It’s become too simplistic and superficial to question the commitment and industriousness of offensive-minded Arsenal players after every underwhelming performance.
In certain instances over the last few years a lack of effort has no doubt been the case – the angst directed towards Arsene Wenger gave them a smokescreen to hide behind, especially away from home.
But Arsenal didn’t lose to Manchester City on Sunday because the hearts of key players weren’t wholly in it; after all, every player – whether straight out of the youth team or a seasoned veteran – will be naturally desperate to impress a new manager.
Rather, it was a combination of how exceptional and well-polished Pep Guardiola’s side now is after securing their first Premier League title, and the biggest obstacle Unai Emery faces in attempting to bring a refreshed philosophy to north London – the tactical unsuitability of some of his biggest talents and most experienced names.
Perhaps the key example of that is Petr Cech. Fulham signing Fabri was the only Premier League goalkeeper to make more saves than the Arsenal glovesman last weekend, but his obvious discomfort when attempting to play out of the back – at one point even almost passing the ball into his own net – was as detrimental as his saves were beneficial to the Gunners’ overall performance.
But it also rings painfully true with the two Arsenal players, excepting Granit Xhaka, who unsurprisingly bore the brunt of criticism for Sunday’s performance – Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Both wide-men left their full-backs exposed as City’s two goals tellingly came from Benjamin Mendy’s marauding overlaps, while only the introduction of Stephan Lichtsteiner for Ainsley Maitland-Niles plugged up porous leaks on the opposite flank.
The statistics though, tell a far different story; Mkhitaryan made the most tackles, five, of any player on the pitch, covered the most distance of any Arsenal player and made the second-most sprints after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Ozil, meanwhile, recorded the most possession gains of anyone in an Arsenal shirt, seven, and was third amongst Emery’s starting XI for distance covered.
Clearly, the shortcomings of all three on Sunday weren’t for the want of trying, and there were moments when they just about got it right. But they don’t naturally fit the wide roles Emery’s tasked them with, so when they attempted to fulfil them it came across as half-baked lip service to the level of industriousness – or in Cech’s case, technical bravery – Arsenal will need to finish inside the top four this season.
You wouldn’t expect Danny Welbeck to put in a heroic, impenetrable performance at centre-half, so should we really expect more of Ozil and Mkhitaryan when they’re being asked to act like dynamic wing-backs instead of No.10s, or when Cech’s being made to do his best impression of Manuel Neuer? They just aren’t programmed to play in that way, and while Cech, Ozil and Mkhitaryan offered their best efforts against City – as the statistics clearly show – it simply wasn’t good enough for that calibre of opponent.
It should be a grave concern for Emery that three of the most experienced players at Arsenal, two of whom are on long contracts, are so obviously incompatible with what he wanted from them on Sunday. Yes, all footballers are adaptable to some degree, but you have to wonder how flexible the style of play of a 36-year-old goalkeeper and two 29-year-old playmakers can really be at this stage in their careers.
And age is a really important factor here too, because much of the issues are generational. Cech belongs to probably the last era of goalkeepers that gave little attention to quality in possession – although he’s a little stronger and more consistent than those before him, goalkeepers of his generation were never cherry-picked on footballing ability or trained to improve it in the same way.
He still lives within the mindset that goalkeepers should see as little of the ball as possible, which is why he’s so obviously nervous when playing out of the back.
Ozil and Mkhitaryan too, developed during a period when the footballing world was obsessed with free-spirited No.10s, who would drift in and out of games for large periods before popping up at the perfect time to produce a moment of match-winning quality.
Entire teams were created to facilitate that kind of mercurial playmaker, sitting behind the striker with the rest of the XI doing the legwork for them, but that way of tactical thinking doesn’t really exist anymore; it’s evolved back into 4-3-3 with two roaming No.8s powering on from the engine room to create and support attacks.
Of course, Emery is a 4-2-3-1 manager, the system he started Arsenal in on Sunday, but Ozil and Mkhitaryan lack the natural dynamism and energy for the wider roles. If they’re doing their jobs defensively, they struggle to have any impact going forward; and if they do their jobs in attack, they end up leaving gaping spaces behind them for the opposition to exploit.
And while the riddle regarding Cech isn’t particularly difficult to solve following the arrival of Bernd Leno, a much younger goalkeeper who will be far more comfortable using his feet, the situation with Ozil and Mkhitaryan is much more perplexing.
There’s no obvious way of getting them and Aaron Ramsey into the same starting XI without seriously impacting the functionality of Emery’s system and although that’s not necessarily their fault, at least in the way Arsenal fans may have you think, it seems inevitable that something must change.
Here’s where it becomes a lot more challenging as Emery’s battle becomes somewhat political. Ozil and Mkhitaryan are both high earners under contract until 2021 and on paper they’re still the most talented footballers at the club. Moving them on will be difficult, especially considering few teams in the world will manage to match their wages, and the fact Mkhitaryan was a Sven Mislintat signing only adds a layer of awkwardness to the whole situation.
But for Emery to become a success in north London, these are the players he’ll eventually need to phase out or adapt his philosophy to better accommodate – although Wenger’s attempts to do that with Ozil tell us it’s very much a losing battle. Perhaps, in the meantime, there’s a way of sacrificing one for the sake of the other – that alone will be a difficult choice for Emery to make.
But its clear that across the next few transfer windows, some of Arsenal’s biggest names will need to be moved on.