The arrival of Unai Emery at Arsenal FC was, and still is, an indication that the club has a clear vision for the future.
A proven winner with Sevilla and Paris Saint-Germain, and still relatively young, Emery was the prime candidate from the moment Arsene Wenger conceded the Emirates hot seat back in the spring. However, the fixture computer saw fit to give Emery a start he’d never forget, with a home opener against none other than record-smashing champions Manchester City.
Ultimately, it was just another day at the office for the English champions, and they remain firm favourites in all Premier League spread betting markets. But what could Emery learn from his baptism of fire?
Newcomers have a long way to go
Despite being a newcomer to the English game, Emery wasted no time in buying players. His decision to get Leno, Sokratis and Torreira early, with all arriving prior to England’s elimination from the World Cup, appears to have backfired in the short term. Torreira’s introduction for Xhaka made little impact, but with the teams merely going through the motions by that late stage, any further judgements on the Uruguayan midfielder would be somewhat reactionary.
Sokratis, on the other hand, clearly still needs time to adapt to the pace of the Premier League. He went into the book after just 27 minutes for a rash foul, conceding a free kick in a dangerous position. While anybody could have made the same mistake, the game as a whole was an unpleasant introduction for the Greek defender.
Maitland-Niles injury more than a setback
Invariably, a ‘young’ manager like Emery will give youth a chance, and Emery himself will always have the longer term future in mind. Juan Mata and Jordi Alba are just two standout names on the CV of Emery where nurturing young players is concerned. With Maitland-Niles under his watchful eye, he now stands to finish what Wenger began, and add the future England regular to his list of success stories.
Assuming that the injury he sustained against City does not make too much of an impact on his season, Maitland-Niles’ versatility across the middle of the park will aid Emery greatly – especially when the long, cold Europa League nights roll around. Emery may, however, choose to keep him as a fullback for the time being. Maitland-Niles showed his potential against City, albeit with limited time to do so, but his injury has robbed Emery of the opportunity to see if it is worth getting him into the mindset of a fullback in the long term. That in itself could make Emery’s squad-building process all the more difficult.
City are still the pass masters
Emery will bring a different feel to Wenger, as the team becomes moulded into his image. That was certainly the case on Sunday, with Arsenal comfortably losing the possession battle 58-42. For Arsenal to gift nearly 60% possession to an opponent at home was unheard of under Wenger. While passing for the sake of it has long since been out of fashion, City proved in 2017/18 that there is nothing wrong with a passing game that has an end product in mind.
Arsenal will out-pass and outclass weaker teams this season, but Emery must weave City’s passing style into his game plan and training sessions. While the passing style championed by Wenger was geared towards frustrating the opponent, the one enacted by Guardiola’s men has more of an emphasis on attack and risk. Ultimately, it is something that can only come with time, and the right personnel.
Guendouzi has potential
For those willing to look past Matteo Guendouzi’s horrific shot while the score was still at 1-0, Emery has found himself an absolute bargain on the evidence of the City game. While the £7m signing’s shot ended up somewhere within the vicinity of where Highbury used to stand, he worked tirelessly to win the ball back from a City side with its own credentials for ‘invincibility’, and earned the respect of Arsenal legend Ian Wright.
The youngster himself may not be the game changer Arsenal need against opponents like City. However, Guendouzi’s flexible role in the middle of the park will certainly expand Emery’s options if nothing else. In time, he could forge a good partnership with Xhaka, as the mobile influence to complement Xhaka’s steadfast, no-nonsense defensive style. Emery forged a similar role for Steven N’Zonzi at Sevilla, with the Frenchman being a key part of the side that captured three successive Europa League trophies.
And finally… flexibility is a must
Emery could not have been granted a more difficult start, but his ability to recover from setbacks and instil confidence in his team is already well-documented. From here, the Spaniard must remain open and inquisitive about his squad selection. His men will always have the ‘nice red uniforms’, but if he is to restore the key elements – surprise, fear and ruthless efficiency – that were once so closely associated with them, then he needs to make a quick decision.
Emery’s first option is to go all out and ‘gel’ his new signings, but with a trip to Chelsea following the opener against City, mutual familiarity will be the squad’s greatest asset in the short term.