Predicting which version of Arsenal will turn up on a weekly basis has proved difficult during Mikel Arteta’s two-year reign.
But since returning to the Emirates as manager in 2019, the Spaniard has begun what is nothing short of a revolution among the playing staff, replacing the old with the new.
Mesut Ozil and Sokratis, both 33, and 34-year-old David Luiz have departed. Willian, 33, was signed and then let go 12 months later. Alexandre Lacazette, 30, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, 32, could yet follow, perhaps as soon as January.
Lee Dixon (right) praised Mikel Arteta (left) for trusting youth in his Arsenal side this season
Bukayo Saka celebrates after scoring his second goal of the game against Norwich on Sunday
Instead, a vibrant group of younger players, who on Boxing Day helped the Gunners thrash Norwich 5-0 to cement their place in the top four, now largely lead proceedings.
Bukayo Saka, 20, stole the show at Carrow Road with two goals, while fellow academy product Emile Smith Rowe, 21, went above Cristiano Ronaldo in the goalscoring chart with his eighth strike of the season late on.
A few days earlier, Eddie Nketiah, 22, netted a hat-trick and Charlie Patino, 18, also scored on his senior debut as the Gunners qualified for the Carabao Cup semi-finals with a 5-1 win against Sunderland.
Gabriel Martinelli has also impressed and nailed down a starting spot in recent weeks, with Martin Odegaard and Aaron Ramsdale among the young players to have also caught the eye for Arteta’s in-form side.
Today’s game against Wolves may have been postponed due to Covid but all this has come just a few months after a summer in which six players – all aged 23 or under – were signed in the transfer market and who have excelled ever since. So are they the most exciting crop of youngsters in Europe right now?
Youngsters Saka (left) and Emile Smith Rowe (right) have excelled for the Gunners this term
‘It has got to be up there,’ Arsenal legend Lee Dixon tells Sportsmail. ‘I think great credit has to go to Arteta for giving these players opportunities.
‘It is a gamble. Not many clubs go down the route of signing players under 23 years of age when you have youngsters coming through at the same time.
‘They are a very, very young side and with that comes the risk of inconsistency, which we have seen from other teams but also this side this season. You have to take that on the chin because that is what you get.
‘For him [Arteta] to come to the club with a list of players, and you look at the age groups of those players, it would be quite easy for the club to say ”that is a big risk, we have little experience, how are we going to go through the tough months or a bad run?”
‘But they have stuck by Arteta’s plan and great credit has to go to the club for allowing that policy because it is paying off now.
‘The impressive thing is you do see a plan at the moment, you can work out what Arsenal are trying to do, and all the players are buying into the philosophy. The future looks quite rosy at the moment.’
The Gunners have been outplayed before at Man City – who they face on New Year’s Day
Dixon, however, insists he is never one to go overboard and too far ahead of himself. ‘There will be sticky patches again in the long term this season, there’s no doubt about that,’ he adds.
Those tricky and awkward encounters have often come against the best in the country. Two of their opening three defeats this term arrived against Chelsea and against Manchester City, while a 4-0 drubbing at Liverpool is a more recent memory.
New Year’s Day sees the Premier League champions visit the Emirates, a game in which Dixon insists Arsenal must buck the trend of collapsing against one of Europe’s most elite sides.
‘You should be judging yourselves against the teams you are aiming to emulate. They are miles off Liverpool and Man City and Chelsea to a certain extent, but those two [Liverpool and City] are way ahead of everybody.
‘If you pit yourselves against them and make a good show of it… that might not necessarily be a win, sometimes you can take more out of a performance than you can a result.
‘But if you can go and match them and show you can compete at that level, then almost with a young side the result is secondary because you are in a process of being able to compete at that level in the top four.
A 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Liverpool, meanwhile, is a more recent memory for the side
‘They have shown they can so far, but they have got to play the big teams. The game against Liverpool, they fell short. They weren’t in this form they are in now, so that’s a good thing.
‘But you have got to be able to stand up in that tunnel and look over and go ”I am not scared of that badge on your chest, I have got this cannon on here and we are going to compete”.
‘This bunch of youngsters look like they have started to stick their chests out a bit which is great to see.’
While the younger players have led by example this season, the club’s captaincy situation remains messy after the armband was stripped from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – the club’s best-paid and arguably most high-profile player.
Sportsmail understands Barcelona are interested in signing Aubameyang on loan in January, with the £350,000-per-week star frozen out by Arteta following his latest disciplinary breach.
But rule No 1 for Dixon is ‘there’s always a way back for a goalscorer’ – especially one who has netted 92 goals for the club – in the short term, even if his long-term prospects appear rather more bleak.
‘If you are a coach with any brains you never rule out your best goalscorer in the club. Of course there’ll be a period of time where he is not in favour and he is right in the middle of that now.
