It was not the result, or even the continued defensive flimsiness, that proved the most worrying part of Arsenal’s 3-1 defeat at Manchester City. The result was expected and, frankly, so were the defensive wobbles. What was more surprising, and surely more concerning for Unai Emery, was the way that Arsenal’s players became so meek and dispirited when the game started to slip away from them.
Emery often speaks about playing with intensity, about selecting players who have the right mentality. He is not just a technician, but a fighter. He is a fist-pumping, chest-thumping ball of energy on the touchline, where he has been known to celebrate a slide tackle as enthusiastically as a goal.
Those are qualities he has tried to inject into his team since arriving in north London and, by and large, he has been successful in doing so — only the most blinkered Arsenal fans would say there have not been general improvements in the team’s physicality, intensity and fighting spirit since Emery replaced Arsene Wenger.
In the second half against City, though, those attributes deserted so many of Arsenal’s players, who produced a 45-minute showing that was painfully reminiscent of some of those flat performances away from home under Wenger. Heads went down, shoulders slumped, and Arsenal were mentally beaten long before they were actually beaten.
“Our players have mentality but when we are worse than the opposition, we feel that,” Emery said afterwards. “It’s negative on the pitch. We need time to take experience from matches like today.”
It was a revealing admission, and there can be no doubt that Emery will have wanted more psychological resilience as the game entered its closing stages. His claim that Arsenal will gradually learn to toughen up from these experiences, though, seems arguable. By saying that, Emery was suggesting the younger players in his team will learn from this and realise they must be stronger going forward.
But the problem lies not with the younger players, or those who are new to the club. Matteo Guendouzi, still a teenager, was Arsenal’s best player. Lucas Torreira is 22 and he was tireless in midfield. No, the issues were with those who frankly should have known better. Shkodran Mustafi was poor again, and captain Laurent Koscielny offered little by way of defensive steel. Stephan Lichtsteiner, a man signed to add a winner’s mentality to the dressing room, was so busy chasing Raheem Sterling that he barely had time to catch his breath, let alone puff out his chest.
These are experienced players who Emery will expect to be leaders in their own right. The onus is surely on them to set the tone for Arsenal, to galvanise the squad when the going gets tough. Instead it was Guendouzi and Torreira, both in their first season at the club, who led the faltering charge. Sokratis, another new recruit this summer, has also been dominant on that front this season.
This is a sign of good recruitment in the last 12 months, firstly. It also perhaps shows that the scars of the final few years of the Wenger era run deep for those who have been at the club for some time. How can it not? When a group of players is so used to losing away at ‘Big Six’ sides, it must have been hard to shake a feeling of inferiority at the Etihad. But this is what Arsenal must do if they are to end a winless run stretching back more than four years at the homes of the biggest clubs in the league.
Arsenal are in a state of transition under Emery, both in terms of style and in personnel. It is hard to believe, for example, that Mustafi and Koscielny will be starting in this fixture next season. The same can be said for Lichtsteiner and, probably, Nacho Monreal.
Let us not forget that Emery named five “captains” for this season: Koscielny, Petr Cech, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Granit Xhaka were designated as the club’s on-field leaders. Of that quintet, Cech and Ramsey are leaving in the summer, Ozil seems unlikely to ever force his way into Emery’s first-choice side, and Koscielny is no long-term solution. Going forward, this leaves just Xhaka as a regular in Emery’s best team. Arsenal will need new leaders to step up and, on the evidence of Sunday’s weak-willed defeat, the sooner they do so the better.