By Chris Hatherall
The scoreline suggests that nothing has changed as Manchester City cruised to another victory at the Emirates against an Arsenal side which displayed familiar flaws; so fans in north London will have to look pretty deep to find some straws to cling on to.
It was always going to be the toughest possible test of a new era for the Gunners and you can imagine that manager Unai Emery must have internally grimaced when the fixture list was first announced. The last thing you need when trying to introduce a new style and mentality into a team which has played the same way for more than 20 years is to face the champions first game up.
The history books suggest that replacing a managerial legend is often a thankless task, too. Ask those who have followed close in the footsteps of Sir Alex Ferguson, Kenny Dalglish, Brian Clough or Sir Alf Ramsey and you’ll hear similar memories.
David Moyes’ woeful spell at Old Trafford is the most recent example and it wouldn’t be churlish to suggest that Manchester United are still not fully recovered from Fergie’s departure despite the appointment of someone as experienced as Jose Mourinho.
Emery has done his best to stamp his own mark on Arsene Wenger’s squad and you could see glimpses of it here. He wants his team to work harder off the ball, to press more intensely, to win more tackles and to counter-attack at greater speed.
For the first 15 or 20 minutes doing any of that was virtually impossible because City were so good, so fluid and so full of quality. At times they embarrassed Arsenal and deservedly went in front through Raheem Sterling. But the longer the game went on, the more we saw of the new Arsenal and the more the Emirates crowd at least found their voice.
City were still the better side, always likely to find a second – which they did eventually – but there were also some positives for Arsenal, which couldn’t have been foreseen after 20 minutes.
Midfielder Mattéo Guendouzi, signed from Lorient in France, typified a new aspect of Arsenal’s play which was refreshing; desperate to get on the ball, full of enthusiasm and willing to give everything. He made mistakes, including one terrible one which allowed Sergio Aguero a clear run on goal, but you sense he will become a crowd favourite very quickly with his attitude and willingness to work.
New signing Stephan LIchsteiner brought experience when he came on the pitch in defence, while defensive midfielder Torreira looked promising when he arrived in the second half - when Lacazette also made a big difference.
These were only small moments of encouragement but there was a greater desire from the home team to press high up the field and win the ball back in dangerous areas – which they did so with increasing regularly in the final 15 minutes when City goalkeeper Ederson was forced into a series of mistakes.
At the other end, Emery wants his team to play out from the back in the same way that City do and his team stuck with it. At times it was painful as they struggled to break through City’s press, but they persevered and you have to say that most opponents won’t press with the same intensity and quality as the champions.
For goalkeeper Petr Cech it was a new challenge, and certainly passing from the back is not his strength. But he sees potential in the team and the system.
“I thought we did pretty well and it’s a shame we couldn’t finish some of the half-chances on the counter-attack,” he said.
“We’re disappointed with that but it was our first game with the new manager and a new way of playing – and I think it’s going to help us to grow.
“I enjoy it. I’ve played under different managers and different styles but normally I’ve been encouraged to hit it long. This is a pleasant change for me. It’s good, though, because we want to be the team which dominates games through possession.
“Of course, City are very used to playing a high press and they did it well. But I think we did pretty well too.”
That’s about as positive as Arsenal can get because once City scored a second they cruised to what was, in reality, a comfortable victory which suggests they will be big favourites to defend their title.
What is clear is that there’s a long way to go for Emery’s side and the fixtures don’t get much easier - it’s Chelsea away next weekend.