Starting a new season with a new manager against the only team to ever collect 100 Premier League points was a cruel twist from the fixture computer but in some ways, it has been helpful for Arsenal.
Unai Emery will have appreciated the clarity he received on Sunday.
He now has no doubt about the size of the task facing him as he attempts to undo decades-long collective and institutionalized idiocy that also comes with a special penchant for spectacular individual mistakes at the most inopportune moments.
It was easy to get carried away before Arsenal’s game against Manchester City kicked off. I know I did. I even convinced myself we could get something from the game. Well, maybe I wasn’t convinced, but I certainly didn’t stop myself from contemplating it as a possibility.
But the task facing Emery and his coaches is far bigger than many of us realised or accepted until Sunday afternoon and there seemed to be almost palpable sadness for him because of that. Normally a new manager comes in and makes an immediate impact – new manager bounce – but Emery won’t get that.
Had Arsene Wenger been in charge of Sunday’s match, we would have all left the Emirates or turned off our TVs knowing that the rest of the season was going to play out almost exactly like the previous three, four or five. We’d know that when the players turned up for training on Monday they would carry on doing what they’ve always done, attempting to get different results using the same methods. Albert Einstein called this ‘insanity’.
So while many of the flaws we saw repeated against City are ones we know come from the Wenger era, with Emery at the helm we can be confident that the team will be, at the very least, trying to address these issues.
That in itself is all many Arsenal fans wanted – to know that the club saw the same problems as they did and wanted to fix them. Nobody is expecting immediate results except the most intractable idiot who rarely finds happiness in anything. We just want something different.
Aaron Ramsey playing as an auxiliary centre forward was certainly that. As was hooking him before 55 minutes were on the clock while leaving the significantly less experienced Matteo Guendouzi on the pitch. Wenger, as you know, would have removed the youngster and dropped Ramsey deeper after 70 minutes, if he made the change at all.
We learned that Emery wants his team to build from that back and that requires a ball-playing keeper. We also learned that won’t be Petr Cech whose 73.8% pass completion rate was only marginally worse than Hector Bellerin’s on the day.
Across the board, it was an off day from Arsenal in terms of finding their teammates, not just for those two. Perhaps it was indicative of a new sort of nervousness. Arsenal only found a teammate 80% of the time, although City weren’t much better at 84%.
Many in this squad are a little fragile, as you know. Playing in front of a crowd that showed themselves last season hostile to the point of getting the manager removed, they know they are playing for their place in the squad for the first time in years.
There is no sentimentality anymore. Unai Emery doesn’t have favourites. It’s hard to imagine Wenger removing both Ramsey and Granit Xhaka when trying to contain City at home while needing to score.
Alexandre Lacazette replaced Ramsey and, despite coming close almost immediately, Pep Guardiola’s response was key. Eight minutes after Emery’s change, he brought on Kevin de Bruyne and City doubled their lead 240 seconds later.
From there, City took hold of the game properly.
As Helen wrote on Sunday morning, going into this game, it was hard to know what to expect. Now we do.
We know that we need to give Unai and his team time. Gary Neville said on Sky Sports that he thinks he will need three or four transfer windows to really make a difference to this team and how they play. That would take us to January 2020.
I don’t think it will take that long, but it is likely to cost us a return to the Champions League this season via the Premier League.
We also know the defence still needs serious work, Petr Cech is not the keeper for us going forward, and that Matteo Guendouzi was bought as more than just ‘one for the future’.
Rehabilitation is not a quick process. You cannot expect to unlearn a lifetime of destructive habits with a couple of therapy sessions and a self-help book, so the Arsenal team will need much longer to find their new way.
The important thing is not how far they have to go, but that they are finally on the road.