Unai Emery’s system beats out a dull rhythm that fails to entrance

Jacob Steinberg at the Emirates Stadium on 23 September 2018

How did Arsenal secure their fourth consecutive Premier League win and the first clean sheet of the Unai Emery era? Was it with solidity in defence, enterprise in midfield and breathtaking invention in attack? Were there signs of a team slowly getting to grips with their new manager’s demands after a summer of seismic change? Could it be time to declare Arsenal are back?

Not quite. Slow down, step back. Resist the urge to look at the result and declare that this was a routine stroll for a rampant side. Listen instead to Marco Silva, who pithily observed this is football. It is not always fair, it does not always make sense and Emery could afford to smile when asked if he had been preparing to remove Alexandre Lacazette shortly before the striker gave Arsenal an undeserved lead early in the second half.

In an alternate universe, Emery was being quizzed about replacing Lacazette with Alex Iwobi and Silva was hailing Everton for winning this fixture for the first time since 1996. Back in this reality, however, Arsenal had triumphed thanks to a piece of genius from Lacazette, a brilliant goalkeeping performance from Petr Cech and an error from the officials, who failed to spot Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was at least a yard offside when he made it 2-0 in the 59th minute. While Emery breathed a sigh of relief, Silva criticised his side’s shoddy finishing and pointed out that VAR would have chalked off Aubameyang’s effort.

Illogical moments heightened the sense of confusion. There were more questions than answers for Arsenal and defeat felt harsh on Everton, who have now won one of their first six matches. The visitors were the team with a coherent plan in the first half. Richarlison was a troublesome opponent for Héctor Bellerín, Theo Walcott kept racing behind Nacho Monreal and Arsenal owed a debt of gratitude to Cech for offering a reminder of his enduring class with five saves in the opening period. For all that the veteran has struggled with the ball at his feet this season, he still knows how to use his hands. Cech was forced into action as early as the second minute when he read Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s attempt to skip round him and the 36-year-old must have been exasperated at his side’s messy defending.

The home fans groaned at their side’s slapdash display. The atmosphere was subdued and there was panic whenever Arsenal tried to pass out from the back. Everton pressed high, forcing errors from Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, who would limp off after injuring himself bringing down Walcott.

Arsenal’s predictability in possession was as much of a concern as their sloppy defending. Lucas Torreira can be excused for toiling on his first league start – the Uruguay midfielder picked up an early booking for a foul on Kurt Zouma – but it is difficult not to be critical of Emery’s attacking rhythms. Gone were the sharp one-twos that characterised Arsenal under Arsène Wenger. They crossed with Moyesian frequency and looked reliant on random bursts of inspiration from one of their gifted forwards. It typified their uncertainty when Aubameyang’s lame cross from the left drifted on to the top of the bar.

Aubameyang looked uncomfortable on the left wing and Mesut Özil was just as unhappy on the right. Both men drifted inside too much, robbing Arsenal of natural width. Lacazette was starved of service in the middle.

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Yet Everton failed to capitalise. A little more urgency in midfield led to Aaron Ramsey taking Torreira’s pass, turning away from Tom Davies and finding Lacazette, who summoned the decisiveness lacking in Everton’s play in the final third with a bending shot that left Jordan Pickford grasping at thin air.

The mood had changed. Even then, however, Arsenal’s second goal was a messy affair. Everton lost their composure and Zouma’s error allowed Lacazette to release Özil. The German played a pass behind Ramsey, whose backheel ran to Aubameyang. The flag stayed down and Arsenal were on their way to enjoying a lucky escape. Yet if the result is all that counts, then Emery is entitled to believe he is on the right track.

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