Tuesday 18 December 2018

Lame defeat shows little evidence of new start for Gunners

Unai Emery gives some instructions to Mesut Ozil. Photo: Glyn Kirk / AFP
Unai Emery gives some instructions to Mesut Ozil. Photo: Glyn Kirk / AFP

Paul Hayward

It was not Arsene Wenger's throne Unai Emery inherited; it was his players. The shadow cast over Arsenal's new manager is not a 22-year reign so much as a decade of poor recruitment that could take many seasons to correct.

Wenger is already in the hall of fame here, but such is the fixation with managers that we obsessed over Emery taking over as if it were mainly a change of personalities, of leaders.

That part was a sideshow to the greater issue of squad reconstruction.

Only the shallowest observer would make any definitive judgment on Emery on the back of an opening day defeat that was entirely true to form.

It did, however, drag the mind round to Arsenal's real task: improving the quality of the roster, as the club's owner, Stan Kroenke, might call it.

In that department, Arsenal are a good bet not to return to the Champions League spots.

Emery's introduction to the Premier League was suitably pointed: a post-match handshake with Pep Guardiola after a 2-0 home defeat to a side who finished last season with 37 more points.

Bright

Thus the new man in charge was treated to an immediate look at the cliff he needs to climb, as City won this game without having to bust a gut.

"Look on the bright side," one Arsenal fan remarked as he left the building. "We only have to play them (City) once this season now."

Self-deprecation is going to come in handy as Emery goes about the business of lifting the Gunners from last season's nadir, when they conceded 51 league goals (the most since 1983-84), recorded their worst finishing position (sixth) since 1995 and won only 19 matches in the competition.

Regression was undeniable. Deep flaws could no longer be concealed by Wenger's aura as the field marshal who would never fall.

This group of players had become unaccountable, soft and too easy to score against.

The conceit was to think Arsenal could solve all this in six months by hiring the right replacement for Wenger. There is a lot more to it than that.

Emery falls into that category of intense, meticulous technocrats.

Already he is a lot more animated on the touchline than Wenger, who preferred not to micro-coach during games.

He trusted players to solve their own problems and made only occasional visits to the coaching zone.

In his later years, it was often to throw his arms in the air. In his seat, we remember him head-down, with elbows on knees, exasperated.

Emery wants to inject energy into these players and is more interventionist.

Like all good coaches, he has set out how he wants Arsenal to play: broadly, 4-2-3-1, with a higher work-rate and a far better defensive structure than we saw in Wenger's last five years.

In pre-season, Emery spoke of a "new way" without advancing much beyond that abstraction.

Why? Because he has no single revolutionary idea (which is fair enough), only a highly rational urge to make all the parts of a well-designed team work properly and get the best from individuals.

The doubters might care to remember that no coach wins three consecutive Europa League titles, as Emery did with Sevilla, without a highly developed sense of good football management.

There should be a law against jumping to conclusions in August, when new signings might not be in the starting XI and players are often returning from tournaments.

The teams we see now are not the ones that will be battling it out from autumn onwards.

Three players who will probably end up being starters for Emery started against City on the bench: Lucas Torreira, Stephan Lichtsteiner (who both came on) and Bernd Leno, the new goalkeeper.

Sokratis, the centre-back, did receive the summons on day one, along with 19-year-old Matteo Guendouzi, who understandably endured a difficult afternoon against City's symphonic midfield.

Judgments on these new players will take weeks or months to form, but we know plenty about those Wenger left behind, like old furniture in a deserted mansion.

First, the star of the team, Mesut Ozil, is beyond persuading that his game should be high-intensity pressing and ball retrieval.

Ozil is too set in his ways to change now and would argue that scurrying should not be his role.

Beyond the never-ending Ozil debate, there are still too many non-top-four quality players in Emery's squad, from Shkodran Mustafi to Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny.

Prolific

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is a prolific striker who Emery can build his attack around, but the new manager will need more from Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Ozil.

He also needs a stellar season from Aaron Ramsey.

Torreira, meanwhile, looks a fair bet to add more steel and industry in deep midfield.

One Wenger banner survived. "Football should be an art," it read, in quotation marks, alongside an image of the fallen statesman.

Well, yes, but you also need your artisans.

Arsenal need more tenacity, a plan, an animating spirit. There can be no hiding place for the 'creatives' now that Wenger's loyalty to them has been removed.

Meet the new boss. Not the same as the old boss, but with familiar problems, which have been handed on.

At least change has finally begun. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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