Dixon insists Arteta would ‘jump’ at the chance to sell Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (left)
‘If Arsenal were to get a couple of injuries and be in a position where they needed him, I am pretty sure the length of time Arteta is going to keep him out might just get a little bit shorter. If he comes in and gets a couple of goals all of a sudden he’s back in favour again.
‘But I am not saying he should stay at the club. I think it was right he lost the captaincy and he has quite rightly been sanctioned by the manager and the club.
‘I am pretty sure Arteta has his own idea on who he should have up front, and I’m pretty sure given what has gone on it is not going to be Aubameyang.
‘Long term, he won’t be at the club for too much longer. If somebody is sniffing around to take him elsewhere, I think Arteta would jump at that opportunity in January.’
Dixon is similarly unsure who could replace him as a striker in the summer, but believes Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin – who Sportsmail understand the Gunners are interested in – would be a good fit.
Dixon also insists Dominic Calvert-Lewin at Everton would be an excellent summer signing
‘Would I like to see Calvert-Lewin at Arsenal? I think yes. I think you’d struggle to get one of the top, top strikers like [Erling] Haaland.
‘It would be a step up for Calvert-Lewin, no disrespect to Everton. I like him, I think he’s got potential to be as good as he wants to be. He is fit and athletic, he is strong and good in the air and a good finisher. I would take him.’
For the time being though, Lacazette appears to have taken his close friend’s place in the XI.
But the load of the captaincy is being shared by what has become known as the ‘leadership group’, which includes the Frenchman, Granit Xhaka and Rob Holding.
Lacazette currently wears the armband, while Martin Odegaard and Kieran Tierney have also been mentioned as Aubameyang’s permanent replacement as skipper.
Dixon sees Kieran Tierney (left) as the future captain but is unsure if ‘now is the right time’
Dixon struggles to settle on one name for the immediate future, but believes goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale is a ‘captain without an armband’.
‘I’m not a massive fan of having forwards as captains. It doesn’t sit right with me. I think Tierney is the future captain, but I’m not sure if now is the right time.
‘But he [Ramsdale] is a captain without an armband. He doesn’t need an armband on him, he is leading from behind.
‘Dave Seaman is my best mate and we talk about him a lot. He is hugely impressed with what he sees with what he is doing with his hands and his position and his playing out from the back.
‘The way he has connected with the fans, and the away fans at times, is brilliant, so he is playing a captain’s role at the back. I don’t think he is right to be captain right now though.’
Dixon insists David Seaman (left) has been raving about the displays of Aaron Ramsdale (right)
Another Gunners legend has also been talking up one of the current members of the squad, with Ian Wright calling for an ‘apology as loud as the disrespect’ to be given to Takehiro Tomiyasu.
Sky reporter Kaveh Solhekol went on air as the defender’s summer move from Bologna was being finalised and said that Tomiyasu isn’t ‘really a right-back’ and that he had been offered to most top-flight clubs before the Gunners agreed a deal to sign him.
But the Japan defender has gone about his business quietly since joining, perhaps in the understated yet crucial manner in which ‘Invincible’ Lauren operated in that position nearly two decades ago now.
Dixon stops short of making that comparison, but insists the Japan star’s relationship with centre-back Ben White will be crucial to any success he has at the club.
‘I think he [Tomiyasu] has certainly taken the eye, there is no doubt about that. But you won’t here me eulogise like Wrighty about positions he has no idea about!
‘I’m joking! He is right to sing Tomiyasu’s praises because he has done brilliantly. He has certainly not got the stature of a typical full back. Having said that, [Marcos] Alonso [at Chelsea] is tall and a similar stature to him.
Takehiro Tomiyasu (left) will need to form a good partnership with Ben White (right) to succeed at Arsenal, Dixon added
‘He has been very good at coming out with the ball. His link-up play with the midfield and forwards has been great. He is an athlete who gets up and down brilliantly well, and he is great in the air.
‘He has still got some work to do as far as defending and his positional play. But that is like most of the full-backs I look at now. That will come with time, and will come in building a relationship with Ben White.
‘Lauren was different because I was with him when he came to the club, he played in front of me until I stepped back and he took over my position.
‘I saw first-hand how good a player Lauren was. I was more than happy to hand the No 2 shirt over to him, because I knew it was in safe hands, because he was a very, very good footballer.
‘He was hard as nails and knew his position. I had inside knowledge on him, but I’m not at the training ground with Tomiyasu and I don’t see him every day, but what I have seen so far on match day has been hugely impressive.’
Dixon (centre right) stopped short of comparing Tomiyasu with Lauren centre left)
Amazon Prime Video will exclusively broadcast 10 Premier League fixtures between the 28th-30th December. Lee Dixon was due to be on punditry duties for Arsenal vs Wolves on December 28th before the game was postponed.