One of the common phrases that was chucked around during the increasingly venomous Wenger Out campaign and the great man’s farewell tour was “be careful what you wish for”. The fear was that Wenger’s replacement would, with hindsight, show Arsenal as having been overachieving under the Frenchman.
Well, it now looks like Unai Emery is the man to take over, and – despite many of them thinking otherwise – I don’t think Arsenal fans could have wished for a better replacement.
Emery still deserves to be talked about as one of the best coaches around. Not at the very top echelon? Perhaps not, but let’s be brutally honest – nor are Arsenal. Many fans are up in arms that Simeone, Allegri, or Jardim, to name but three, have not been recruited. Has it occurred to them that perhaps they were approached and they didn’t see the Arsenal role as such a dream job?
The fact is that Arsenal are a little in the wilderness, unable to compete financially with Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United, overtaken this season by Liverpool in terms of entertainment value, and trailing behind rivals Tottenham for the second straight year. Their Europa League campaign was commendable, but they were outclassed as soon as they met quality opposition. And history suggests that replacing a long-serving, successful coach is often a hiding to nothing – just look at the couple of years following the tenures of Sirs Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford.
So the idea that the world’s greatest coaches would be beating down the doors of the Emirates is deluded.
On that basis, the appointment of Emery should be celebrated at Arsenal. Yes, he is coming off a mixed two years at PSG. But that doesn’t suddenly make him a poor coach.
In Spain, he led Valencia to two third-place finishes – the second after having lost his two star players, Davids Silva and Villa. At Sevilla, he secured two top five finishes in three years, but also led the team to three straight Europa League titles. He showed himself to be meticulous in his preparation (by all accounts, it was his detailed assessment of the Arsenal squad during his interview presentation that won him the new role), tactically adaptable and – perhaps importantly for Arsenal – able to rebuild after key departures.
Deservedly recognised for his achievements with a move to PSG, the past two years in the Qatari-led bubble have been a strange experience which has seen him win five trophies yet leave as a failure in many people’s eyes. Most damning should be the loss of the title to Monaco, but most notorious are the Champions League failures against Barcelona and Real Madrid.
People will choose their side when it comes to ascribing blame to Emery. But even the harshest critic cannot claim that he was working in ideal conditions. The constant manoeuvring and butting-in from those above him meant that he rarely had a free rein in the most important decisions.
When the team clearly needed reinforcements in defence and midfield, they blew all their permitted budget on two strikers. One of those strikers has been so indulged by those above Emery that he is able to pick and choose matches, fly home to Brazil at a whim, engage in childish public spats about penalty taking, and always get his way.
When Emery arrived, there was much call for PSG to progress from their often-sterile possession-based game. He adapted to a 4-2-3-1, which saw the team have less of the ball but be far faster when attacking, moving towards a more clinical counter-attacking game; arguably one of PSG’s best matches under his tenure was one of the very first – the 4-1 win over Lyon in the 2016 Trophee des Champions. However, the senior players didn’t like the change, complained to PSG’s hierarchy, and Emery was forced to revert to the sometimes insipid previous style.
Everyone remembers last year’s 6-1 defeat to Barcelona (forgetting Emery’s masterminding of the 4-0 first leg win). The second leg collapse was a shared fault – including that of Emery, who set his team up to defend and then, looking increasingly ragged on the touchline, failed to transmit his message to push the defensive line forward. His fault partly, but much of the blame should fall on Thiago Silva, who went mentally missing (not for the first time) as the match progressed. Silva’s form has nose-dived in the past two years, but he is one of the older clique indulged and protected over Emery’s head – and further emboldened by the Brazilian nucleus that has developed around Neymar and Dani Alves.
Turning to the younger generation, here Emery has made progress. Presnel Kimpembe has been given opportunities to shine and earned a place in France’s World Cup squad. Christopher Nkunku is gradually being blooded and has already shown what a talent he is. Alphonse Areola is among Ligue 1’s most improved players this season (although, in a typically PSG move, may yet be usurped by an aging, opinionated star on the wane). Giovanni Lo Celso, whose signing did not appear to impress Emery at the time, has become an increasingly influential player – and a joyful one to watch – this season. And Adrien Rabiot, too, has improved in the past two years – although his attitude and continued refusal to play in the No. 6 role remains a concern. Blame for this can perhaps be placed at Emery’s door – one would expect the coach to be able to call the shots against a young homegrown player.
As the two years at PSG wore on – and certainly after the defeat against Real Madrid (again – shared blame – PSG were holding their own until a strange Emery tactical switch on the right flank – but the players went mentally AWOL for the final 95 minutes of the tie and were not helped by another totally preventable Verratti red card) – Emery increasingly looked like someone who had accepted his fate and was waiting for the end to come.
Yes, he should have been more forceful in the face of those above him in the boardroom and below him on the pitch. He should have stuck to his guns in terms of tactics and personnel. And it is a reasonable concern for Arsenal fans that he has become a soft touch – one of the criticisms of Wenger in his later years.
However, at Arsenal, he will be working with a board that knows equally little about football as those at PSG – except that at Arsenal they also couldn’t care less, and so won’t be undermining him at every turn. At Arsenal, he will also have player egos to contend with, but they will not be in the same league – and certainly will not have as much influence – as those at PSG, and so should be easier to combat. At Arsenal, he will be able to work with young players and also to show his ability to replace departing stars with new talents. At Arsenal, he will be able to implement his own tactical preferences and impose them on the team. And at Arsenal – despite the often unreasonable fans – the expectation and pressure will not be as high as at PSG.
History has shown that a change of regime after such a long period usually leads to a dip in performance and position. In Emery, Arsenal have recruited someone who should be more than capable of maintaining current levels – and is very likely to make the slight improvements that will see them competing for Champions League places again. All he needs is a little support.