Ahead of his first Arsenal game, there were effectively three decisions that Unai Emery had to make: who, out of Bernd Leno and Petr Cech, would be in goal, who would make up his central midfield out of Aaron Ramsey, Granit Xhaka, Lucas Torreira, Mohamed Elneny and Matteo Guendouzi, and whether he would start Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, or just one. To beat Manchester City, everything generally has to be perfect, and yet, with his decisions, Emery ensured that Arsenal’s play would be far from perfect.
Not playing Lucas Torreira, who only joined with the team two weeks ago, seemed a sensible decision, especially as some adaptation to the Premier League is to be expected. In the place of Torreira, though, Unai Emery selected Matteo Guendouzi, rather than Mohamed Elneny, and asked Aaron Ramsey to play as a #10, a role that isn’t unfamiliar for the Welshman, but isn’t his best. In fairness to Guendouzi, he impressed in moments, and never hid from the game, which speaks promisingly to his development as a professional footballer. Yet his mistakes—letting Raheem Sterling go by far too easily, opening up space for him to take the shot that would fly past Petr Cech, as well as miscuing a clearance from an Arsenal corner, letting Aguero in—along with some looseness in possession, completing only 81% of passes, cost Arsenal. Guendouzi is a very talented prospect, but having never played a professional game outside of France’s Ligue 2, asking him to play perfectly against Manchester City was a big gamble, one that failed.
Petr Cech did not have a great campaign last season, and despite playing well in preseason, the purchase of Bernd Leno, for £20m, looked to have relegated Cech to #2. For one thing, Leno suits something that Arsenal have worked quite hard on, playing the ball out from the back. It is something that has been evident throughout Arsenal’s pre-season play, as has Bernd Leno’s adeptness at short and longer passing, as well as playing the ball quickly, like an outfield player.
In comparison, Cech struggles with that part of the game. His kicking and distribution has never been a strong part of his game at Arsenal, and he’s more comfortable when he has more time on the ball, to take multiple touches, and go longer with his passes and goal kicks. Even if Cech is perhaps the better shot stopper, Arsenal only need to look to the opposition dugout to see rational decision making behind choosing the better passer. After all, if playing from the back is to begin with the goalkeeper, as it does for Emery, and is a big part of how your team builds and structures attacks, as it is for Emery, then playing the goalkeeper better suited to the tactic seems a sensible trade-off.
Having seen Petr Cech at Arsenal for three seasons, and having seen him during preseason, it was not shocking to see him struggle at playing across the back, with the most notable error coming when he nearly passed into his own net, a howler that would’ve overtaken David Ospina dropping a corner into his own goal for Most Hilarious And Very Predictable Goalkeeper Error in Arsenal’s history (Lukasz Fabianski dropping a corner on Titus Bramble’s head a close runner-up). It begs asking why Bernd Leno wasn’t selected. It also speaks to a larger issue this summer, the recruitment of centre backs.
Sokratis is an experienced and aggressive defender, but he is not a great or particularly fast passer (he completed 81% of passes today; Shkodran Mustafi completed 90%, and Laurent Koscielny completed 89% of passes last season). The last distinction is crucial: if you take multiple touches against a pressing side while trying to play the ball out from the back, it makes it more likely that you will either lose the ball, or be forced to hit a longer ball, which did not suit Arsenal’s attacking players. This has presumably been a planned tactic, given how it has been introduced since the beginning of pre-season, and was how Emery has played at other clubs. Why, then, was not the defenders’ play on the ball taken more into consideration during the summer transfer window, especially as Arsenal loaned out Calum Chambers, perhaps their best passing defender.
The ramifications go beyond one game; not being able to play out from the back effectively or quickly meant Mesut Özil had to drop deeper to collect possession, and isolated Ramsey and Aubameyang. While it is too early for conclusions about Emery at Arsenal, we can only evaluate managers on how their decisions influence their team’s performance. Whether Emery succeeds or not at Arsenal will not depend on how days like today, against the best team in the country and possibly Europe, or even next week against Chelsea. That will be decided on the success of his decisions, and how he responds to setbacks and mistakes. Today Emery’s decisions backfired; the task for him going forward is to ensure that they don’t.