Manchester City ran out 2-0 winners over Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday afternoon in Unai Emery’s first game as manager at the club.
The fixture list was notably unkind to Emery in that his first game at the helm of a new team in a new country came against that League’s reigning Champions, but he can at least take solace in that his side showed positives against strong opposition and that not every fixture will be this difficult.
Pep Guardiola’s team picked up from where they left off last season, with Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva’s goals proving the difference at the Emirates in the campaign opener.
Guardiola remains unbeaten against Emery in all competitions, winning seven and drawing four of the 11 meetings, so this game was always going to be a tough challenge for the man in charge in North London.
As expected, Emery introduced some of his new signings to his squad – both defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos and midfielder Matteo Guendouzi began the game.
Petr Cech started the game in goal ahead of £19m Summer signing Bernd Leno, who the manager may have been wary of throwing into competition in such a difficult game. Cech, to his credit, was one of the Gunners stand-out performers on the day, making important saves from goal scorers Silva and Sterling, and an excellent set of stops in quick succession from Alymeric Laporte and new signing Riyad Mahrez.
Stephan Lichtsteiner, as expected, did not begin the game, but was quickly brought in to fulfil one of the main purposes of his signings – to provide strong back-up in case of injury.
It didn’t take long for his presence to be required, when Ainsley Maitland-Niles unfortunately had to leave the field injured just past the half an hour mark. Lichtsteiner took the field in the Premier League for the first time, and he had his hands-full with an onrushing Kyle Walker, who was bombing up from right-back at any given opportunity.
City were strong from the start in Arsenal’s first competitive game without Arsene Wenger at the helm since 1996.
Sterling put City ahead just prior to the quarter of an hour mark with a smart finish from just outside the box. The Englishman had looked dangerous from the off, and the finish marked his 50th in English football.
The assist was provided by Benjamin Mendy, the defender playing his first match since September 2017 after a horrific injury. The Frenchman had a big part to play in proceedings, coming up with an assist for the second goal as well.
Ederson in the City goal appeared to be a little bit shaky at the beginning of the game, playing some questionable passes. It looked like if the Gunners were going to capitalize early on, it was going to come from one of these situations, but it wasn’t to be.
A lot of conversation was happening pre-game about Emery’s potential team selection. In the end, in terms of attacking options, the Spaniard opted to play Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up front on his own, with Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan behind him, and allowing Aaron Ramsey to play a freer role down the middle of the field in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Towards the end of the first half, after a long period of City dominance, Emery’s side grew into the game. Both Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan came close, the latter’s effort battering off of the side netting.
If any effort had found the net before half time, it would have changed the complexion of the game, but after 45 minutes, the only goal belonged to City.
Not long into the second half, Alexandre Lacazette was introduced in the place of Ramsey. Ozil and Mkhitaryan then appeared to switch wings either side of the Frenchman. The team is still in a period of natural progression following the change in management, and Emery will take time to find a more settled dynamic.
Just after an hour, City made it two. Cech made a fine save in a one-on-one with Aguero, but in the next attack, Mendy and Sterling played the ball between each other moving forward, before the defender drove a low cross into the Arsenal penalty area. Silva made no mistake in driving the ball past Cech, continuing his form from the close of last season.
With 70 minutes on the clock, Uruguayan midfielder Lucas Torreira took the position of Aaron Ramsey, meaning the centre of the field was anchored by two new signings in Torreira and Guendouzi. All signings (except Leno, who will no doubt get his chance) getting a run-out in the opening game for an indicator of the change that Emery intends on introducing at the club.
Late on, Mesut Ozil nearly found himself with a chance to score following an Ederson error but it wasn’t to be. Full-time, 2-0 loss.
Speaking immediately after the game, Emery spoke highly of his team’s performance.
"The result was 2-0 but I think on the pitch over the 90 minutes we were getting better," Emery said.
"The first half we didn't play like we wanted. We spoke at half-time about taking more responsibility for the second half, to do a little more. We wanted to build with the ball and break their lines. I think in the second half we played more like we want."
Even with the loss, there were positives to take from the game. The new signings performed well, particularly Guendouzi, who showed fine tackling ability and an eye for a pass, and was unfortunate when Sergio Aguero got past him for a one-on-one chance that the Argentinian should have finished.
It is perhaps telling of Emery’s opinion of Guendouzi that he replaced Xhaka rather than him when introducing Torreira to the fold. There’s still a lot to be figured out in terms of what the strongest starting line-up is, but hopefully this will come with time.
Unfortunately for Arsenal, all of the other teams in the “big 6” of English football picked up opening day wins, so registering 3 points in the coming games has added importance already – the team has enough quality to remain in contention with the other sides competing for glory, and keeping among them is imperative.
Next up is Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea team next weekend – another undoubtedly tough game, especially away from home. Emery bested Sarri in a friendly match at the beginning of August, but it will be a whole different challenge at Stamford Bridge – he will be hoping to draw upon the positives showcased against City, as he continues to get to grips with life at Arsenal and in the Premier League.