There is no sense in sugar coating it. While optimistic is hardly a word most fans would have used to describe their mentality heading into back to back difficult matches against top 6 rivals to open the season, it is hard to imagine a worse start to Unai Emery’s Arsenal career than 2 consecutive losses. After falling 3-2 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, that is exactly where the Gunners find themselves. Yet Emery remains calm in spite of this start and noted that there were positives to take away from the game in his post-match press conference. A positive attitude from the head coach alone is not enough to force an immediate turnaround, but his players did manage to create far more chances than against Manchester City a week prior. A lot of work now remains for Arsenal to claw back their 6 point deficit, but as ever, Emery is focused on moving forward and making improvements on the training pitch.
Way Off The Mark
It is hard enough to beat one of the best clubs in the country, let alone all of football when your team is firing on all cylinders, but the task becomes next to impossible when you aren’t finishing your clear-cut chances. So it was for Arsenal against Chelsea on Saturday, as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan missed two sitters that could have seen the Gunners pull well out in front before the break.
Before the season started, it would have been hard to find a fan of the Premier League that didn’t hold the Arsenal attack in high regard, yet so far they have been struggling mightily for goals. However, it is not yet time to panic in North London. Aubameyang is one of the best strikers in the world, and his scoring touch will come around. Players are tensed from a summer of change and of increased competition, still unsure how they will fit into their new manager’s plans. Once these players settle into their new system and become comfortable with their role in the team, the goals will come.
Midfield Balance Still An Issue
Matteo Guendouzi continues to defy his age. The 19-year-old has been passionate, energetic and impressive in his first 2 starts in an Arsenal shirt, but the midfield as a unit is still struggling for cohesion. Many fans were excited to see Granit Xhaka subbed off at halftime for Lucas Torreira, but the results were hardly as expected. While Torreira possesses far superior mobility to his Swiss teammate, he was clearly uncomfortable and thinking far too much against Chelsea, robbing him of the instinctual ability that makes him such an effective player. He is also not nearly the midfield controller that Xhaka is, and the Gunners lost all semblance of midfield dominance after the break.
This dip in the second half was not all down to Torreira, as the energetic press of the first half quieted down as the players tired. Chelsea also placed a clear emphasis on retaining the ball to take the sting out of Arsenal’s momentum from the first half which saw them battle back from down 2 to tie the score.
It is clear that Unai Emery still has not discovered his winning combination in midfield. Aaron Ramsey was left out of the starting XI against Chelsea, leaving Emery to adopt a more straightforward 4-2-3-1 shape with Xhaka and Guendouzi at the double pivot. Alex Iwobi’s introduction to the starting XI sent Henrikh Mkhitaryan to the right and allowed Mesut Ozil to take up more of a pure number 10 role. The resulting team was hopelessly overrun in the midfield and provided next to no service to the front. Whether Emery shuffles his starters, or perhaps even switches to a true midfield 3, central midfield is perhaps the single most pressing need facing the new coach.
It’s A Trap!
Pep Guardiola and Maurizio Sarri do not just hold a personal friendship and mutual respect for each other, but they are also connected by their kindred football philosophies. No manager is better at coaching the suppression of an opponent’s space than Guardiola, and Sarri’s Chelsea appear on their way to being a similar challenge. Like Manchester City did a week earlier, Chelsea took advantage of Unai Emery’s core principles being in their infant stages at Arsenal to trap the Gunners in their own half of the pitch for much of their possession. When they did manage to get into the Chelsea half, the middle of the pitch swarmed with blue shirts, forcing the ball wide and away from dangerous areas.
Playing out from the back did, at times, exacerbate this even further, but there has been clear progress on that front, particularly for the second goal which saw the Gunner knot the score before the half. Yet on balance, their unfamiliarity with the concept, particularly with an ageing goalkeeper who has not had to do so much with the ball at his feet throughout his career, was laid bare for all to see. It is a work in progress that was sure to experience difficulties against two exceptionally talented teams, but one that does show signs of positivity going forward.
Hard Work Yet To Pay Off For Ozil
Of all the players on the pitch at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, no player is as hard to grade as Mesut Ozil. Going by the usual metrics as use to judge the best creators in the world, his game was an abject failure. However, to simply end the analysis there and blame the player himself for this would be premature.
Typically, when the German playmaker is having a bad game, you know it. He walks around after losing the ball, his body language telegraphing his frustration to the cameras. However, this was not the case on Saturday. Ozil was constantly moving to press Maurizio Sarri’s midfield talisman Jorginho, and the results were actually quite good. His head rarely dropped when the ball was still in play, instead focusing on his position and closing down space.
While Ozil’s attacking and passing numbers make for painful reading, he was scarcely given the opportunity to get on the ball in dangerous areas throughout the entire match. Partly this is due to Chelsea mimicking Manchester City’s success forcing our possession out to the sidelines, but equally, it tells of a lack of cohesion throughout the side when on the ball. The demands of Emery’s system are so different to that of Arsene Wenger, players will need to get used to new patterns of play and teammate positioning. Time and practise should help make the whole process smoother, and for a player with Mesut Ozil’s incredible football brain, magic will come again.
A Steep Hill To Climb
In complete fairness to Unai Emery, it is hard to imagine a more difficult start to life in England thanks to back to back matches with each of the previous Premier League Champions. However, this does not change the 6 point gap that has already crept between the Gunners and the top of the table after 2 matches. Mercifully for the Basque coach and his adapting squad, opportunity for a run of positive results exists in their next 8 matches until Liverpool at the beginning of November.
A run of at least 20 of a possible 24 points from those matches should see Arsenal creep back up the table towards top 4 contention. While Brighton’s dismantling of a hapless Manchester United side on Sunday drove home the point that there are no easy matches in the Premier League, the Gunners are simply too good, and Emery too capable a head coach, to not respond to this early season turbulence. Next up is West Ham and the return of Jack Wilshere to the Emirates Stadium, an occasion that is sure to be emotional both for the return of a beloved former player and for the matches importance to a season that could fly off the rails without the proper response to a torrid start.