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First Team General

The Why of Unai

The 20th April 2018 is a day that no Arsenal fan will forget in a hurry, as Arsène Wenger announced that he was to step down at the end of the current season after twenty-two years in charge at the Gunners.

It was no mean feat, Wenger was the League’s longest-serving manager and was second only to Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson in terms of general longevity. For the first time in twenty-two years, Arsenal found themselves staring down the barrel of needing to find a new head-coach.

As Wenger said upon announcing his resignation, the club would have no shortage of suitors looking to take over the reigns of power at one of Europe’s most well-respected clubs. 

Names began to swirl around the press all over the world, as was expected. Names such as Carlo Ancelotti, then of Napoli, Massimiliano Allegri, at Juventus, Rafael Benítez at Newcastle United and Mikel Arteta, Assistant Coach to Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.

There had been rumours of former players Patrick Vieria or Thierry Henry returning to the club, but the name that began to dominate the headlines was a different former player, Mikel Arteta, who looked for a while, as though he would be the ones handed the reigns.

Arsène Wenger waves goodbye to Arsenal fans after twenty-two years service.

However, at the eleventh hour, Arsenal opted for a different name, one that had not been circulated in the press anywhere and one that came completely out of nowhere, Unai Emery.

Emery had just concluded an eventful but ultimately disappointing tenure with Paris Saint-Germain. Though Emery left having won the French league and with two Coupe de Frances, two Coupe de la Ligues and two Trophée des Champions, there was always a feeling that the Spaniard had never felt quite at home in Paris and was perhaps not the manager to lead PSG to that most coveted of trophies, the UEFA Champions League.

While Arsenal fans were noticeably excited by the prospect of Arteta taking over, it was not entirely unreasonable to see the club opt for the safer pair of hands that was Unai Emery. Arsenal had concluded the season in sixth place and had been, rather unfairly, dumped out of the Europa League in the semi-finals to Atlético Madrid and Emery came to Arsenal as the joint most successful manager in the competition, having won an impressive three back-to-back Europa Leagues with Sevilla and with Arsenal in dire need of Champions League football, this was a good way of covering both bases of needing top four football and possibly having a trophy to show for it at the end of the season.

As Emery was appointed in pre-season, fans had precious little content to tide them over, aside from tantalising YouTube videos depicting Emery’s methodical training sessions, in which he and assistant Juan Carlos Carcedo, barked orders and watched with a beady eye as the players were duly put through their paces. 

Arsenal fans were again buoyed when it became clear just how methodical and rigorous Emery’s training sessions were; sessions that had the players reportedly working twice as hard as they ever had under Wenger.

Emery’s tenure started fairly well, emphatic wins in pre-season seemed to show that the Spaniard liked to tinker with his team, a lot. While pre-season games are often fairly inaccurate representations of the performances fans would likely come to expect from the team, it was a chance to see Emery’s formations take shape. 

By the time the season rolled around, Arsenal were in good shape. The club had been remarkably quick to conclude any and all transfer business prior to the window slamming shut and had invested in areas that had desperately needed addressing under Wenger. 

Unai Emery leads his first training session at Arsenal

Stephan Lichtsteiner was the team’s first addition along with Bernd Leno, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Lucas Torreira and Mattéo Guendouzi. Arsenal had managed to replace the retiring Per Mertesacker, brought in stiff competition for Petr Čech and had also managed to sign a long-needed central defensive-midfielder and a promising young talent, who had been watched by much of Europe. 

It was perhaps unfair for Emery that when the season’s fixtures were announced, that he was to begin his tenure at the Emirates Stadium against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, the previous season’s champions and still buoyed by their record-breaking 100-point season, which would then be followed by a tricky trip to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. 

To say that these games were a baptism of fire for Emery is fairly accurate. Arsenal were comfortably beaten by City in the opening game of the season and were unlucky to come away with a loss against Chelsea, however, the following games promised a slightly easier schedule for the new boss and more time to tinker with a fairly promising team. 

From there, Arsenal embarked on an impressive, though not totally convincing, twenty-two match unbeaten run in all competitions. Despite the results, the performances had not been enough to change the general consensus that Arsenal were essentially riding their luck and were being saved by the performances of both Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, both of whom were usually found with a goal or two to their name at the end of a narrow victory. 

Off the field was starting to show issues as well, namely in the form of mismanagement from Emery, a subject that would begin to dominate much of his tenure at the club. 

Mesut Özil has often divided critics and fans alike. One minute, a visionary genius capable of creating a chance out of thin air, the next, a lazy, uninterested lightweight who simply doesn’t show his unquestionable talents enough.

It seems that Emery had respect for Özil’s talents and was happy to use him, but questioned his attitude on and off the field. Problems constantly arose with Özil’s performances in training and his questionable output in away fixtures, which led to Özil often being dropped for crucial matches, which tended to coincide with Arsenal’s lack of creativity. 

The issues tended to be around Emery’s rather confusing handling of the situation. One week, he would sagely tell the media that Özil would not be included in the team’s upcoming fixture, the next, he was back in the team, front and centre and with the captain’s armband.

