Kicking off the campaign with games against record-breaking champions Manchester City and London rivals Chelsea, from the moment the 2018/19 Premier League fixture list was released, it was clear a baptism of fire awaited Unai Emery.
The Spanish tactician, taking over Arsenal after the two-decade rule of Arsène Wenger, was always likely to face friction in his new role; change is never easy.
At Arsenal, however, after two seasons outside the top four and without a league title in 18 years, it was necessary. Everyone knew Wenger had outstayed his efficacy – although he remains rightly revered for his work in north London – but unpicking the shoddy sutures that had scarcely contained the club’s chasms in recent years would be an almighty task for his successor.
Yet, just weeks into the new season, following defeats agains City and Chelsea, Emery faced criticism for his attempts at implementing his familiar style of play with the Gunners.
Most notably, former Bolton Wanderers and Newcastle United manager Sam Allardyce – whose constant boast of never having been relegated suggests how high he set his own aspirations – launched an attack on Emery’s insistence that his side play out from the back, instructing goalkeeper Petr Čech to play short to his defenders rather than hoofing up the field at the first hint of pressure.
Some have also taken issue with Arsenal‘s high line this season, pointing out – fairly, it must be said – that the central defensive partnership of Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos lack pace and are therefore open to exploitation by direct balls in behind.
Both of these tenets of Emery’s philosophy saw Arsenal exposed in their opening two matches, while the Gunners were opened up easier than they would have been comfortable with in the subsequent 3-1 home win over West Ham United.
Despite these legitimate caveats, though, Emery is right to persists with his preferred blueprint. It has been suggested the Spaniard, a three-time Europa League winner, should compromise on his philosophy, taking a more pragmatic approach by adjusting his tactics to the strengths of his players and he demands of the Premier League.
In an era where managers are practically auditioning for their own jobs with each coming game, this is sound reasoning: a handful of defeats in a short period has put paid to managers with CV’s even more glittering than Emery’s.
But the uniqueness of the job Emery has been asked to do must be taken into consideration; one has to assume the Spaniard has been given assurances that he has been carefully appointed and will therefore be afforded sufficient time to reshape Arsenal and right their sloping trajectory.
His time at Arsenal will not be defined by the first three months of his reign, nor whether the Gunners are restored to contention this season, but rather whether he can make the incremental gains that will return the club to the Champions League, and even challenge for top prizes once again. To compromise now, Emery might reason, would be to compromise on his long-term vision for the club.
How readily his new charges are able to embrace his methods will also instruct the new Arsenal manager as to which players he will be able to rely upon going forward, and which need replacing.
He has only had one transfer window to reshape the squad, and new arrivals Bernd Leno and Lucas Torreira are still being eased into the side, while teenage midfielder Mattéo Guendouzi has been hugely impressive although understandably flawed.
If Čech can’t improve his passing skills, Leno will usurp him sooner rather than later; if Granit Xhaka continues to offer neither creativity nor protection in central midfield, in will come Torreira; if Mustafi and Sokratis are unable to adapt to a high line and playing out from deep, they too will be replaced.
What’s more, in the face of their frailties, there are already encouraging signs emitting from Arsenal’s new way of playing. It must be acknowledged that three games of a new season is far too small a sample size from which any definitive conclusions can be drawn – especially given the level of opposition faced – but some of the underlying statistics of Arsenal’s performance are interesting at least.
So far this season, Arsenal’s squeezing of the pitch and high press has seen them recover possession more often in the attacking (5.33 per game to 3.5) and middle (25 to 24.57) thirds of the pitch compared with last season. They have also managed to create more ‘big’ chances per game (2.33 to 2.13) despite the high calibre of opposition.
Arsenal are still very much a work in progress and there is no guarantee that Emery’s methods will eventually bear fruit. But the former Sevilla and Paris Saint-Germain boss must stick to his guns tactically.
Wenger’s unwillingness to compromise undoubtedly contributed to his downfall, but the same stubbornness formed the foundation of the revolution he oversaw 22 years ago; Emery must be given the chance to live by his own sword.