16.00 hrs Sunday, 12 August 2018, was the scheduled kick-off time for a new era at the Arsenal with the visit of the awe-inspiring new kings of Manchester, and of the Premiership, City’s Pep Guardiola.
There could be no better measure of the change that our new boss Unai Emery had been tasked to engineer to a team that had become too stationary and easy to beat. Guardiola it was who had read the last rites to the old Arsenal and Arsene Wenger at the Emirates when City last visited on Thursday 1 March 2018; I was there as a witness to the burial.
It was a cold night with the snow of the late-running winter still on the ground. Not being one who would normally buy the match day programme or scarf I bought both that night because I knew we were at a critical interchange in the journey of Arsenal football club. An encounter that was scheduled to last 90 minutes was over in just 30 minutes as we were 0:3 down before we could gather our senses; and it could have been six. Ripped to shreds from the first whistle, we couldn’t even get close enough to them to foul them let alone share the ball. This was a humiliation of a former idol, who had overstayed his time, by a protégé reminiscent of the beating that Larry Holmes reluctantly dealt to Muhammad Ali in the great man’s last fight. For those of us who were Wenger loyalists to the last, the final whistle could not come quickly enough that night.
A mass clear out was what we needed but it was the last thing that gentleman-Wenger would have given us had he stayed. The task instead fell to our new man Unai Emery.
The early signs were promising for the simple reason that the team was looking uglier. Those who know me know the premium that I attach to having a physically ugly player as a holding midfielder in contrast to those who the Prof had been deploying to this spinal position. These, since Vierra, have been pretty boys like Wilshere and Denielson; Lucas Torreira, on the other hand, looks as scary as a holding midfielder should look. I also like the rugged look of Stephan Lichsteiner who will let young Hector Bellerin know that pretty pony tails is not what is required in that wing back position. Credit for the new uglier look must go to the new Committee of Selectors in charge of player sales and purchases. Even at the shareholder level there are signs of decisive change with the majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke, calling time on the Tom and Jerry like tussle over the ownership of the club, and the loyalty of the more vocal fans, by moving to buyout his long-standing corporate stalker, the Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov.
As the players lined up in the tunnel the difference between the two sides was palpable: The boys in the blue corner were the reigning champions looking to retain their crown; the boys in the red corner were coming out to be critically assessed by the football viewing world to see who would make it through to the next chapter of Arsenal Football Club and who would be moving on in the January Sales.
The edgy-mood of the boys on trial was set by the new captain Peter Cech as he bounced from foot to foot like a boxer about to enter the ring. That Emery had chosen him to captain the first Premiership game of his reign was not so much deference to the prowess of the City strike force but an indication of the priority that the new manager was attaching to the defensive frailties in the team which he had inherited. It was, therefore, ironic that we lost this game not due to poor defending at the back but because of poor finishing upfront.
In the second minute, before the City boys could get to grips with the new dynamics of the team, Rambo Ramsey had a chance to give the new manager the welcome he deserved. Put through the middle of the City central defenders, the ball sat up beautifully for him to crack it in with his left foot; instead he attempted to hook it over the City keeper with the outside of his right foot and, in so doing, blew the opportunity to set the stadium alight. Just six minutes later, Cech was being called into desperate action as he saved at the near-post after the dancing Raheem Sterling had discoed his way past three of our defenders.
It was but a temporary reprieve as five minutes later, a poorly directed clearing header by Bellerin went straight to his opposite number in blue. The grateful Mendy played the ball wide to Sterling on the left just outside our 18-yard box who, in a flash, zipped to his right across Bellerin and our new holding-midfielder, Matt Guendozi, before whipping the ball past the un-sighted Cech into the net. The quality of the finish was sharp and deadly.
In the 20th minute, it was our turn to test City: Bellerin tamed Maitland-Niles’ cross-field ball nicely with the instep of his right boot before, in the same moment, slipping the ball through the legs of the onrushing Mendy into the City 18-yard box. Then, without breaking stride, he smashed the ball with the outside of his right boot goal-bound. Unfortunately the banana shot did not have enough cut on it to evade the City keeper but we did at least sweat him.
