Arsenal still a laughing stock but signs show they won't be a punchline forever
Oh, Arsenal. With your wide eyes so full of hope. With your hearts aflutter and your smiles so broad. A new epoch begins, the world seems so bright and fresh ... and then Manchester City tear you open like a bag of chips and your goalkeeper smashes one past his own far post.
Arsenal's enduring commitment to slapstick should be one of the key selling points in the Premier League's international TV rights brochure. Arms outstretched, an upturned tin of paint on their heads, they stumble blindly toward a steep flight of stairs and the world -- or at least the non-Arsenal supporting world -- howls with delight and taps in credit card details for another season-long subscription.
With a trip to Chelsea this weekend, it could get worse for the Gunners before it gets better. Yet there are reasons to believe that this may all be a blessing in disguise, albeit a really, really convincing disguise.
Arsenal's problems, as may have been pointed out once or twice over the last decade, are serious and engrained. They are not going to be solved in one transfer window, or by one preseason training camp.
City's second goal, and it was only their own rustiness that prevents this line from continuing "...of six," was a case in point: City run rampant and the back four retreat in terror. Granit Xhaka takes up a position of minimal effectiveness and Benjamin Mendy is able to cut the ball back to an area of the penalty box, which is conspicuous by the complete absence of Arsenal players.
Had manager Unai Emery stood up and shouted, "You know what? This is pointless, you're all idiots and I'm going home," it would have been an entirely understandable reaction.
This football club, with its magnificent stadium and fine training facilities, is in excellent shape. But this football team needs to be taken apart. Ideally with a sledge hammer. And then it needs to be rebuilt according to a strict ideology of not making it really easy for teams to score against them. Sadly, this sort of thing doesn't happen overnight. Anyone who expected it to be otherwise requires a hug and a serious chat about the realities of life.
But the City game, and quite possibly the Chelsea game this weekend, will serve that sobering purpose adequately. Then Emery can dust everyone down, wipe away the blood and get to work, safe in the knowledge that expectations have been lowered accordingly. Which will be just in time for West Ham, Cardiff and Newcastle, three very winnable fixtures.
With seven to nine points from that spell, or possibly even six if the defeat in question is noble or unfortunate, Emery could rightly claim to be back on track. Memories are short in football and there is a premium on short-term vibes. Far better that the wins come in this order than the other way around. Tactics and personnel might be the bricks that build a new team, but confidence is the mortar that holds it all together.
And it's entirely reasonable to suggest that improvement is inbound. Because if you watch that City game closely, you'll see tiny green -- well, not shoots, exactly. But certainly green nubbins of something breaking out from the crust of the earth. In Matteo Guendouzi, they have uncovered a cult hero. He's a vibrant tyro whose endearing ability to shrug off disappointment and return, re-energised, to the fray gives him the air of a dog in a park convinced that this time his owner really will throw that stick. You may titter at him, but indefatigable spirit can be contagious. If it doesn't rub off on his colleagues, it will certainly be appreciated by the fans
Did you notice the appalling behaviour of Stephan Lichtsteiner? The injury feigning? The whining? The entirely unnecessary aggression? At last! Arsenal have got themselves a bastard -- an experienced, devious bastard who will not go quietly into the night with his tail between his legs. This too will start to rub off on the dressing room.
And for all that City devastated the game plan of this nascent football team, at least Arsenal had a game plan. At least some forethought was evident from the dugout. The laissez-faire attitude of the last days of the Arsene Wenger era appears to have vanished.
None of this guarantees that Emery will ultimately be successful, nor that Arsenal won't slip even further off the pace. But at least they look ready to move on now. Early defeats can be wielded as mandates for change, and Arsenal needed change more than most clubs.
Now that it's clear that Emery doesn't have a magic wand and that a title challenge is going to be something for other people to worry about this season, the real work can begin.