Speaking 24 hours before Saturday’s riveting 1-1 draw with Liverpool, Unai Emery was clear about what he wanted to see from his Arsenal team against Jurgen Klopp’s Premier League title hopefuls.
“The result tomorrow is very important but first I want to show them, to show you and to show everybody our best mentality in the game,” he told reporters on Friday. “I know if we have a very big mentality in the game and a very big performance individually and collectively – and also we need some luck – then I think we can win.”
Win they didn’t, but Arsenal did at least display the “big mentality” asked of them by Emery – and for which the Gunners manager must take credit for instilling.
Arsenal have long been guilty of surrendering early in matches against their Big Six rivals, especially at Emirates Stadium. Last season they were two down after 11 minutes at home to Manchester United, three down after 33 minutes when hosting Manchester City and also trailed at half-time when Liverpool came to north London.
It was a trait that bled into this campaign, with City needing just 14 minutes to take the upper hand at Arsenal on the opening weekend and Chelsea going two up in 20 minutes when the Gunners went to Stamford Bridge six days later. Although Emery’s side embarked on a run of 12 wins in 13 games thereafter, they continued to begin hesitantly, with 26 of their 34 goals in that spell arriving after the interval.
On Saturday it was different. Despite being underdogs and conceding seven times in their two contests with Liverpool last term, Arsenal started on the front foot. Instead of wilting at the occasion they showed courage, and it almost paid off in the opening exchanges when Sead Kolasinac’s overlapping run and cross teed up Alexandre Lacazette to draw an early save from Alisson.
Arsenal might well have gone behind before James Milner’s 61st-minute strike and perhaps should have trailed at the break. The decision to disallow a Sadio Mane goal for offside was questionable, while Virgil van Dijk also hit a post. But, unusually, they were going toe-to-toe with a Big Six rival and might equally have taken the lead when Henrikh Mkhitaryan failed to guide his header on target with Alisson marooned.
Despite his team’s uncharacteristically bold start, Emery still managed to engineer an urgency in the second half that, in little more than three months at Arsenal, has become the animated Spaniard’s calling card. And, as has also become the norm under the former Sevilla and Paris Saint-Germain head coach, Emery’s tactical changes proved the catalyst for improvement.
Withdrawing a player who had scored five goals in his last three league games did not look the obvious move for a manager chasing an equaliser, but Emery’s subtitution of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for Alex Iwobi directly led to Lacazette’s 82nd-minute leveller. Iwobi drifted in from the left and picked out the diagonal dart of Lacazette, who had been afforded extra space by the decoy run of another sub, Danny Welbeck. It was a ballsy switch from Emery but in keeping with his approach.
Wins in these games may have to wait a little longer, but for now it is evidence enough of Emery’s work that Arsenal no longer crumble at the first sight of a Big Six rival. Rather, they look robust, well organised even, and, if Saturday’s performance is anything to go by, finally ready to hold their own against the teams they hope to challenge for a place in the top four.