Unai Emery needs time to enact the wholesale changes needed at Arsenal
Anyone wondering how long it would take Unai Emery to fully understand what it means to be Arsenal head coach need wonder no longer. All it took was one game to anger Sam Allardyce by having the temerity to play short passes along the ground.
"This is the manager's fault. It's his fault," he said of Arsenal's 2-0 defeat to Manchester City on Sunday. "We are getting obsessed with this stupid 'let's play out from the back'... (it's) utter rubbish to play like that all of the time." To which the obvious reply is: if you are trying to implement your style with a brand new team, abandoning your principles in the very first game is not a very effective way to go about things.
Same old Arsenal? That was the accusation facing Emery after his first 90 minutes in charge. Allardyce was already dredging up hoary old tropes about tippy-tappy football. Clearly the scoreline and the weight of chances in City's favour were not to Emery's liking but let's have some context here. This was his first competitive game in charge of Arsenal after just five weeks of training. He had the misfortune to come up against a team who won the league with a record 100 points last season, signed a former PFA Player of the Year and possess a singular genius as their coach.
If anything, Emery deserves credit for not compromising his principles in his very first test. Playing out from the back was a high-wire act, most alarmingly when Petr Cech short-circuited under pressure and almost passed the ball into his own net, but a template is being laid down. The chances of Arsenal managing to get anything from City were minimal and there are bigger problems than would be solved by hoofing the ball long to escape the City press. That is something for Allardyce to bear in mind, but also any Arsenal supporters murmuring discontentedly.
In any case, if Emery needed any reassurance that hard and fast rules should not be drawn from managerial debuts, he needed only look at the man who stood adjacent to him on the touchline on Sunday. Coincidentally, Monday marks 10 years since Pep Guardiola managed his first league game at the top level. Barcelona were embarking on a brand new era and promptly lost 1-0 to Numancia. When they followed that up with a 1-1 draw at home to Racing Santander, many were wondering if Barca had made a horrendous mistake.
This group did not include Johan Cruyff. Writing in a newspaper column, Cruyff eulogised over, "one of the best Barcelona performances for years." He continued: "I don't know what game the rest of you watched; the one I watched was unlike any I have seen at the Camp Nou in a long time... The worst start to a season in many years. Just one goal scored, and that was a penalty. That's an inescapable truth, numerically speaking. But in footballing terms, this must be read a different way."
It would be generous to the extreme to interpret Emery's debut in quite the same way. It's clear that fixing the decrepit defensive culture he inherited from Arsene Wenger will be no short-term project. There are major decisions regarding personnel which need to be taken in all areas of the pitch. And yet, Cruyff's essential message rings true: the process can be read differently than the result.
So was there anything markedly different about Emery's Arsenal? Anything that allows us to read this match in a different way? Nothing revolutionary, perhaps. It would be ludicrous to expect Arsenal to be in a position to unveil a complete new approach in the first game of the season. But there were signs that Emery is making changes in the right direction.
The passing out from the back which so angered Allardyce is a welcome step towards a more coherent way of constructing play. Wenger was an advocate too but Emery seems to be even more of a purist. It was very risky to play that way against City; equally they provide the most exacting testing ground for such a strategy and Emery is likely to have learned a great deal. Perhaps to the detriment of Cech.
We also saw a more joined-up approach to pressing in the final third. Only by degrees, perhaps, but there seemed to be a semblance of a plan where once Arsenal were more likely to improvise. Arsenal also played with greater energy, an observation backed up by the fact that, they covered more ground than any other team at the weekend.
For those who had been brainwashed by Wenger into believing that tactical substitutions earlier than 70 minutes were an impossibility, it was also a welcome sight to see Emery hauling off Aaron Ramsey for Alexandre Lacazette after 54 minutes in search of a more competitive balance to his team. And Arsenal did improve in the second half.
These are admittedly tweaks when a larger rebuilding project is required. More players will have to be replaced before Arsenal feel like a truly new proposition, especially in defence. Patience will be desired -- if not from Allardyce then certainly from those in the stands. As Petr Cech said on Sunday: "I think the fans have to understand that when you start building a new team with a new manager and a completely new way it may take time."
Time. An asset in drastically short supply in English football. But Emery should be given some. He's only had 90 minutes after all.