You have to feel a little sorry for new Arsenal coach Unai Emery following Sunday’s 2-0 defeat to Manchester City. His first official match in charge of the Gunners was always going to be tricky, the comparisons to Arsene Wenger, the legend Emery replaced in May after 22 years in North London, inevitable and unending.
What the Spaniard really didn’t need when the fixture list was announced three weeks after he took the job was to draw the record-smashing defending Premier League champions in his debut.
The Spaniard must have wondered what football god he had crossed. Seriously, could he not have gotten Newcastle or Everton if not Brighton or Fulham?
Facing City was the nightmare scenario. In case you forgot, Pep Guardiola’s side set new standards for points, goals, goal difference, wins, consecutive wins, passes and average possession last season en route to their third title in seven years.
So Emery basically came into his very first match expected to lose. It didn’t matter that the game was at home. Actually, playing at the Emirates Stadium only upped the pressure on Emery to earn a share of the spoils and kick off the post-Wenger era with some badly needed good vibes.
It couldn’t have gone much worse. From start to finish on Sunday, Emery’s Gunners looked an awful lot like the Arsenal teams their fans had grown so dissatisfied with in Wenger’s final years. Even with a new boss manning the sideline, the gulf in class between them and England’s best was big as ever and easy for all to see.
City’s quality gave Emery two pregame options, neither of them good. He could try to win over the home supporters early by going toe-to-toe with City at the risk getting exposed defensively by a superior lineup. Or, he could opt for a more conservative approach in an effort to keep the game close, perhaps turning off the fans he so badly needs to win over.
The reality once the whistle blew was a team toggling between being on the back foot and holding on for dear life.
Just about the entire match was played on City’s terms. Even without several regulars, the Sky Blues pinned the hosts in their own end for long stretches. Arsenal forays up the field were few and far between, and came off transition plays. Defensively they had no answers for wingers Riyad Mahrez or Raheem Sterling. It was Sterling, so often accused of not being able to finish, who put the guests ahead for good with a right-footed just 14 minutes in:
City in midseason form might have added another couple goals before halftime. But Guardiola’s men were in full control even with a one-goal lead. It took all the way until the 64th minute before Bernardo Silva doubled the advantage, but the outcome was really never in doubt.
Again, three points for City was always the most likely result. Then again, even Guardiola might not have expected such utter dominance. They team outshot Emery’s 17-9, including an 8-3 advantage on goal, and enjoyed almost 60 percent of the ball.
What’s most concerning from Arsenal’s point of view wasn’t even their overall sloppiness. Gunners keeper Petr Cech and his back line had a devil of a time playing out of pressure. A particularly egregious first-half turnover by midfielder Granit Xhaka somehow didn’t lead to a goal. But while rustiness is forgivable early in the season, especially for an established team learning a new system under a new manager, lack of urgency isn’t.
Wenger was let go in part to change the atmosphere around Arsenal, which after two fantastically successful decades had become stale. Emery was supposed to be a breath of fresh air. Yet there was an unmistakable lack of fire from the Gunners on Sunday, which isn’t what one would expect from a team playing its season opener at home under a brand new boss, no matter how good the foe.
It’s only one game, of course. And it was always going to be tricky. But the lackluster performance also makes one realize that this particular Arsenal squad – one that’s basically the same as last year’s — might have far deeper structural issues independent of who is the dugout. It might be the case that changing the culture around Arsenal will be a longer-term endeavor than many supporters bargained for, even with Wenger out.
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