It was never going to be easy, was it? The Unai Emery era at Arsenal officially kicked off on Sunday in disappointing fashion as the Gunners fell to Manchester City 2-0. The loss was a less than ideal start to a Premier League season that saw all 5 of the other top 6 clubs earn 3 points, and the job is not likely to get much easier with Chelsea next on the horizon, but supporters have been treated to glimpses of the product that Unai Emery is trying to create. The Gunners should come through their season-opening gauntlet a better team for it, but at what cost to their early season top 4 contention?
A Long Way To Go
In many ways, there was no better barometer of how well the team has improved under Unai Emery this summer than a gruelling opener against Manchester City. Having waltzed effortlessly through the Premier League last season, City returned a strong and deep team fully intact. Despite the promise of progress during the pre-season, Unai Emery’s work in progress was always going to struggle for the result.
Throughout the summer, Emery showed a clear intent to have his team always play the ball out from the back, and it is with this very concept that Arsenal struggled the most with on Sunday. Pep Guardiola’s system is not one of constant energetic pressing like Liverpool or Tottenham but instead relies on his players to press zonally. This forces the ball out into wide areas as convenient passing lanes are cut off, where Guardiola’s men then press with earnest to win the ball back. It is into this trap that the Arsenal defence fell, and most of the Gunners’ problems in possession were to do with simply getting out of their own defensive third.
Despite flexing their attacking muscles in some of their pre-season contests, the Gunners struggled for attacking fluency throughout much of Sunday’s match. Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mhkitaryan were pinned back deep on their respective flanks by City’s width and frequent overlaps in possession, and as a result, had much of their attacking energy sapped away. In fact, Ozil was moved from the right to a more central position in the second half, as Guardiola’s directive to smother Arsenal’s creative talisman had almost taken him out of the match entirely. In all, it was a day to forget for the Arsenal attack.
There is no such thing as a good 2-0 defeat, but when comparing the hard-fought loss on Sunday to the impotent capitulation we saw from this Arsenal team at the hands of City last season, it still represented an improvement. For all of their dominance, Guardiola’s men had to work for this victory. The improved organisation of Emery’s defence was noticeable, even this early in his managerial tenure. The defensive shape proved far more adaptable than in years past, and when pinned back in their own third, there wasn’t a constant sense that they were going to collapse.
The press from the front was noticeably more intense, especially with Aaron Ramsey spearheading the charge in the first half. The front 3 generally worked together in closing down the ball, with Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang each exerting themselves more than their reputations would have suggested. Guardiola’s finely tuned machine was able to take the sting and energy out of the Arsenal press with their clever ball recirculation, but the signs are clear that Arsenal will be defending from the front with far more intensity this season.
Baptism By Fire
There were few surprises when Unai Emery’s first Premier League XI was announced, but one of the names on the team sheet was none other than 19-year-old summer signing Matteo Guendouzi. Riding a wave of hype on the back of an impossibly mature pre-season, Guendouzi found out rather quickly that life in the English top flight would be far from easy. The former Lorient man was initially overwhelmed by the pace and ability of the visiting City, but soon grew into the match and put on perhaps the best all-around performance of any Arsenal midfielder. Like Granit Xhaka, Guendouzi had much of his effectiveness taken away as the pair were forced to start possession deep in their own end with a sky blue marker breathing down their necks. However, the young man showed no fear on perhaps the biggest stage of his young career, and his future shines brightly within the Arsenal midfield.
Guendouzi parlayed a full pre-season’s workload into a full 90 minutes on Sunday, where he was also joined by fellow new signing, former Borussia Dortmund defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos, and later in the match by Swiss national team captain Stephan Lichtsteiner and Arsenal’s biggest summer signing, Lucas Torreira. Lichtsteiner was forced into action early following a knee injury to Ainsley Maitland-Niles, and he had an uneven display playing on the left, including losing Bernardo Silva for the second City goal. Sokratis was better than man expected after he had an inconsistent pre-season, and Torreira received a cameo, coming in for Granit Xhaka who is still returning to match fitness. The experience was an important one for all 4 newcomers, and the lessons they will take away from playing the best team in the league can only help them going forward.
An Injury Crisis Already?
Of all the areas that needed strengthening in the transfer market this summer, many supporters were concerned when the team failed to directly address the left back position. With pre-season injuries to both Nacho Monreal and Sead Kolasinac, that concern turned to worry. With Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ serious-looking knee injury in the first half on Sunday, that worry may have turned already into full-on alarm.
Stephan Lichtsteiner was a valuable veteran addition to the team, his grit and experience a welcome sight after years of the team lacking the requisite toughness, but he is not a natural left back, and his discomfort showed at times on Sunday. Even with Maitland-Niles there, the problem of having a right-footed player in a left-sided defensive position still existed, and was something that City took advantage of by forcing he and then Lichtsteiner toward the touchline and their weaker left foot. If Nacho Monreal is not back soon, Arsenal could have a real problem on their hands in just their second game of the season, this weekend against Chelsea.
Cech Faces Competition
For many, it is hard to ignore how far Petr Cech’s play dropped off last season. The 36-year-old was long one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League, but his physical decline, as well as the frequency of his mental mistakes, was enough to get the club to spend £22 million on Bernd Leno from Bayern Leverkusen. Many fans believed that this would signal the end for Cech as the Arsenal number 1, but an obvious improvement in his fitness and a really strong pre-season won Cech the opportunity to start on Sunday.
Despite allowing two goals on the day, Cech performed admirably well at his traditional goalkeeping duties. He was proactive coming out for balls in the box, kept up his focus throughout the match, and even made a brilliant save on Sergio Aguero 1 on 1. However, it was his distribution from the back that has many hoping to see Leno get the nod in the next match against Chelsea. Too often, his passing was predictable and decision making slow when the ball was at his feet. The Arsenal defence and midfield were hemmed in so effectively by the City press that it seemed they couldn’t get out of their own defensive third for whole minutes on end, even when possessing the ball.
While it isn’t clear that Leno would be a marked improvement over Cech in that regard, fans are ready to find out. Cech earned back his number 1 place this summer, but for the first time, he has legitimate competition waiting in the wings for him to falter. If Arsenal are to continue playing out from the back on a consistent basis this season, his distribution will need to improve dramatically.