The Unai Emery era began on Sunday with a 2-0 defeat to Manchester City. The defending Premier League champions seemed sharp, especially for the opening match of the season. It was clearly evident, however, that the Gunners were playing their first competitive game in nearly three months. Arsenal’s front line squandered solid scoring chances throughout the match and the distribution from defense was noticeably shaky.
While the ending result was fairly predictable, it was interesting to catch a glimpse of what Emery is bringing to his new team. The former PSG boss deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi playing just behind an advanced Aaron Ramsey in midfield. Structurally speaking, the aforementioned formation is similar to what Arsene Wenger utilized during his last few years as Arsenal manager.
There were, however, differences in how the players were expected to play. Emery clearly wants his goalkeeper to play out from the back, instead of just punting it forward. This tactic is being employed by other big clubs around Europe, and while it certainly has its benefits, it takes time to correctly learn the hectic passing. Petr Cech looked wildly uncomfortable in his distribution in front of goal. In fact, the 36-year-old keeper nearly but the ball into his own net during the first half and then almost gave the rushing Sergio Aguero a free shot on goal in the latter stages of the match.
Besides wanting to pass out from the back of defense, Emery also encourages more activity and pressing when the Gunners are without the ball. This aspect of Arsenal’s game appeared to fare a little better than the distribution from the defense. Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, Henrik Mkhitaryan (and Alexandre Lacazette later in the match) were frequently seen pressing City players on the ball.
Though the Gunners did not score in the game, they did manage to get themselves into decent scoring opportunities. Both because of the aforementioned pressing and counter attacks from deeper on the pitch, Arsenal certainly had their chances to score. Sharpness in front of goal was, however, lacking from the north London club.
Emery’s substitutions were also interesting. While he was forced into his first sub as an Arsenal manager, due to Ainsley Maitland-Niles going down with a leg problem, his other two changes were positive. Lacazette came on in the 54th minute of the match and immediately made an impact on the team. The Frenchman nearly scored a beautiful goal shortly after entering the game and was very active on the defensive side as well.
Newcomer Lucas Torreira was the third and final substitute on the day for the Gunners. Torreira came on for the struggling Xhaka with 20 minutes remaining on the clock. Xhaka is excellent on the ball and his distribution is normally superb from deep, but he does not always perform well when Arsenal have less than 50% of the possession. The Swiss international is not necessarily a ball-winner and can struggle in defense without possession.
Torreira, on the other hand, is the exact player in the middle of the pitch to combat an offensive team like Manchester City. Though he played just 20 minutes, the Uruguayan showed flashes of what Arsenal fans can expect from him with his terrier-like playing style. All three of these substitutions made a positive impact on the match for the Gunners.
Ultimately, the changes that Emery brings to this Arsenal team will take time. An opening match against one of the best Premier League teams of the last few decades was never going to be easy. Fans of the club will have to be patient and let the new regime work on their strategies moving forward. The execution was not quite there today, and it may have been a difficult way to begin the season, but it is obviously still a work in progress.