August 12, 2018
If nothing else, at least Unai Emery can console himself that not every opponent in the Premier League will be as daunting as Manchester City. The fixture list was unkind to the new Arsenal manager and Pep Guardiola’s team duly continued where they left off last season, winning with something to spare and providing a reminder of what we should probably have known already, namely that it will require an exceptional effort from any other team to deny them another league title.
Bernardo Silva sets seal on dominant Manchester City win over Arsenal
By the time it was all done, Emery had become the first Arsenal manager to lose his opening game since Terry Neill took charge of a team that went down 1-0 to Bristol City at Highbury in August 1976. It was the first time since 1936 that City have won back-to-back away matches against these opponents in the top division and perhaps the most startling part, as far as the other title challengers are concerned, is that it was achieved with Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sané restricted to substitute roles, no place for Vincent Kompany or Nicolás Otamendi and David Silva working on his fitness back in Manchester. It is a frightening level of squad depth.
Bernardo Silva sets seal on dominant Manchester City win over Arsenal
For now at least, Guardiola is going through his own period of experimentation. Bernardo Silva justified his selection with a peach of a goal and some brilliantly subtle link-up play. Raheem Sterling’s goal came from the left wing, rather than his usual position on the right, switching flanks so Riyad Mahrez could be accommodated. The fit-again Bernard Mendy was among the game’s outstanding performers and, on this evidence, City’s new central defensive partnership of John Stones and Aymeric Laporte will take some shifting. Guardiola’s side did not reach their most exhilarating peaks but it was still fairly convincing and the awkward truth, in these getting‑to‑know-you stages with Emery, is that it was difficult at times to understand what Arsène Wenger’s successor was thinking.
Arsenal’s supporters will have known their new manager wanted to do things differently. What they perhaps could not have imagined was that he would start with Aaron Ramsey operating as a centre-forward, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the right of the front three and Mesut Özil in a much more withdrawn role than usual.
Özil had swapped positions with Henrikh Mkhitaryan before half-time and, ten minutes into the second half, Emery decided it was time to put an orthodox striker, Alexandre Lacazette, in Ramsey’s position. Other changes followed, yet none had any real effect. It all felt rather chaotic and jumbled and it was tempting to wonder whether the crowd would have been so understanding if Wenger had been responsible for these tactics. A new manager always gets a bit of leeway and, in this case, that is just as well.
At least Emery will have a better idea now why these side were separated by 37 points last season and the shortcomings in his side’s defence. Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Shkodran Mustafi frequently looked vulnerable as Arsenal’s new centre-back pairing. Héctor Bellerín found Sterling a difficult opponent and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, deputising for Nacho Monreal at left-back, lasted only 35 minutes before picking up an injury of his own. That meant Stephan Lichtsteiner, a right-back by trade, coming off the bench to join an experimental back line. Emery, in fairness, will need time to achieve a more settled dynamic.
In the meantime, he will have to analyse whether it might be time to ease Petr Cech out of the team. Cech did produce a splendid save in the second half to deny Sergio Agüero in a one-on-one breakaway but the Arsenal No 1 was also badly at fault for the opening goal and, not for the first time, there was clear evidence that he is no longer the goalkeeper he once was. Bernd Leno joined the club from Bayer Leverkusen in the summer because of that exact point and, unfortunately for Cech, these are not new concerns.
The only possible mitigation for Sterling’s goal, 14 minutes in, was that Cech was slightly unsighted as the City attacker, cutting in from the left, eluded a couple of wishy-washy challenges and fired a right-foot shot through a congested penalty area.
The ball was near enough to Cech to be saved but his reflexes were poor and there was an even more startling moment, midway through the first half, when a pass was played back to the goalkeeper and he tried to switch play to the right, got it horribly wrong and nearly put the ball in his own net.
Cech was lucky to get away with conceding a corner, rather than scoring a comedic own-goal, and on the next occasion he found one of his teammates there were ironic cheers. Much more of this and Emery will surely have to conclude it is time for Leno to get a chance. Arsenal’s next game is at Chelsea, Cech’s former club, and it will be intriguing to see what the new manager decides.
Otherwise, it was not a hugely encouraging start to the post-Wenger era at Arsenal and Mattéo Guendouzi, a 19-year-old central midfielder, found out the hard way that playing against City is a lot different to turning out for Lorient in the French second division.
Guendouzi did show some neat touches but he and Bellerín were guilty of losing Sterling before the opening goal and it was the teenager’s mistake that let Agüero run free later in the match. Cech saved that one but in City’s next attack Mendy exchanged passes with Sterling before sending over a low cross from the left. Silva swivelled to strike the ball first-time and send an elegant, left-footed shot into the top corner. The ball was still rising as it hit the net and City will take some stopping.
Bernardo Silva sets seal on dominant Manchester City win over Arsenal
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