It may not have been pretty, or even inspire much confidence in supporters, but Arsenal succeeded in winning their second match of the season on Sunday, downing Cardiff City 3-2. It was an afternoon that brought joy and frustration to Unai Emery in equal measure, as the sight of his attack starting to click was sullied by yet another patchy defensive display. In spite of this, the Gunners have recovered reasonably well from the back to back losses to Manchester City and Chelsea that opened their Premier League season, now sitting on 6 points and back into the top half of the able heading into the first international break of the season.
A Rare Feat In 2018
With the win in Cardiff on Sunday, Arsenal were able to achieve something they had only managed to do once before in 2018: win a match away from the Emirates Stadium. In perhaps the saddest sign of the end for Arsene Wenger’s reign at the club, quality performances away from home had all but become non-existent by last season. After the holidays, the Gunners went on a streak of ineptitude, failing to win a single match away from home until the last day of the season against Brighton. While the players managed to show up one last time for their beleaguered manager’s final bow, it was exceedingly obvious that a massive uptick in away form was needed if Arsenal were to become relevant in the title chase again.
Unai Emery did not immediately break the spell, having lost his first away match in charge to Chelsea, but was successful in his second go on Sunday. The focus on player fitness and endurance has been apparent for all to see, from the exercise tent that has been constructed adjacent to the training pitches at London Colney to the apparent banning of most fruit juices from the canteen. While achieving better physical condition can only help the players when trying for results away from home, the mental side of the equation is equally important to continued positive results. A tightly contested victory against a club likely to be around the relegation zone by season’s end does not prove the problem has been sorted, but it is the first of (hopefully) many steps towards correcting a fatal flaw.
Lacazette Earns Berth In Starting XI
A well-documented fact of life for the Arsenal squad under Unai Emery is that every player must earn their place in the plans of their new manager. Through the first three matches of the season, it seemed that Alexandre Lacazette was unable to do so. Despite donning a near perpetual smile in photographs and video released by the club of their training sessions, the Frenchman was not featured in a starting XI until Sunday.
However, Lacazette made the job of dropping him to the bench again much more difficult for Emery, flashing all of the ability that made him so coveted by the Arsenal faithful last summer. His energy and linkup play were immense, often displaying a gritty willingness to fight for every ball in his area and track back aggressively when Cardiff were slow in moving the ball out from the base of the midfield. He managed to bag the assist on Aubameyang’s wonder goal in the second half before adding a goal of his own to seal the win for Arsenal in the 81st minute, and likely his continued inclusion in the starting XI. It was perhaps the best all around performance by Lacazette in an Arsenal shirt, and he has effectively put his manager on notice that his talents and contributions to the team are not to be ignored.
Auba (Finally) Does A Henry
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang knows how to score goals. This fact, based on years of evidence to support it, is at times forgotten when the Gabonian striker hits a bit of a dry spell, as he had done for the first three matches of the season prior to Sunday’s clash in Cardiff. However, just after the hour mark and with the score at 1-1, Aubameyang served a reminder to the more impatient supporters with a beautiful curling effort from outside the area. The goal immediately brought to mind the countless times Thierry Henry effortlessly did the same in an Arsenal shirt seemingly for fun.
Like many elite goalscorers, Aubameyang is consistent when viewing his career statistics as a whole, but he can also be extremely streaky over the course of those seasons. For Borussia Dortmund supporters, this is nothing new, but most in North London only got to see him go on a tear after arriving last season. The key for Unai Emery will be to figure out how to extract a more consistent level of play from his star striker. It took 4 matches to witness his first moment of brilliance this season, and with so much changing around London Colney these days, a more consistent Aubameyang could go a long way toward helping a rise up the table back into a Champions League place.
Torreira Once Again Stakes His Claim
From the moment Lucas Torreira signed from Sampdoria this summer, fans have been expecting him to walk into a starting role within Arsenal’s much-maligned defensive midfield. While Unai Emery has so far declined to offer the Uruguayan his first Premier League start, for the second match in as many weeks, Torreira made a tangible impact on proceedings after his introduction.
Not only did Torreira display the bulldog-like persistence when defending that had attracted the admiration of the club in the first place, he also managed to find the score sheet for the first time in an Arsenal shirt, feeding an incisive pass into the feet Alexandre Lacazette in the box who wasted little time in emphatically slamming home his effort. The goal proved decisive in the victory, and saw a renewed call from fans following the match to get a Torreira into the starting XI as soon as possible. Given the nature of his performances against West Ham and now Cardiff City, it is only a matter of time before Unai Emery reaches the same conclusion
A Habit of Conceding
Oh, the Arsenal defence. Every week, the lines inevitably break, a mistake is made, a goal is scored, and the pundits line up one by sink their teeth into the Achilles heel of this Arsenal team. Is it a certain player’s fault? Is it the system? Is it goalkeeping?
Regardless of which player is being isolated and blamed for some malodorous affront to the art of defence this week, the fact is simple, unavoidable, and rather ugly: the Arsenal defence continues to be a problem. Despite coming away from the weekend with 3 points, the team will be furious with themselves after conceding twice to a team that had been positively anaemic in front of goal so far this season.
The most obvious solution would be to swap goalkeepers, replacing the struggling Petr Cech with Bernd Leno, but it is unclear how much this would help the defence. While unarguably superior to Cech when using his feet, Leno has been a career under-performer against expected goals (xG), meaning his shot stopping has not always been up to par. Complicating the issue further is the fact that Cech has actually been quite good in that regard this season, apart from his apparent susceptibility to low shot thus far. The goalkeeper dilemma for Unai Emery is as much about weighing these factors against each other as it is simply picking the clear cut first choice.
Instead, a solution is likely to come from incremental improvements on several fronts. As the players become more ingrained in Emery’s philosophy, their roles will become second nature and no longer require the hesitance of thought to execute. The players themselves, subjected now as they are to far more instructive and pointed coaching than they were in the past, could also show signs of improvement in the technical aspects of defensive craft. Additionally, Emery could opt to reshuffle his starting midfielders to provide better cover to the backline, as appeared to be the case after Torreira’s introduction to proceedings on Sunday. All combined with the manager himself becoming more familiar with the new league and its rigours, it is not hard to see the potential for improvement. However, as they showed in Cardiff, the players have much work still to do.