The Unai Emery era began today, and with their new coach in a classic Arsenal suit and a new spot on the bench, the Gunners suffered perhaps a more lopsided 2-0 loss to Manchester City than they deserved.
The first chance of the game went to Arsenal, when Aaron Ramsey found himself with the ball amid a circle of City players and scuffed a soft shot straight to City keeper Ederson. Arsenal started with energy and aggression, an encouraging change from their slow starts of the past few years, but City fought right back, and they scored the opening goal of the game in the 15th minute. Although the Gunners did a better job of getting back to defend than they had in the past, they gave Raheem Sterling too much time in the box, and Petr Cech saw Sterling’s deflected shot too late to get a hand to it.
Arsenal’s pressing left them vulnerable to counterattacks, but under Emery they tracked back faster and in greater numbers. Both the wingers and the defenders would close on City players as they ran up the side of the pitch—and it was on one of these plays that Ainsley Maitland-Niles took a boot from Kyle Walker. Maitland-Niles had been filling in at left back, and after trying to play through the pain, he was replaced in the 35th minute by Stephan Lichtsteiner.
Although not as quick in a straight line as Maitland-Niles, Lichtsteiner is an experienced defender, and he immediately got himself on the same page with the other defenders, seeing off an attack from City before Arsenal took the ball back up the pitch in one of Emery’s quick counterattacks. The first half ended with a few more good chances for the Gunners. Although they hadn’t scored, they hadn’t been far off, either—it was only small discrepancies in timing and aim that kept them from scoring an equalizer.
The difference between this season and last became even more apparent after the opening score—Emery’s Arsenal team pressed higher up the field, moved the ball forward faster, tracked back faster when they lost possession, and hit more looping passes over the heads of the Manchester City players. Their timing and communication looked a bit off, but they gave themselves good chances, and with practice, they’ll be able to take advantage of their good setup work.
In the second half, there was a marked change for Arsenal in substitution patterns, as well—Emery brought on Alexandre Lacazette for Ramsey in the 55th minute, and Lacazette almost immediately had a chance to level the score, placing his shot just too far to the right of the post.
The game continued at a frenetic pace, and after Cech bailed out Matteo Guendouzi and saved a shot from Sergio Aguero, Benjamin Mendy and Bernardo Silva carved up Arsenal’s defense, with Bernardo scoring City’s second goal. The two City players had found where Arsenal’s back line was lacking in pace, and Bernardo smashed the shot into the top left corner.
At the other end of the pitch, Arsenal were denied an obvious penalty when Mendy tossed Shkodran Mustafi to the ground during a corner and referee Michael Oliver did nothing.
The game ended as it started—end to end, at a fast clip, and with Arsenal just missing a few more chances.
Today saw three new players make their Premier League debuts for Arsenal. Matteo Guendouzi had an up and down day, with a mixture of good plays and mistakes. Stephan Lichtsteiner had a part in conceding the second goal for City, but other than that the Swiss defender played a competent and rather steely game. Lucas Torreira didn’t have much time on the pitch after coming on for Granit Xhaka in the 70th minute, but he slotted right into the team and defended well against City star Kevin De Bruyne.
Although Arsenal didn’t score today, for me this was a promising start. Arsenal were clearly playing differently—they gave themselves more frequent chances, and although the defense was somewhat shaky, they didn’t allow City to put up too big a number against them. They looked close, causing some serious trouble for City, just slightly off in terms of timing and ball placement, which is probably to be expected with a new system. All of the pieces are there, and with practice and repetition, this will be a frightening team—the question now is how soon can they get there?
Arsenal will travel to Stamford Bridge for their next game against Chelsea on Saturday, August 18th.