Arsenal’s overreliance on Sead Kolašinac as the team’s only creative outlet was a worrying point and did not unfairly prompt the question of why Emery refused to play the man that Arsenal pay £350,000-a-week to.

Mesut Özil was regularly sidelined by Emery

Apart from Özil, there was also the issue of his management of defender Laurent Koscielny. Koscielny has long-suffered with an achilles issue, an issue that has often rendered him unable to play more than once-a-week, however, with Arsenal’s poor defensive form and long-term injuries to both Rob Holding and Héctor Bellerín, meant that Koscielny was asked to increase his availability. 

For the most part, Koscielny seemed happy to oblige, but his frustrations grew as Emery began to disregard his captain’s injury plan and the defender soon began to see that Emery was becoming increasingly unsupportive of his pre-agreed schedule. 

Soon, the January transfer window rolled around. This gave Arsenal the chance to perhaps plug some gaps and focus their attentions on a defence that was dropping like flies. However, it soon became apparent that Arsenal would be limited in terms of what they could achieve in the January market, limited mainly to loan deals.

What was perhaps more alarming, is that even with the added caveat of only being able to bring players in temporarily, Arsenal were still focusing on attacking players. Arsenal found themselves linked to two players who had played fairly regularly for Emery in previous clubs. The first, was Christopher Nkunku of PSG, who Emery was reportedly very fond of and the other, was Denis Suárez at Barcelona, who had played for Emery on loan at Sevilla. 

It’s fair to say that Arsenal fans were not overjoyed by these targets, given their positions, but also, because both represented fairly underwhelming attempts at “outsmarting the market” and looked suspiciously that Emery would prefer to bring in players he was familiar with than players that would ultimately make a difference. 

Arsenal ended the January window with only one of the two, Denis Suárez, who joined on a six-month loan deal with the option for Arsenal to buy him outright for £18m at the end of the deal. 

This transfer was perhaps the first real sign of the wheels beginning to come off. Suárez was limited to just six appearances in his time with Arsenal, all from the bench (not including a start in a mid-season friendly in Dubai) and was found to have joined Arsenal with an injury which subsequently ruled him out of contention for the rest of the season, putting Arsenal promptly back to square one. 

Suárez’s injury was, of course, not Emery’s fault, nor did he possess the clairvoyance one would have needed to have predicted it would happen, but it did represent a frustratingly profligate transfer window. 

The signing was announced on the 30th January 2019 and looked remarkably like a rushed job. Raül Sanllehí’s clever negotiation to turn an obligation to buy into an option to buy was soon undone by the sign that clearly the due diligence had not been done by the medical team to notice a long-standing problem that Suárez had when arriving. 

This was also coupled by the fact that Suárez already played in a position that Arsenal were not seriously lacking, in fact, Arsenal had a player ready to step in in Mesut Özil, and Emery had, instead of focusing on the defensive issues, focused on phasing Özil out and had paid the price heavily for it. 

Denis Suárez: One of Arsenal’s worst transfers in recent memory

Changes off the field soon began to have an impact as well, as Sven Mislintat, Arsenal’s then Head of Recruitment, left the club some eighteen months after being appointed, to join VfB Stuttgart as their new Technical Director.

Emery was caught in the cross-fires. Mislintat’s rather public departure was related more to his disagreements with Head of Football Raül Sanllehí than with Emery, but as the public-face of the club, Emery was the one who found himself having to dodge awkward questions around a decision he had little-to-no part in. 

Emery’s press conferences soon became the topic of focus more than the games. Emery’s limited grasp of English made it difficult for him to effectively communicate with the media and his players. It became increasingly obvious that Emery’s complex tactical instructions coupled with his insistence of analysing every game in minute detail was beginning to have an effect on the players.

Another issue relating to mismanagement seemed to be the handling of Aaron Ramsey’s situation as well. The Welshman had turned down a new contract offer at the club, wanting a significantly more lucrative offer than Arsenal were prepared to make, but the club refused, citing Özil’s gargantuan contract as a cautionary tale as why they would not give into Ramsey’s demands. 

Emery’s reluctance was born more out of not wanting to put too much faith in a player that was certain not to be at the club next season. The logic made sense, however, it often meant that Arsenal were starved for creativity on the field. Özil was facing another period of prolonged exile and Ramsey was limited to brief cameos as Arsenal tried to muddle through without him. However, just as Emery began to correct this and use Ramsey more and more, he too picked up a long-term injury in Arsenal’s second-leg tie against Napoli and was, like Suárez, now out for the remainder of the campaign.

Emery’s first season was not all doom and gloom however, Arsenal capped off a superb performance at the Mestalla against Valencia, to earn a well-deserved spot in the Europa League final. Though a rather drastic drop-off in performances soon saw Arsenal unable to qualify for the Champions League via the league as Arsenal were only able to muster two wins in their final seven games, which included a humiliating and debilitating 1-1 draw at home to Brighton & Hove Albion, where Emery’s tactics were shown to leave Arsenal wanting yet again. 

