There is clearly a lot more listening to do and a lot more practising before the side show what the Spaniard wants
Amy Lawrence at the Emirates Stadium
may be a new director orchestrating it all, and some new faces in the cast, but there was no escaping a rerun of a story in which the crowd knew chapter and verse.
They are not used to welcoming new managers in these parts and once Unai Emery made an understated entrance – timing his relaxed stroll out of the tunnel with one hand in his pocket as most eyes were focused on the teams lining up and the handshake music blared – new Arsenal segued into old Arsenal.
It soon became clear that different Arsenal was actually an accurate reprise of familiar Arsenal. Emery has promised work, and plenty of it, but with the best will in the world remodelling this group of players was never going to happen over a few summer weeks.
A newly erected banner inside the stadium bore a picture of Emery accompanied by the message “To The Next Chapter”. Otherwise there was no official introduction, no big announcement over the PA, no moment where the Spaniard felt it right to stride on to centre stage to wave to the fans. Not his style.
Perhaps also, not something he wanted to do before a game he recognised would be challenging against opponents whose slickness and serenity make them so powerful. Manchester City’s strength was emphasised as they sent Kevin de Bruyne, Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sané on as substitutes in a game they were winning comfortably. All judgment on Emery’s “new way” needs measuring in that context. Perspective, as well as patience, is a must.
Emery’s first act once he set foot on the sidelines was to make a beeline for his City counterpart, clasping hands warmly with Pep Guardiola and his staff before finding his new seat in the dugout. In all honesty, given the circumstances, here was perhaps the last manager on earth he wanted to meet at this particular moment. Emery found his seat, looked around a little anxiously and offered a quick thumbs up.
It was strange seeing someone other than Arsène Wenger there. Emery certainly cut a different figure in the technical area. While Arsenal had become accustomed to their manager staying seated, Emery was up, visible, prowling his zone, proactive with his gestures, constantly pointing and offering emotional guidance with a steady-on palms out or a cajoling clenched fist.
There was something profoundly alternative about the shape of the team he picked. Aaron Ramsey was stationed high up the pitch as an auxiliary forward alongside Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, without the natural height or speed to reach any searching balls. Mesut Özil was initially positioned on the right of a midfield three with the debutant Mattéo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka, playing quite deep and in a position where tackling and closing down was an expected part of his shift. It was different all right. It is not difficult to imagine what the audience reaction would have been had Wenger plumped for such a similarly experimental line-up.
It was a brave decision to hand a debut to the 19-year-old Guendouzi, who showed great promise in pre-season, but against City’s high-calibre movement and intensive attacks he had a lot on his plate. It did not help that some of the more experienced heads in midfield around him underwhelmed.
Emery has talked of how he wants his team to be “protagonists” but there was scarce evidence of Xhaka, Özil or Henrik Mkhitaryan showing the desire to force the issue here.
The new way did not stop that same old familiar feeling from washing over the crowd as they watched Arsenal concede with marshmallow softness.
Raheem Sterling was allowed to drift across the edge of the penalty area and steer in what should have been a blockable or saveable shot.Bernardo Silva was free to time his run creatively before cracking in a second.
So much felt un-ideal. Trying to play out from the back with a 36-year-old goalkeeper having to learn new tricks to kick-start play through a scratchy defence is a big ask. The balance of the team was off in terms of attacking cohesion or momentum. All these issues felt doubly challenging given the settled class of the opposition, and the nervousness that gnawed at Arsenal.
Amid the overall reality check, there were some positive signposts to take forward. Emery was not afraid to make a big call in his line-up. He was happy to make a tactical substitution in the 55th minute – staggeringly early compared with what they are used to here. Lucas Torreira was bright and influential during his cameo. Stephan Lichtsteiner played with the personality expected – an example to the defenders alongside him.
“Listen to the manager!” implored an innocent voice as Arsenal chugged along to little effect. But it was abundantly clear that there is a lot more listening to do, a lot more practising, before there is a real sense of what Emery’s Arsenal might be capable of doing.
From the crowd there was almost a dash of sympathy infused into that realisation. If the crowd learned anything from this, it is that change will take time.