Ooh You Are Awful, But I Like You.
Sitting at the Arsenal on Sunday, enduring the almost inevitable sight of Guardiola’s swaggering Man City squad rain on Unai’s opening day parade, I was reminded of that ancient joke about the priest impatiently waiting at the graveside of a funeral, for one of the mourners to share some pleasantries about the deceased, until eventually a voice at the back pipes up: “His brother was worse.”
Frankly our encounter with the title favourites proved to be something of a free pass for our new manager, with the limit of most Gooners’ expectations being our fervent desire to experience a stark contrast between the football of Emery’s Arsenal, compared to the decade-long comfort zone of Arsène’s perennial under-achievers.
I must admit to being disappointed by the sight of Petr Cech leading the Gunners out. Since to my mind Cech remains as a talisman of the old regime and a squad that had become psychologically bereft of that blinkered ‘winning spirit’. Sure we didn’t exactly break the bank to buy Bernd Leno, but why would the Gunners bother blowing the best part of £20m if the German net-minder is no better than the collection of adequate keepers already at the club?
I’d hoped Leno might be immediately installed as our unequivocal No. 1 and that we could avoid the sort of keeper rotation which might continue to hinder the new broom’s prospects of building a stable defensive unit. Perhaps with Guendouzi and Sokratis both making their debuts and with us being deprived of a recognised left-back, Emery felt it was safer to opt for experience, instead of sweeping away all that had gone before him?
Yet Sunday’s most blatant stumbling block in Emery’s efforts to mould an Arsenal team in his image was Cech’s apparent discomfort with the ball at his feet. In attempting to teach this old dog a new trick, it appeared as if Petr had been threatened with a severe fine for each and every long ball, such was our keeper’s insistence on risking repeated calamities, rather than simply playing himself out of trouble by hoofing it downfield.
However Rome wasn’t built in a day and aside from reinforcing the relative gulf in class and comparative squad depths, this 0-2 defeat to the champions only served to demonstrate the size of the task at hand for Emery, in transforming the culture that’s existed at the Arsenal for nearly a quarter of a century.
The big question is whether our fickle home fans and the many millions of social media numpties are willing to cut Emery some slack and afford him the time necessary to effect such a significant transformation?
I feared the worst when Maitland-Niles limped off and the 34-year-old Lichtsteiner was left to contain the pace of Mahrez and Walker for the remaining hour, with our aged Swiss debutant seemingly having a stick of Toblerone for a left leg. Despite my suspicion that City were able to coast after taking the lead and with the likes of De Bruyne and Sané on the bench, there was at least some solace that this more competitive encounter was so far removed from last season’s humiliation.
With both City and Liverpool looking so strong on paper, it’s hard to envisage us competing with the bookies’ favourites and it will be our results against the likes of Chelsea, Spurs, and Manchester United by which project Emery will be measured. So next Saturday’s outing at Stamford Bridge is likely to prove far more of a litmus test of whether we have genuine top-four credentials.
Considering we might’ve suffered seeing all our pre-season optimism extinguished by a far more embarrassing scoreline on Sunday, I much prefer to focus on the positives and quite how refreshing it was to witness an Arsenal manager actually coaching from the touchline and who, in complete contrast to his predecessor, is seemingly able to have some impact upon his team at half-time.
Not to mention how unaccustomed we’ve been to seeing a team selection that’s designed to counter the opposition’s strengths (and take advantage of any weaknesses?).
Both Guendouzi and Torreira appear capable of contributing to a braver, more determined looking Arsenal side and so long as Unai’s touchline exhortations can continue to encourage more consistent and more competitive performances, I for one will be satisfied with Unai achieving such baby steps.