ARSENAL’S 3-2 DEFEAT by Chelsea today meant that Unai Emery became the first Gunners boss since caretaker manager Steve Burtenshaw in 1986 to lose his first two games in charge.
It is hardly justifiable, however, to use that stat as a stick to beat Emery with.
After all, even if Arsene Wenger was still in charge, it’s doubtful the situation would be much different, as Arsenal have had the misfortune of coming up against the last two Premier League winners in their opening fixtures.
Yet the signs are less than promising early on. Emery clearly has a very specific vision of what he wants from the team, but whether he has the players to implement this strategy is another matter.
In their opener against City, the team’s flaws were conspicuous. Petr Cech was clearly uncomfortable playing out from the back, almost passing the ball into the net at one point.
And the pressing philosophy Emery preaches is undermined by the problem that the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil feature in the starting XI — players known more for their technical prowess than their work off the ball.
Meanwhile, some of the Gunners’ defensive lapses today were reminiscent of the worst excesses of the Wenger era.
Despite the disappointing outcome though, Emery was remaining relatively upbeat afterwards and sounded optimistic in his belief that the players would eventually adapt to the former PSG coach’s ways.
“It is clear the result is not good for us but the process is continuing,” he told BBC Sport. “Today, one thing in the first half is the reaction after 2-0, and also the efficiency. We had chances to more score in the first half.
“I think we need to control the second half like we want, but we didn’t play like the first half and our chances were less.
“We need to continue working for what we want, our process. Today we had two midfielders – one 19 and one 21 years old. We need to give them the confidence to play but our way, our process, is to improve and give these chances to the young players. I think today will prepare us well for the next matches.”
Speaking ahead of the new season, ex-Man United defender and Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville suggested Emery would likely need “three or four” transfer windows to turn things around at the club.
Some critics will consequently insist Emery requires patience, and while that is not an unfair suggestion, is it a realistic one?
David Moyes didn’t get three or four transfer windows to turn things around at Man United. Antonio Conte barely got that amount at Chelsea, and he delivered the league title in his first season with the Stamford Bridge outfit.
Arsenal will point to their track record of patience with plenty of justification — after all, Wenger spent 22 years at the club.
But sceptics will feel that the Frenchman was one of the last members of a dying footballing breed — the manager with complete autonomy over the affairs of a club.
As Jose Mourinho recently suggested, ‘head coaches’ rather than ‘managers’ are the new norm — even Pep Guradiola is expected to work alongside figures such as Txiki Begiristain at City.
Emery must overcome these various obstacles if he is to survive at Arsenal, but it’s unlikely that he will be indulged to the extent that Wenger often was.
You would expect that anything less than top six at a minimum would lead to some people angrily calling for his resignation.
Indeed, should the problems persist, Wenger’s reign may be viewed in a whole new light. There is a school of thought among certain critics that the Frenchman’s feats were underappreciated. Competing with the big-spending likes of Chelsea and Man City over the years was always a tough ask. Eden Hazard, who made the difference after coming on today, is the type of player the Arsenal of recent times could hardly have hoped to attract. Instead, they have largely had to rely on individuals deemed not quite good enough for Europe’s elite — the Ozils and Aubameyangs.
Moreover, for so long, with the move to the Emirates Stadium a priority, Wenger was forced to trust in youth a great deal, in a situation similar to the one facing Mauricio Pochettino and Tottenham currently.
For the French boss to have achieved consistent Champions League qualification for much of this difficult period was perhaps a little overlooked at the time by those supporters and critics who could not fathom the club’s inability to restore the glory years of the late ’90s and early ’00s.
Yet provided they don’t unexpectedly triumph, the end of this season will mark 15 years since Arsenal last lifted the title. Fans need to accept that it is no longer realistic to think of the side as viable contenders. Simply reversing the current downward trajectory and getting the club back into the Champions League on a regular basis would represent a major achievement for Emery and his coaching staff. It is only if/when that happens that they can begin to think about challenging sides of the calibre of City again in the coming years.
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