Our own keeper, apparently not content with the threats to his goal that the City boys already posed, came close to scoring the mother-of-all-own-goals, in the 21st minute, when he narrowly missed his far post with what was intended to be a pass to Bellerin. Fortunately for him, the comic moment was quickly forgotten by a brilliant double-save that he pulled off five minutes later: first collapsing low, at full stretch, to defy a Mahrez free-kick that was fast-bound towards the inside of his right-hand post, before bouncing back up to block the scavenging Laporte’s effort to make a meal of the loose change from the save.
An unfortunate injury to Maitland-Niles in the 34th minute gave us an opportunity to see the 34 year-old Super-Swiss, Lichsteiner, at work. His arrival saw a swift end to the marauding runs that City’s miss-named Kyle Walker had been making down the right wing. Much more than steel, Lichsteiner brought creative support down City’s left flank to our strike force. If only our remaining laggards, Ozil and Xhaka could take a leaf from the drive of this 34 year old iron-man because, apart from the confidence which comes from having been such runaway-champions last season, the striking feature of the City team is that all the players play at the same energy level (Liverpool do the same). You simply cannot have a situation where Ramsey and Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang are chasing down opponents, while members of the second line of defence are in a lower gear.
In the 44th minute we had a chance to go level when the ball broke for, the normally clinical, Aubameyang just outside City’s 18 on his favourite foot but he missed the target by an indecent margin. We went in at half-time 0:1 down, but we were by no means out this time round.
Another break from the Wenger ways that I was hoping for was from the stubborn practice of making no changes to an obviously sub-optimal side until the 65th minute of every match at the very earliest. Emery duly obliged me in the 53rd when he substituted Ramsey for Lacazette and in quick time, Lackadis-Lackadat was making his skill and physical presence felt and offering a more natural partnership with Aubameyang.
In the 55th Minute a chance fell to him to level the scores from just outside the centre of the City 18 yard box but he sliced it wide. That he was not alone in suffering from off-season rust on his boots became apparent a few minutes later when the normally lethal Aguero found himself clean through on goal, after a rare mistake by young Matt Guendozi. With only Cech to beat, and with De Bruyne offering himself on his left, he succeeded only in hitting Cech. Our reprieve proved short-lived once again when, a few minutes later, Bernado Silva whipped a ball that had been cut back to him from the touch line by the marauding Mendy past a stranded Cech to put City 0:2 up.
We should have had a penalty in the 66th minute when Mendy roped Mustafi down by the throat to stop his run for a corner. We then had two goals (rightly) ruled offside before Ozil, in the 84th minute, demonstrated why he remains a very costly ghost from the Wenger era. The City keeper must have gone colour blind momentarily when he mistook Ozil’s red shirt and white face for Mendy’s blue shirt and black face. Our £300,000 a week man only had to do the basics of cushioning the ball with the instep of his favourite left foot and he could have chosen at his leisure which side of the City net to pass the ball into. Instead, elephant-like, he passed the ball back to the grateful City keeper with his first touch thus killing off any hope of a late comeback.
The final word must be reserved for our debutant young holding-midfielder, Matt Guendozi (who has to be a relation of Chelsea’s David Luiz however distant!!!). He showed energy and intelligence in almost everything that he did. He looked even more assured when Terrier-Torreira came on in place of the ponderous Xhaka.
OK we failed the first big test of the new era yesterday but there was no shame there. We have another chance this weekend against Chelsea and so here is my wish list for the manager: I would like to see the Guendozi-Torreira partnership in the middle of the park from the beginning and the Lacazette-Aubamayang partnership up top with Lichsteiner in at right-back and with Maitland-Niles if fit (or Iwobi if not) replacing Ozil. Then our opponents will know that things have really changed at the Arsenal.