Emery Gets His First
Unai Emery may have been handed the toughest start imaginable to his Arsenal career as the Gunners opened the season with 2 consecutive losses against Chelsea and Manchester City, but the fact remains that no permanent Arsenal manager has lost his first 3 matches in charge. Mercifully, Emery was able to avoid becoming the first name on the list with the victory on Saturday.
In spite of the positive result, the Basque head coach maintained the same tone he had following the back to back losses, emphatically highlighting that the team still has a lot of work to do. There were positive signs for Emery, as he finally witnessed a degree of midfield control from his players in the second half, leading to perhaps their best period of football so far this season. The defence continues to frustrate the manager and fans alike, and West Ham were able to get into dangerous areas far more easily than is ideal, but the first win was vital for this team to begin believing in the process.
Ozil Drama Ensues
A win on Saturday may have been important for confidence throughout the side, but one player who could have used just such a boost was nowhere to be seen on match day. Mesut Ozil missed the match with an illness, but that didn’t stop the speculation from running rife on social media, further exacerbated by conflicting reports about the nature of his absence. A story began doing the round that Ozil was informed on Friday that he would not be selected for the match, allegedly leading to a training ground row. Unai Emery, for his part, was quick to try and quell the rumours in his post-match press conference, questioning where the information might have come from and maintaining that the German playmaker was truly ill.
As a player who seems an imperfect fit for Emery’s pressing defensive system, Ozil has been receiving immense scrutiny for his performances this season. Yet another instance in which he falls ill the day before a match is not likely to quiet the grumblings. Ozil’s recently renewed contract, which pays him reportedly north of £300k per week, has only increased the expectations of the success-starved Emirates crowd. While his weak immune system has always been a problem during his Arsenal career, for some, it is becoming increasingly hard to justify his presence in the team, even when he can occasionally produce moments of artistic perfection on the pitch.
The Mercurial Hector Bellerin
Irresistible over-lapping play, undulating confidence, nervy defensive errors, dangerous attacking moments. All in a day’s work for the Gunners’ divisive right back Hector Bellerin. The young Spaniard has come in for immense criticism since the start of the season for his spotty play, particularly at the back, and his performance on Saturday ran the gamut. Bellerin has become something of a symbol for an Arsenal in the midst of change this season, and his play has mirrored the erratic nature of the team’s performance to start the season. His penchant for a mistake at the back end has already seen most of the commentariat pine for new signing Stephan Lichtsteiner to get the nod over his young teammate in the starting XI.
While it is undeniable that Bellerin is still an unfinished product in defence, the direct contribution he made to 2 Arsenal goals showed just why he is so hard to give up on. Few players have seen themselves isolated in as many 1 on 1 situations as Bellerin has the last 2 seasons, and he has not yet figured out how to get comfortable when an opponent runs at him in space. However, given Unai Emery’s decision to play with a high defensive line, his combination of pace and energy is hugely important in a backline that lacks pace in other positions. Lichtsteiner is an experienced and capable deputy waiting in the wings to give Bellerin some much needed cover, but for Arsenal to get to where they want to be, they need a healthy and confident Hector Bellerin.
The London Derby is always a noteworthy event on the Premier League calendar, but there was another added layer of intrigue as 2 former Gunners, Jack Wilshere and Lucas Perez, returned to the Emirates Stadium with their new team. For Wilshere, the return was likely even more emotional than his teammates as he had spent the last 17 years at Arsenal, beginning at the age of 9. Wilshere had been right at the heart of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, coming to represent the often beautiful but frustratingly inconsistent second decade of the Frenchman’s reign at the helm. Injuries ultimately robbed him of the quick burst of pace and immaculate technique he possessed at the height of his powers, but his passion for the game is evident every time he steps on the pitch.
While both players might have had a little extra motivation when trying to beat the club that allowed them to walk away, neither was particularly impressive in their return. Wilshere looked very similar to the player he was in his last season at Arsenal, lacking the energy and the pace of his youth, and altogether unable to seize control of the match like he wanted. Lucas came on late as a substitute, and while he did show energy and vision on a foray down the left flank, he was ultimately unable to affect the outcome. After the loss, both players were greeted with warmth and affection by their former teammates, but they will soon have to face the realities of three straight losses to open the season.
A Balanced Midfield?
With 3 matches already in the book this season, you would be hard pressed to find an Arsenal supporter who is dissatisfied with the performance of 19 year old Matteo Guendouzi. Arguably the Gunners’ best player through the first 2 matches of the season, the former Lorient midfielder was once again handed the start against West Ham alongside Granit Xhaka. In the first half, he played the way fans have come to expect during his brief time in North London, with an infectious exuberance. As the final whistle sounded on Saturday’s matches, Guendouzi was the Premier League’s leader in interceptions.
As good as Guendouzi has been this season, the Gunners arguably achieved a better balance in the midfield after he was withdrawn for fellow new signing Lucas Torreira in the second half. The introduction of a specialist defensive midfielder allowed Granit Xhaka more freedom to push forward, and he was easily the best player on the pitch in the second half. With a midfield trio of Xhaka, Torreira and Aaron Ramsey, the Gunners started to find space to progress through the middle third, and after scoring their second goal to take the lead, the confidence came roaring back into the whole side.
Matteo Guendouzi has already ensured he will be an essential member of the team going forward, but he is not yet capable of controlling the tempo from midfield in quite the same way as his Swiss teammate. The youngster can see and make just about any pass he cares to on the pitch, but it will take time to perfect the subtle strength of Xhaka’s game: the ability to make the right pass in rhythm so that a teammate had a chance to do something with the ball. All signs point to Guendouzi eventually improving that aspect of his game, but for the time being, Emery might have just discovered his most balanced midfield.