Arsenal's loss to Manchester City latest reminder for Unai Emery to accelerate player change
Opening defeat only shows new manager must promote players who will help make this his team, writes Richard Jolly
There is a temptation to brand defeats early in a managerial reign as reality checks. It may be truer to say that Unai Emery was not being unrealistic anyway.
When asked if Manchester City’s emphatic win at the Emirates Stadium showed the gulf between Europe’s best and Arsenal, the Spaniard simply replied: “We know this.”
So Sunday’s setback was perhaps not an unwanted revelation as much as an unhappy reminder. The 37-point gap to the champions will not be bridged by a change in the dugout alone.
Arsenal showed increased amounts of effort. They ran 118 kilometres on Sunday, more than any other Premier League side in the opening round of fixtures. It is the sort of statistic more associated with Jurgen Klopp or Mauricio Pochettino’s team than Arsene Wenger’s increasingly slack Arsenal.
Yet it left issues of personnel, structure and innate Arsenalness.
The last was summed up when, before half time in the first fixture, Emery found himself using his fourth-choice left-back, the career right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner.
Injuries have been constants at the Emirates.
The quirks of the players Wenger bequeathed him were exposed by City. Emery would probably prefer 4-2-3-1. He chose a narrow 4-3-3 to congest the centre of the pitch. It gave the defensively suspect pair of Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan the responsibility of shielding the full-backs.
The Armenian left Ainsley Maitland-Niles, the third-choice left-back, isolated and outnumbered. It also raised the question of how much of a pressing game Emery can play when two of his premier attackers are averse to pressing.
The way his summer recruitment drive was concentrated on defensive positions indicated he is under no illusion about where Arsenal’s principal shortcomings lay. Yet he opted for continuity over change in his starting 11.
Perhaps the nature of the opponents convinced him evolution was safer than revolution.
It meant the new goalkeeper Bernd Leno had to watch Petr Cech make a string of saves but also fail to even try to stop Raheem Sterling’s opener.
If loyalty explained the veteran’s selection, it was nevertheless illogical. Emery’s determination to have a footballing goalkeeper is clear, but Cech’s discomfort in possession was still more apparent.
Likewise, Lucas Torreira was imported to provide the defensive midfielder Arsenal have long lacked. While his pre-season was brief, a consequence of Uruguay’s run to the World Cup quarter-finals, meetings with City require a destructive presence in the midfield.
The £26 million (Dh121.8m) man should be fast-tracked into the team against Chelsea on Saturday. It could come at the expense of the ineffectual Granit Xhaka who, like Cech, was rather oddly chosen by Emery as one of his five captains.
It shines a light on another concern: rather than building a side around the senior figures, Arsenal have to consider dropping some.
Jorginho, Keita and Fred: How the Premier League new boys performed on debut
Because Sunday was an example of the problems of continuity.
Arsenal extended their dismal record against the rest of the big six. Since the start of last season, they have taken six points from a possible 33 in their league meetings. City have 27, nine procured at Arsenal’s expense.
There is still a significant difference in their records, both defensive and away, and becoming more dogged and determined, consistent and clinical against the rest would help Arsenal bridge some of the chasm.
Yet were it not so big, Emery would not be employed. Arsenal’s powerbrokers could accept fourth place, 17 points off the pace, but not sixth and 37. Wenger staved off decline and decay, and then they became rampant.
Even an Arsenal board that long seemed content with stasis recognised that and reacted accordingly.
Reality became too clear to ignore last season. It was obvious again on Sunday. If anything, it should persuade Emery to accelerate the change, to promote the players who will help make this his team.
He has enough impediments already as he bids to transform their fortunes without being further hampered by Arsenal’s past or uneasy compromises between old and new.
Updated: August 13, 2018 04:42 PM