And here we are. As the hype of the English Premier League goes into overdrive with the defending champions Manchester City making a trip to North London, for the first time in 22 years, a different figure will walk down the tunnel at the Emirates on Sunday to place himself on the manager’s seat for the hosts. Unai Emery’s appointment as the new Arsenal manager has sparked quite a lot of debates and discussions — some revelling in his three consecutive UEFA Europa League triumphs with Sevilla while many pointing out his underwhelming stint at Paris Saint-Germain.
Arsenal have had a relatively uneventful summer in terms of signings, but there is no denying that reinforcements have arrived all across the pitch. Their opponents for Sunday, Manchester City, splurged only on Riyad Mahrez — an able option to back-up the tactically intelligent, yet much-maligned Raheem Sterling but Pep Guardiola already has a system in place with almost the entirety of his squad well-versed in his preferred style of play.
A little less than a decade ago, when Sheikh Mansour had staked claim to the ownership of Manchester City, the Premier League fortunes of both these clubs were in stark contrast — Arsene Wenger’s star power had only begun to dim, but Arsenal still hadn’t succumbed to the rut of mediocrity; Manchester City were a mid-table club at best. Today, City are arguably Premier League’s best bet to win the UEFA Champions League, their scintillating football from last season still fresh in the minds of the spectators and for the first time since 2009, the Premier League defending champions remain the favourites to retain the title.
Arsenal, meanwhile, have fallen so much behind their rivals that Emery needs to help the London club re-discover its identity. The Gunners aren’t anywhere close to being title contenders this season, but the club’s fanbase surely is hoping for an uptick in performances even though the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea have stronger squads at their disposal. Emery’s obsession with tactical systems bodes well for the Gunners who have always seemed lost at the first hint of resistance on pitch.
Favouring a 4-2-3-1 formation, Emery is likely to field new arrival Lucas Torreira at the base of his midfield with Granit Xhaka providing the necessary steel. Aaron Ramsey and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will be the creative outlets alongside Mesut Ozil who has a point to prove of his own, after the debacle that this summer was for the former German international. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is likely to be preferred over Alexandre Lacazette, but it remains to be seen whether Bernd Leno gets the nod over veteran Petr Cech.
As his spell in La Liga proved, Emery is not only exceptional in developing young, unpolished talents to produce sublime performances, but he also has the uncanny ability of procuring results in unfavourable situations, especially in matches where his team is deemed as ‘the underdog’. And underdogs they will be against Pep Guardiola’s side.
“The important thing is to be there and to be ourselves. It’s not winning back to back, it’s to be ourselves. People say now we have to forget what we did last season. No way. I don’t want to forget what we have done last season. I know exactly what we did to achieve that and that is where we start from. That’s the basic principle. Now, when I say something to them, they know exactly what we have to do,” Guardiola’s words were refreshing, the Spaniard once again demonstrating why his unique outlook towards the game plays such a prominent role in him being a serial winner.
Tactically, it would be more of the same for Manchester City — their fluid transitions and quick executions of intricate passing moves are likely to get more precise. Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan are expected to complete the midfield trifecta ahead of Fernandinho with Leroy Sane and Riyad Mahrez on either flank. Sergio Aguero hit the ground running with a brace in the Community Shield win and will lead the line against Arsenal.
Guardiola’s teams are known to evolve into a deadly combination of adroitness and application over prolonged periods of time and it will be intriguing to watch how Manchester City tackle opponents who have specific plans to counter their approach. City set the bar dauntingly high last season, but Guardiola’s abilities are such that it won’t surprise anyone if they manage to usurp their own records this season. A team filled with elite talents in the prime of their careers, Manchester City have only achieved the bare minimum under Guardiola and their real test will come in Europe, although anything but a win against Arsenal will be a dampener for the champions.
The task is cut out for Emery at his new club — to redirect Arsenal towards the path of glory but how he handles the fundamental drawbacks at his new home and formulates a strategy to draw out the best of his players will be defining for Arsenal’s fortunes this season. Even the most optimistic of Arsenal supporters will not be expecting a surprise victory in their Premier League opener, but Emery, winless in his ten personal battles with Guardiola so far, could very well serve up a dollop of inspiration against the rhapsodical juggernaut that Manchester City promises to be.
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Updated Date: Aug 12, 2018 15:32:31 IST