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Arsenal's defeat to Rennes shows Unai Emery is facing an uphill battle
Arsenal face Manchester United on Super Sunday from 4.15pm
Last Updated: 08/03/19 10:45am
Ten-man Arsenal suffered a 3-1 away defeat to Rennes in the first leg of their Europa League round-of-16 tie. The manner of the defeat and the congested fixture list only highlights the problems that Unai Emery is having to deal with this season, writes Adam Bate.
No excuses has been Unai Emery's attitude from the start. It is the culture that he is trying to create. So while the odds were against Arsenal when Sokratis Papastathopoulos was shown a red card during the first half of their Europa League game away to Rennes on Thursday, the Gunners head coach will not have been impressed by the response.
Thanks to Alex Iwobi's early cross-shot, Arsenal had the only goal of the game at the time and game management should have been the only goal of the game from then onwards. The equaliser was a wonderful strike but the second goal was slack, and the third, coming as it did on the counter-attack in the 88th minute, was unacceptable in the circumstances.
If the sight of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang turning his back on the play while Rennes retrieved it in the build-up to that second goal was jarring, the collective failure for the third was even worse. Perhaps most frustratingly, substitute Matteo Guendouzi was jogging back without any intent when the problem unfolding ahead of him should have been obvious.
This is the softness that Emery was recruited to stop.
Rennes punish 10-man Arsenal
Rennes came from behind to beat Arsenal 3-1 in the first leg of their Europa League clash.
In some respects, he is clearly making progress. There has been more appetite to Arsenal's work this season with signs that some of the pressing principles are being adopted. They have outrun their opponents in six of their last seven Premier League games and are the only top-half team to have covered at least 110 kilometres in every game in that period.
The home form has been particularly strong, having won eight Premier League games in a row at the Emirates Stadium. The away form was just as impressive earlier in the season - winning seven of the first nine games on the road in all competitions - but that has been more of an issue of late. Arsenal need to maintain their levels but the fixtures keep coming.
This was their fifth game in 15 days and if Aubameyang had converted that late spot-kick at Wembley last weekend, they would have won the previous four. "For this match we don't have any excuse because we have had time to prepare well," Emery had said before the trip to a raucous Rennes but the challenge of the Europa League should not be underestimated.
Emery is not working miracles but nor is it easy what he is trying to achieve this season. History shows that much. It is very rare indeed to find a team competing in the Europa League that is able to exceed expectations in their domestic league at the same time.
It is much easier to make the leap to the Champions League by either being in it already, and having the riches that come with that, or by finishing so low down the table in the previous season that there is no Europa League to contend with. Liverpool have done that twice in the current decade. Leicester, Manchester United and Chelsea have done it too.
But negotiating a Europa League campaign and finishing in the top four? The only Premier League team that's done that since the tournament took its current format is Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham in 2015/16 - and they got 70 points that season. Arsenal are likely to need many more than that if they hope to pull off a repeat this time around.
Emery inherited a team that registered only 63 points in Arsene Wenger's final season. There are many reasons for the drop off in performance under his predecessor but perhaps it should not be underestimated that the worst season of his reign came when Wenger found himself grappling with the Europa League for the first time since the days when it was a very different tournament, the former UEFA Cup, in the previous century.
Arsenal are now only two wins away from that tally of 63 points already. They are on course to get to 75 points this season, a mark they have not passed in any of the previous four campaigns. That is pretty impressive given the unique challenges of the competition.
Wenger, to his credit, was no fan of using the Europa League as an excuse either. He argued that playing Wednesday and Saturday was no different to playing on Thursday and then Sunday. But what about the fact that the Champions League games are sometimes on a Tuesday? And the subsequent Premier League games are sometimes on a Sunday?
For the most part, Arsenal have coped with the rhythms of it well. They put five past Fulham after winning 3-0 away in Azerbaijan, despite Emery naming five of the same starting line-up. They won the derby against Tottenham off the back of a victory in Ukraine and have since been to Belarus too. However luxurious, these are not short trips.
Emery, of course, is well familiar with the demands of the competition having famously won it three times on the spin with Sevilla. They had to play 19 games in the first of those wins and it came at a cost. Sevilla didn't finish in the top four in any of those three seasons, only doing so after Emery's departure. Funnily enough, that just happened to be the season that they didn't have to trouble themselves with it.
All of which highlights what Arsenal are up against. They are not out of the competition yet and will fancy their chances of turning around a 3-1 deficit on home soil. But they return to England for their showdown with Manchester United in a very different mental place to their top-four rivals.
The games keep coming and the problem for Unai Emery is that he finds himself still needing to demand much more from these players.