Arsenal fans should relax, for now

August 20, 2018

Arsenal never lost its opening two matches of the Premier League under Arsene Wenger. Yet at the end of Matchday 2 in England’s top flight, former PSG manager Unai Emery has done so. I won’t say that Emery isn’t at fault for some of the decisions he made, because he was: the obvious mistake was starting the inexperienced Ashley Maitland-Niles at left back in the opening match, instead of a more experienced player such as Stephan Lichtsteiner, in what I would assume was the absence of Nacho Monreal (otherwise that decision is even worse than it seems). There will be those who think these first two matches will doom Emery’s Arsenal career. They’re grossly overreacting.

Arsenal are in 17th place, only out of the relegation zone by virtue of a better goal difference than the other three teams without a point thus far. The two newly promoted sides are only a point ahead, and Arsenal can point to the fact that it has already played two of the five toughest games on its schedule: hosting Manchester City at the Emirates in the opener and then the away match at Stamford Bridge, a venue where Arsenal hardly plays its best football. One other team shares the misfortune of such a difficult start, though they hosted Chelsea and had to travel to the Etihad: Huddersfield Town sits at the bottom of the table with a -8 goal difference.

I managed to see the majority of both Arsenal matches, as they were the featured Saturday matches, so even poor me on the west coast was able to comfortably wake up at 9 am and gloat to my Arsenal fan friends how much nothing has changed. This rang true against City, as the Arsenal defense simply let Raheem Sterling run across the edge of the penalty area to take a shot that Petr Cech probably would have saved had he dived, then nearly score an own goal trying to play out of the back 15 minutes later. I watched 19 year-old Matteo Guendouzi whiff a clearance on the halfway line to put Sergio Aguero, my fantasy captain, clean through on goal, only for City’s record goalscorer to be a little too complacent with his finish (don’t worry, I kept him as my captain this week for a 40-point performance). Then Bernardo Silva’s goal came from City simply being that much better than the poor North Londoners, as well as proving that it’s very scary that Pep Guardiola’s team reached 100 points last season with Benjamin Mendy sidelined for seven months.

The Chelsea game started much the same. Jorginho could do no wrong in the midfield and Ross Barkley looked like he used to at Everton. Couple that with Arsenal’s inability to defend the long ball, and the Blues cruised to a two-goal lead at home. But where Wenger’s teams seemed to crumble under this sort of pressure, a hopeful shot from Henrikh Mkhitaryan brought the Gunners back into it, and then a clever cutback to Alex Iwobi equalized before halftime. His players, by and large, showed some extra work rate and fight, Cech looked like the goalkeeper he used to be 10 years ago, and Arsenal looked like a team that could actually handle adversity. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan, and Iwobi all had golden opportunities to score from within ten yards, and, with the way Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga looked, had any one of them actually hit the target, Arsenal would have been leading at halftime after being down 2-0.

While encouraging for Emery, this game still exposed exactly why Arsenal is not yet ready for a return to the top four, especially having lost Alexis Sanchez to Manchester United in January. When Chelsea brought on Eden Hazard, Arsenal had no answers. Guendouzi actually made his tackle on the halfway line this time, but Hazard could still do whatever he wants, seemingly without breaking a sweat. It was the Belgian’s assist to Marcos Alonso that ultimately won the match for Chelsea, and Arsenal does not have that type of player in its ranks anymore, the closest they come is Aaron Ramsey. Without that player, they will remain stuck in the Europa League. Fifth is only achievable because of the train wreck caused by Jose Mourinho wanting the attention back on him instead of his neighbors.

Yet Emery’s vision is there. Cech isn’t quite the goalkeeper you’d want for playing out of the back, but should Arsenal create an identity for itself under its new manager, then the players will come. It’s still the club with the greatest history in London, yet it’s a club that finally seems willing to step into the present after letting go of Wenger.

These opening two matches showed more encouragement for Arsenal than the whole of last season, so the Arsenal fans, and team, must not panic. The squad simply wasn’t good enough to pick up points from either contest, it’s just a shame they were the first two.

Then again, this is still Arsenal. West Ham, in 19th, visits on Saturday, and unless Arsenal scores early, the years of conditioning under Wenger will make the Emirates a nervy stadium. It’s that match that will answer more questions about Emery than these last two ever would.

Jorge DeNeve
Los Angeles native. Still wondering where the Galaxy went wrong and decided buying Jermaine Jones was a good idea.


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