Unai Emery’s Arsenal and the search for the 90-minute performance

At times in this fledgling season, Arsenal have been free-flowing, incisive, and near perfect in their execution of Unai Emery’s brand of attacking football.

But that has seldom, if at all, been true of the first 45 minutes of matches – quite the opposite, in fact.

The Gunners have often played some pretty lethargic, underwhelming football in the opening half, both in league and European competition, and have required a real spark in order to jolt them into life.

When Arsenal do get it going, as we have all seen, they have been spectacular but the problem has been teasing a complete, 90-minute performance from the team.

It is a confounding problem and one that is readily recognised and often cited by Emery in his press conferences as he talks about areas he would like to see his side improve as they seek to build confidence and momentum.

Monday night’s matchup with Leicester was another case in point. The Foxes more than had the measure of their hosts during the first 30 minutes of the match, finding space and operating with impunity across the midfield.

It would not be unfair to say that Arsenal were fortunate to be only a single goal behind when they fashioned an equaliser.

And yet, once they had their goal, there seemed to be no stopping them. The team short-shifted from first gear to fifth and simply obliterated Leicester, who had no answer for some of the football the Gunners were playing. It was true dominance from a side that had been unable to put a foot on the ball for much of the opening half-hour.

Why? What is it about the opening exchanges of football matches that bamboozles are group of players who are clearly capable of much more?

Aside from their performance at Chelsea, a match they lost 3-2 both scored twice in the first half, the Gunners have struggled to get their gears turning in the first 45 against most of their opponents, relying on second-half onslaughts to propel them to victory.

According to well-circulatred statistics, the Gunners have scored 15 second-half goals so far this season, compared to just six in our first halves. We have also taken more shots (66-50), and have a higher expected goals result (8-6) in second halves.

While our second half salvos have proven devastatingly effective against the likes of Fulham, Everton, Watford, Leicester and company, you have to think that it will be costly against the teams with whom we are competing for the top places in the Premier League this year.

Liverpool, for example, are masters of the hyper-intense, fast start and, against this Arsenal side, could find themselves three goals to the good before we have so much as laced up our boots.

If Emery is to avoid having to rely on canny substitutions or the smart saves of Berndt Leno and Petr Cech, therefore, he is going to have to find a way to get his players performing at their best from the outset.

Thursday’s match against Sporting Lisbon might be the ideal opportunity for the manager to address that issue. Perhaps it is better the problem is ironed out away from the glare of the Premier League rather than left to fester as we prepare for the weekend’s trip to Selhurst Park.

Roy Hodgson is many things, but a silly man he is not. His coaches will have noticed the way teams have come after us early on, particularly in wide areas, and he is certain to do the same, especially with a player as talented as Wilfred Zaha at his disposal.

So while there is a tremendous amount to celebrate around the team at the moment, and a feel-good factor that has been missing for years, there are a few little bits and pieces still to tweak before we can truly say we have turned the tide.

Big losses in key games have often been body blows for this side in the past and, if we are to move away from the Arsene Wenger era, finding a way to stay competitive in those big games will be crucial.

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