LONDON • Arsenal are winning games but are losing their joie de vivre.
Since being humiliated 4-0 by Liverpool on Aug 27, the London football club have gone on a good run of six victories and a draw - away with Chelsea - in all competitions, scoring 15 times and conceding only three.
Yet, a strange air clings to Arsenal, partly created by uncertainty over the long-term direction of the club under manager Arsene Wenger, chief executive Ivan Gazidis and majority shareholder Stan Kroenke, and also the future of their main source of inspiration, forward Alexis Sanchez.
On Sunday, for the visit of Brighton and Hove Albion, a side who Arsenal should be defeating more convincingly than 2-0, the Emirates Stadium was surprisingly subdued for the league match, with home fans comprehensively out-sung by the very vocal visitors.
Gaps in the stands told a worrying story, indicating that some have grown disenchanted and are picking and choosing their games.
An element of apathy is part of the narrative, a sense of frustration too having seen the quality of the vibrant likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur the previous day.
A large banner hangs from the Clock End, celebrating Wenger's belief that "football is an art", and certainly Sanchez's back-heel to create Alex Iwobi's goal, Arsenal's second, was a masterpiece of vision and technique, the signature flourish of a Wenger side.
Yet, truer artistry is found elsewhere in the English landscape with the work of City's David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne, United's Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata, and Spurs' Dele Alli and Harry Kane.
Arsenal do not even play the best football any more, always a slight consolation to fans when other, more functional teams collected the bigger prizes.
On the weekend of Wenger's 21st anniversary as Arsenal manager, his players laboured to find the key to unlock the door of Brighton's obdurate defence.
Having taken a two-goal lead by the 56th minute, Arsenal slowed down, their momentum particularly affected by the removal of Alexandre Lacazette and the excellent Iwobi for Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott.
Wenger's frequent subbing of Lacazette around the 70-minute mark annoys some fans, who want to see him scoring against tiring defences, yet the sight of fatigue catching up with another newcomer to the Premier League, Chelsea's Alvaro Morata, signals why Wenger is easing Lacazette into the frenzy.
The Mesut Ozil debate also swirls through the club as to whether the team are better without the World Cup-winning German, who is currently injured.
Ozil's passing accuracy is a quality that should bring the best out of Lacazette, sending him speeding through on goal, yet his failure to contribute to the defensive side of the game remains a major issue.
However, with Arsenal on a good run, Wenger believes they are now unified again and can enjoy a successful season.
"I knew that after the game in Liverpool, everybody would write us off and I knew it just depends on us, how much we respond," he said. "Nothing is permanent.
"You're not bad in a permanent way, if you can do something about it, and you're not good in a permanent way, if you don't keep your urgency."
Arsenal head into the international break level on points with champions Chelsea and six behind leaders Manchester City.
Wenger admits he will be sleeping better during the time off than he did during the last break, which came immediately after their Anfield horror show.
"Our last international break was a nightmare, this one is a bit better," he said.
"I would have loved to continue to play but we cannot do anything about that.
"Let's hope that the players come back in a good shape."
THE TIMES, LONDON, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE