It was never going to be a straightforward start for Unai Emery at Arsenal.
An opening-weekend defeat to Premier League holders Manchester City followed by a trip to Stamford Bridge amounted in a baptism by fire for the Spaniard. Two losses from two matches, and if Saturday’s visit from West Ham was supposed to be a more facile proposition, Manuel Pellegrini’s charges did Emery no favors.
Third in league away victories at the Emirates behind Manchester United and Liverpool, the Hammers made the short trip to north London with a game plan that spoke to an astute observation of Arsenal’s two opening fixtures. An own goal paired with strikes from Nacho Monreal and Danny Welbeck would be enough to see out Emery’s first victory at Arsenal.
After years of disappointments at Arsenal tethered to the absence of a coherent approach, it’s vital that Emery stays the course, regardless of early season results.
Like with Jurgen Klopp’s early days at Liverpool, an overhaul of footballing ethos demands the necessary parts, and after three league affairs, it’s painfully apparent that Emery does not have them.
Center-halves Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis appear to be a short-term solution for a dearth of fit first-team central defenders, and with the tandem displaying the acceleration of a cargo ship, it was far too easy for West Ham to bypass Arsenal’s backline. The Gunners played directly into their opponent’s hands.
Full-backs Monreal and early season doormat Hector Bellerin surged forward at will as creative fulcrums Aaron Ramsey and Henrikh Mkhitaryan sought out central avenues. Nowhere was that more evident than on Monreal’s equalizer, when Bellerin’s run to the endline and subsequent flash across goal found his countryman unmarked at the far post. Looks good when it works, but when Bellerin lost possession in an advanced role midway through the opening half, Arsenal were a discombobulated unit that could be beaten with little effort on the counterattack. Petr Cech routinely bailed the club out, as did some chiefly limp endeavors on target from goal-scorer Marko Arnautovic, Felipe Anderson, and Robert Snodgrass.
Level at the break, Arsenal came out for the second half more fluid in attack, and in controlling the brunt of possession, limited West Ham’s ability to get forward. The Hammers had their chances, and before Welbeck cemented the result with an added-time tally to make it 3-1, Pellegrini’s side looked a threat to equalize. A more clinical team may have snatched a result.
In terms of positives, a discerning eye will notice many. Emery once again showed a knack for making the in-game adjustments that his predecessor Arsene Wenger avoided. Through three matches, club cornerstones the ilk of Mesut Ozil and Ramsey have been brought off when ineffective, and with two decades and change of waiting until the 70th minute for reinforcements under the stoic Frenchman, Emery has made a quartet of substitutions before the hour mark for reasons other than injury. He has also shown a penchant for mid-match modifications.
Against both Chelsea and West Ham, a high line tasked with playing the ball out the back receded slightly after the break, and Lucas Torreira’s introduction in a deep-lying role on Saturday helped bridge that gap between the midfield and the back. Arsenal is more compact under Emery, and will benefit from the summer additions of two aggressive midfielders who show for the ball in Torreira and teen talent Matteo Guendouzi. Both Alex Iwobi and Mkhitaryan appear inspired under Emery and content to contribute without the ball, as has Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang when shifted out wide left when Alexandre Lacazette is brought on to assume No. 9 duties.
In the end, Emery dodged a fate that no other permanent Arsenal boss has been stricken with in avoiding a third defeat in three outings to start a managerial tenure.
The north London lot won’t transform from a side without an identity to one that is burdensome to break down overnight, and the manager risks losing the respect of the dressing room if he alters his approach three matches in. Modern football demands immediate results but benefits most from patient schemes, something Emery would be wise to remember in the infantile stages of his Arsenal career.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)