Real Madrid's Belgian midfielder Eden Hazard
Real Madrid's Belgian midfielder Eden Hazard (left) fights for the ball with Arsenal's English defender Carl Jenkinson (front) during the International Champions Cup football match between Real Madrid and Arsenal at FedExField in Landover, Maryland, on July 23, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: Unai Emery has said Arsenal must improve defensively and become more consistent if they are to catch Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea this season as he warned fans to be “realistic” about their prospects of challenging at the top of the table.

Arsenal finished two points behind third-placed Chelsea and one point off Spurs last season as they failed to qualify for the Champions League in Emery’s first campaign. The Arsenal head coach saw the year as one of progress in the first season since Arsene Wenger’s exit, but accepted that his players were not always able to produce the high-intensity football he demands.

“My idea is the same,” Emery said. “I want a team with good positioning, combinations between the players and also experience in all situations, being able to attack and play with a big intensity. I like the energy, I like to be the protagonists.

“Some matches last year we can see this is our philosophy, the intensity we want to create. At other times we could not do that.”

Arsenal finished 28 points behind Manchester City last season. Asked if his side could pose a title challenge this time around, Emery said: “We need to be realistic, and now the distance between Liverpool and Manchester City to us is [a lot of] points.

“We need to improve defensively, but with no loss offensively. Sometimes it is true that we struggled defensively and to take the -balance. Sometimes we took this balance last year and our challenge is to keep producing that.”

Emery’s hopes for the new campaign will be lifted by the imminent arrival of Real Madrid midfielder Dani Ceballos on a season-long loan. The 22-year-old is seen as one of the most gifted young players in Spain and will fill the void left by Aaron Ramsey.

“For me, [we want] to sign players only if we are convinced they are going to improve our [squad],” Emery added. “There is two or three, no more than four, who can improve that.”

Fan protests marred the start of Arsenal’s pre-season voyage across America, with a petition launched by 16 fan websites reaching over 100,000 signatures in a matter of days.

Owners Stan Kroenke and Kroenke Sports & Entertainment (KSE) were the target of the ire with supporters unhappy at the prospect of a third straight season of Europa League football and feeling “marginalized” by the club hierarchy.

On the pitch, however, results remained positive. Having comfortably seen off Colorado Rapids in their tour opener, Arsenal beat a strong Bayern Munich and cruised past Italian side Fiorentina in intense heat in Charlotte.

What was so impressive about these three successes was that apart from one own goal, all seven Arsenal scores came from the youngsters.

Emery’s faith in 20-year-old Eddie Nketiah and teenagers Bukayo Saka, Joe Willock and Gabriel Martinelli was fully repaid as all four got on the scoresheet.

Londoner Nketiah found the net three times and all looked at home in the senior side.

“The players coming up from the academy are so special,” Saka said after the Fiorentina win.

“The next generation of us can be in this Arsenal team and take on the world.”

Against Real Madrid in the final tour match on Tuesday, Emery gave his senior players some game time and, while they let slip a two-goal lead and lost out on penalties (3-2) after a 2-2 draw, there was plenty to please the Spaniard.

Gareth Bale shrugged off uncertainty over his Real Madrid future, his second-half goal helping the La Liga giants rally for a friendly win over Arsenal.

Madrid clawed back from two goals down to finish full time at 2-2, and prevailed 3-2 in the penalty shootout dictated by the International Champions Cup exhibition tournament format.

“Really, we are very happy we finished today that match with the same spirit we played before,” Emery said.

- With inputs from agencies