sour today.
My final observation is that while Arsene is famous for buying French and Francophone African players, and much press coverage has focused on his developing a young British core in recent years, he has always had an eye for Germans, from Stefan Malz and Moritz Volz through Jens Lehmann. As well as the current crop of first-teamers, there are promising signs with youngsters Serge Gnabry and Gideon Zelalem, both of whom made the bench against Tottenham. There would be a certain symmetry if Wenger, who hails from the border lands of Alsace, should book-end his Arsenal career with great teams based on first a Franco-British mix and then a Germano-British one.