Tunnel vision is the key principle of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal reign

“We have Chelsea on Sunday, this is what I’m interested in.” Mikel Arteta’s response to the question of Takehiro Tomiyasu’s chances of being fit for the World Cup was jarring. Though Arteta had already expressed sympathy for the Japan defender’s predicament, he was reinforcing the importance to Arsenal of an away fixture signposted for some time.

Since Old Trafford on 4 September in fact. Arsenal’s sole loss of their league season, a 3-1 defeat in which they were picked off by Manchester United’s counterattacking, was a wobble, but a fine run since, including home victories over Tottenham and Liverpool, has lessened the residual pain. However, in a season where Manchester City are just two points behind despite the 1-1 draw at Southampton on 23 October being the only other blemish, Arsenal’s margin for error does not include losing at their London rivals.

Win at Chelsea, with only Wolves to come in the Premier League before the World Cup, and Arsenal can expect to be leaders as top-level domestic football is mothballed. To be at the summit after only 14 games is not too much of a prize, falling short of the half-season credentials that in Germany, Spain and Italy sees teams crowned as “winter champions”, but it has been a clear objective for Arteta. And a sincere test of the husbandry of his squad.

“We managed the load of the players in the last four weeks because of the amount of games that we have played,” he said after shuffling his pack against FC Zürich had resulted in a narrow 1-0 win. That completed another key Arsenal objective, winning their Europa League group and thus avoiding a two-legged tie in February against a Champions League dropout.

Arteta is also negotiating another unwanted variable that the World Cup’s hopefully unique scheduling has asked of managers. Tomiyasu’s panic, like the one that Bukayo Saka suffered after limping off against Nottingham Forest last week, was not particularly Arteta’s problem. His singular focus is having his players ready to play for Arsenal, and not in a tournament where they can only suffer more wear and tear.

“With the amount of games that we’re playing, it’s part of it,” he said of the knocks that cause worldwide headlines when a previously Qatar-bound player pulls up lame. “It can happen in training, it can happen in games.”

Tunnel vision has been the key principle of Arteta’s Arsenal reign. Next month it will be three years since his appointment, and this team feels like one built in his determined self-image. Gabriel Jesus, captain against FC Zürich, has added myriad dimensions, pressing from the front, and, despite a barren run in front of goal that extends back to 1 October, remains by far their most important attacker.

Arsenal have benefited hugely from the close working relationship Arteta struck with Jesus at Manchester City when Pep Guardiola’s assistant. Jesus’s influence on his compatriot Gabriel Martinelli is clear and Saka, at 21, has become a dependable veteran in a first-choice forward line forever in perpetual motion.

Such symbiosis comes in contrast to the severed alliance between Arteta and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, expected to play some part for Chelsea in Sunday’s midday kick-off. “He seems to be happy,” said Arteta of his former captain, unprepared to reveal any deeper knowledge or feelings beyond that.

Aubameyang, like Mesut Özil before him, was ruthlessly scrubbed from the picture by a manager who, like Guardiola, believes in a cult of the collective, though one where the manager holds by far the greatest weight of influence.

Each of Arsenal’s leading players this season owes plenty to Arteta’s patronage. Aaron Ramsdale in goal, Ben White as a remodelled, high-grade attacking full-back, the central defensive partnership of William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhães, the renovated, revived Granit Xhaka, and Martin Ødegaard, captain and creative director behind the forward line, have all been reinvented, given fresh identity, by their manager. “Trust the process” was a catchphrase previously used sarcastically by Arteta doubters but this season has seen a unity among fans not seen since Arsène Wenger’s peak years.

Arteta is undefeated in all three Premier League visits to Stamford Bridge. April’s 4-2 win there included a predatory double by Eddie Nketiah. Against Graham Potter, the record is less promising, Arsenal losing three of six Premier League encounters to Brighton, including a 2-1 home defeat in April that did serious damage to last season’s failed top-four challenge.

Old Trafford in September was “a big lesson” in Arteta’s words, one his team recovered admirably from. Stamford Bridge, and three points, can help ensure that when the Premier League returns his team have the head start they have worked so hard for.