With the Premier League now very much back underway, fans, journalists and pundits alike have been offering their opinion on how they think the 2018/19 season will pan out. Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham have all carried last season’s form through to this year. Chelsea also seem to have warmed to Maurizio Sarri’s new style.
On the flip-side, Mourinho’s United side have seemed awkward, and Arsenal, as the majority have been saying, look like a side still under Wenger’s control. It is Arsenal’s performances in the first two match days that have been the focus of criticism and this animosity towards Emery’s side has only grown since the 3-2 defeat to Chelsea on Saturday evening.
This negativity towards the club seems somewhat misplaced given that he is only 3 months into his tenure at a club that has had the same manager for 22 years. Petr Cech has been battered on all forms of social media for his inability to pass out from the back, and the infamous Claude from Arsenal Fan TV believes that absolutely nothing has changed since last season.
New signing Matteo Guendouzi has been called ‘shaky’, and club-record signing Aubameyang hasn’t lit up the league like he did after arriving in the January transfer window. The Arsenal ‘faithful’ somewhat underlined their disappointment with the match against Manchester City, with pictures showing the Emirates not even a third full with 10 minutes still to play.
Despite all the flak taken by the squad and manager, there is certainly cause for optimism for the Arsenal fans. Against Manchester City for example, it was clear that Unai Emery had set out his starting 11 with a plan. Cech started in goal and new signing Sokratis Papastathopoulous lined up alongside Shkodran Mustafi, Maitland-Niles and Hector Bellerin in the back 4. In front of them was Guendouzi, Xhaka and Ozil, with Aubameyang, Mhkitaryan and, much to everyone’s surprise, Aaron Ramsey occupying positions further up the field.
Emery clearly identified the centre as the most dangerous cog in the Man City machine and set out to nullify that threat by keeping his players narrow. Of course, as we all saw, this gave licence to Sterling and Mahrez who were ably backed up by Walker and Mendy on marauding overlaps. This it seems is where Guardiola out-thought the Basque manager.
Much of last season, the City fullbacks rarely joined in the attacks, as highlighted by Gareth Southgate who deployed Kyle Walker as a centre back for the World Cup Campaign. However, on Sunday, Arsenal’s defenders were often caught 1v1 and 1v2 due to the narrowness of the line-up.
Now this may seem like poor planning from Emery, but it is a far cry away from Wenger’s Arsenal, who often seemed to have no plan to mitigate the strengths of big teams. There was also an increased intensity in the Arsenal ranks, with Aaron Ramsey often leading the press on the City defenders and backline.
For all his supposed shakiness, Guendouzi recovered the ball for Arsenal in potentially hazardous positions for the Gunners’ defence and then set about creating an attack – he actually intercepted a pass in the middle of the pitch which led to Lacazette nearly scoring. Lichsteiner instantly brought some composure to the back four, and Aguero, by Aguero’s standards, was kept relatively quiet by Sokratis. Bellerin also showed signs in the second half that he does possess some defensive attributes, something which went missing so often last season.
Against Chelsea, Arsenal clearly set out to play with a high line to mitigate the space of the Sarri’s Chelsea. Again, the system and Emery’s tactics were criticised. Too often Willian and Pedro found space inside the full backs which allowed them to exploit the press with relative ease and there was acres in behind for Morata and the widemen. However, it must be said that these kinks are to be expected of a team in such a transitional period. Emery has brought new training methods and coaching staff, whilst his players are probably having more asked of them with regards to tactical roles. It will take time to impose this new direction.
There were positives to take away again however. Arsenal showed that they can create chances with threatening regularity against bigger teams. Monreal, Iwobi, Bellerin and Mkhitaryan all managed to get to the by-line and create clear chances for their teammates, with the latter showing glimpses of the form he had when he reached British shores in 2016. The Arsenal team also showed in the second half that they can defend deep and restrict the opposition’s opportunities. It was only a defensive lapse in concentration that consigned the Gunners to defeat, and management and fans alike would have been disappointed coming away from Stamford Bridge empty handed.
That being said, there is no denying that Emery still has a way to go before moulding his Arsenal XI into his image. Xhaka seems too immobile for the rigours of the Premier League, Cech appears slightly awkward with his new ball-playing role and the whole squad needs time to adapt to his system. In fact, Emery is still probably trying to work out his best starting XI. One would expect Lucas Torreira, fresh from the Serie A, to be a starter for most games of this season, due to the guile and tenacity he can offer in the middle of the park. The same can be said for Lacazette, who’s intelligence as a striker seems to have been overlooked by Emery in favour of Mkhitaryan’s potential creativity. Nevertheless, the pessimism of the Arsenal fans should be put aside for now. Even Guardiola needed a season to perfect his record-breaking side.