Our opening two fixtures were not exactly great for the development of Unai Emery’s new regime.
Our first game saw us pitted against the Champions. This Manchester City team are pretty much unrivalled on the domestic scene, so any pointers would be hard to come by to gauge how much work Emery still had on his plate.
A comprehensive 2-0 win for Pep’s side was the fare served up at The Emirates, but there were a few shining lights amid the gloom of realism.
It is hard to swallow how much of a gap has developed between us and the standard required for lifting the league title, and City have taken that yardstick and ran with it. Despite this, we saw a debut from French youngster Matteo Guendouzi that showed his pre-season showings were the real deal.
The kid bought from Lorient was constantly hungry for the ball, despite the constant harassment from the City midfield. His range of passing is excellent, and he seems to be the box-to-box midfielder we have craved for some time – although it is early days.
It was clear that Guendouzi needed to start in the next game – away to Chelsea.
This match represented a real barometer for our side – and for Emery’s progress. Chelsea also had a new boss in Maurizio Sarri, and are a few rungs below City, which means they are within our reach.
The game was the literal embodiment of the old adage, ‘a game of two halves.’ The first half was gung-ho, an advertisement of all that makes the Premier League so entertaining. The second half was a dud, especially if you’re a Gooner.
Emery is attempting to instill a new method, new processes, new tactics into Arsenal. After years of the same menu, players are now being asked completely new things – and change, profound change, takes time.
So, is it fair to judge after this game? If we inspect the game, then the answers become apparent.
Our new Spanish coach is a big fan of instigating plays from deep. From Cech – or Leno – to our defence, our deep midfielders, through to our two-layer attack. Movement is the oil in this particular engine, and if the right runs are made, then this tidal wave is hard to combat.
We saw this in our second goal, scored by Alex Iwobi. The move began from Cech, and involved ten of our eleven players. It was free-flowing and seemed improvised, but this was the product of intense training – something that players have already touched upon when asked about their season preparations.
It was great to see this come off, but we will suffer teething problems with this tactic. Starting from the back requires ball-playing defenders, and in Mustafi and Sokratis, we have some work to do.
Mustafi gets a lot of stick as his mistakes are normally rather high profile – the perfect evidence of this was his weak attempt to stop Alvaro Morata in his tracks before the Spaniard cut inside and fired their second goal.
However, his reactions are sharp, his tackling is normally rather good, and his strength in the air is more than good enough. If his decision-making was as good we wouldn’t have a dilemma, but it isn’t, and it’s the reason why the German suffers.
Then we have Sokratis. In all defensive attributes, he is more than adequate, and the ball may go past him, or the man – but never both. However, he looks like he has the pace of a glacier despite training showing he is one of our fastest, and so needs a rapid partner to mop up.
Also, both aren’t the greatest at passing out from the back – which is why this may become a real issue until December.
The first half saw us concede two, but we created a bagful of chances that on a normal day, our cutting-edge attack would put away. Our profligacy though, saw us waste the chance to go in leading at half time.
Emery is a contrasting figure from Wenger, and his half-time subbing of the ineffective Granit Xhaka was something we never saw from our former manager. The Swiss midfielder is another who gets the stick rather than the carrot from our fanbase, and Lucas Torreira replaced him.
Was he ineffective though? With Emery looking for the team to attack as one, Xhaka is integral, and why he continues to get chosen. Xhaka and his passing – still amongst the best in the League – is the link we require, and the perfect proof of this was our mystifying second half.
If the first half was steak, then the second half was a spam fritter.
We didn’t take the game to Chelsea, confident in the knowledge we could cut them in half when we wanted to. No, instead we soaked up pressure and wilted. We willed them to attack us, and when moves broke down, there was no more playing out from the back – because we had no one to light the flame. Guendouzi was again industrious, but Torreira is a conventional defensive type. With Ozil also off, we were the magician that had cut our assistant in half – but couldn’t remember how to put the two together.
Xhaka forgets to track runners, he rarely shows the endeavour to tackle, but when it comes to seamlessly knitting our play together, he is vital to our cause – and even more so now that Emery wants our eleven to act as a hive unit when in possession.
We left empty handed from the Bridge, but it was us shooting ourselves in the foot rather than being outgunned. We went to Chelsea and carved them open repeatedly in Emery’s second game.
Our defence though, were being opened up by simple balls over the top. Emery’s insistence on playing the highest line may work when we have all of our ducks in a row, but at the moment it is like a TK Maxx half price sale. It is unorganised, it is chaotic.
Our display – even in defence – will be enough against the majority of teams in the league. Throw in an acclimatised, battle-hardened Torreira and a more physical Guendouzi and we have a midfield ready to cover gaps and a defence with more Emery hours under their belts.
A lot of our issues will be resolved with a simple remedy of practice hours with Emery and his team of coaches. Practice makes perfect, and after ten games, we will have a far better idea of what makes the cut, and what needs lancing.
Two games, zero points. It wasn’t a good start, but Emery won’t be too concerned, after seeing his ideas start to bud.
We shouldn’t be either.