By Bernard Azulay
With football’s powers that be seemingly intent on garroting their golden goose, with increasingly relentless, wall-to-wall live TV coverage, it's somewhat of a relief that unlike our disappointingly underwhelming midweek cup win, an Arsenal v Liverpool Premiership outing, under the floodlights, remains a sufficiently portentous encounter to set Gooner pulses racing and pack out the Emirates.
Our 13 match undefeated run since that pair of not unexpected opening defeats has certainly ensured that Unai’s stock has risen. Yet the modest-calibre opposition left everyone eagerly anticipating Saturday’s duel with Klopp’s front-runners, as the first realistic litmus test of our current aspirations.
It wasn’t merely the terrifying prospect of our stand-in defenders being left for dead by Liverpool’s searing pace on the break, but the fact that our injury woes at full-back had deprived the Gunners of much of our own attacking thrust down the flanks in recent matches.
Emery’s bizarre (Manuel from Fawlty Towers?) interpretation of the English language might be no more intelligible, but there’s certainly no mistaking the fervour of a man who’s touchline antics leave Klopp looking more Trip Hop than Heavy Metal. After two decades of Arsène’s “Zen and the art of football maintenance” it’s such a refreshing change from his managerial sang-froid, to see Unai dancing around his technical area for the entire 90, kicking every ball.
More importantly, on Saturday Emery’s passion was made manifest out on the park. In the majority of games the Gunners have been found wanting for intensity in the first-half and it’s taken until after the break, or to go a goal behind, for us to begin to find our groove. But it was perhaps indicative of the significance of this game that we had our foot to the floor, right from the opening whistle.
Under our new, management by committee model, in complete contrast to the Wenger dynasty, our new coach would appear to have both the time and the (somewhat less arrogant?) inclination to adapt his tactics according to the opposition’s specific strengths and weaknesses. This was immediately apparent in Aubameyang’s instructions to take on Alexander-Arnold at every opportunity.
It was more than a little unnerving that Liverpool were able to open us up, far too frequently, with a simple ball over the top and perhaps we were a little fortunate with the offside flag, which denied Liverpool a halftime lead. Nevertheless, we’re so accustomed to defensive lapses that it felt like a foothold to be honours even at the break. We might’ve blinked first with Milner’s goal on the hour mark, but where in the past this might’ve caused us to throw the kitchen sink at securing an equaliser, only to be carved open on the counter, Emery’s Arsenal appear so much more resilient.
According to the stats, even Xhaka achieved one of his most impressive all-round performances to date. Perhaps Granit is thriving on the serious competition for his midfield berth? Or could it be the unstinting tenaciousness of our Uruguayan pocket-rocket that’s proving infectious? It’s said that the best things come in small packages and Torreira is fast proving himself to be a revelation, blessed with just the sort of wholehearted attitude that we’ve been crying out for, for far too long. With our defence far less likely to be exposed so frequently behind this more effective screen, they might even begin to acquire some composure?
The importance of being able to state our claim as genuine top four contenders was evident in the explosion of unbridled elation that greeted Lacazette’s equaliser when it eventually came, the like of which I’ve not experienced at our place for a long time. I was swallowed up by bearhugs from the blokes who’ve sat behind me since the stadium opened a dozen years ago, without previously ever passing the time of day.
It’s only the beginning of the Emery adventure, but after suffering the constant accusations about the Arsenal’s lack of character for so many seasons, I’ll gladly settle for this welcome glimpse of our cojones.