Issues off the field began to plague Arsenal’s build-up to the Europa League final in Baku. Emery refused to allow his data and analytics team to prepare for the final before the completion of the league campaign, meaning Arsenal were woefully underprepared for the match. The loss of Aaron Ramsey meant Arsenal were without attacking-depth and the absence of Rob Holding and Héctor Bellerín, both of whom had looked very promising under Emery, meant Arsenal were heading to Azerbaijan with a very bare bones squad. 

Emery had been warned by his medical team not to travel to Azerbaijan too early, citing Azerbaijan’s poor facilities as a reason why and the effects that a long trip could potentially have on the player’s fitness. This too was ignored and Emery ensured that Arsenal flew out early in order to get used to the conditions. Though Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea team hardly faired much better, losing Ruben Loftus-Cheek in an unnecessary post-season friendly. 

Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Lucas Torreira and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang struggle to take in Arsenal’s 4-1 loss in Baku

The final in Baku was a game of two halves. Though Arsenal had not looked overtly threatening in the first-half, they had certainly shown Chelsea that there was plenty to be concerned about, but in the second-half, Arsenal were resoundly beaten, with additional insult to injury being served by former Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud, who netted a brace and denied Arsenal their one chance at Champions League football.

The forlorn look on Emery’s face after the game said a lot, but the face of thunder that was seen on Mesut Özil following his shock substitution in the 77th minute for the hugely inexperienced Joe Willock said much more.

It was not the season Arsenal had hoped for and it was certainly not a great way for Emery to end his first season in charge, but there were still positives for the team to take. 

Despite the unconvincing nature of the results, Arsenal did still manage to sustain a twenty-two match unbeaten run, the team came within two points of fourth place, plenty of youngsters were given chances to shine, the club reached only its second European final in thirteen years and the team looked far more robust from set-pieces, for all the glum faces around N5, there was still enough to be excited about for the following season.

The proceeding transfer window was considered a win for many an Arsenal fan, but for Emery, it was not quite what the doctor had ordered.

Arsenal’s rumoured £45m budget had been an extremely effective negotiation tactic and had landed the club some very coveted names, including Gabriel Martinelli from FC Ituano, Kieran Tierney from Celtic, Dani Ceballos from Real Madrid, Nicolas Pépé from OSC Lille and David Luiz from Chelsea, as well as William Saliba, who was loaned back to AS Saint-Étienne.

Though the names were enough to get a real buzz going around Arsenal, it wasn’t the haul that Emery had asked for. 

Emery had named three players that he wanted. Thomas Partey from Atlético Madrid (who Arsenal are still keen on), Harry Maguire from Leicester City and Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Palace.

Arsenal were priced out of a move for all three. Partey’s release clause of €50m (£45m) was required to be paid in one lump sum, something Arsenal could not commit to. Maguire was in the middle of a tug of war between both Manchester United and Manchester City, with the former signing the England international for a world-record fee of £80m, something Arsenal would have doubtless been unable to have rivalled.

However, when it came to Zaha, Arsenal were rebuffed in their efforts to sign him, as Crystal Palace demanded upwards of £80m for the winger, owing mainly to Zaha’s long-contract and the extortionate sell-on fee that was due to Manchester United (thought to be around 25%), which ended all hopes Arsenal may have harboured over signing the Ivorian winger. 

In the end, Arsenal opted for Nicolas Pépé at £72m, of which Arsenal were able to pay in instalments.  

Wilfried Zaha was Emery’s first choice

Following a dispute around Laurent Koscielny’s contract and his displeasure at the handling of his injury plan, the French defender forced his way out of the club, which reportedly infuriated Emery, who had been counting on the club captain to be a key man in the upcoming season. 

Koscielny’s departure was dealt with fairly swiftly, as he moved to Bordeaux in Ligue 1 for £4m, which prompted a last minute scramble to sign David Luiz from Chelsea for £8m. 

Koscielny’s departure coupled with an injury to Alexandre Lacazette in pre-season was not ideal, but Arsenal still managed to make do with a not altogether convincing win away at Newcastle United and a very impressive 2-1 win at home to Burnley. 

However, a 2-2 draw away to Watford had started to signal a return of the same old problems. Arsenal led comfortably at the break at 2-0, with a functioning attacking outlet. Özil had been restored to the team, Aubameyang was firing on all cylinders and Pépé looked to be hitting his stride after an equally impressive performance in the team’s 3-1 loss to Liverpool. But the second-half brought a different performance.

Emery’s insistence on playing-out-from-the-back had been a key area for teams to exploit in the previous season and it seemed Arsenal had done very little to improve on it, which resulted in Sokratis’ loose pass falling to the feet of Tom Cleverley, who subsequently equalised, which was then followed by David Luiz giving away a his second penalty of the season, which was comfortably converted by Roberto Pereyra.

What followed was a painstaking win at home to Aston Villa, a game that Arsenal were clearly not fully prepared for and were saved by good performances from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mattéo Guendouzi. 

As it had against Watford, the same problems began to rear their ugly heads. Emery’s mismanagement of players was starting to manifest itself in very ugly ways. Mesut Özil’s absence from the side was explained away at the beginning of the season as being a response to Özil and teammate Sead Kolašinac being attacked with a knife in pre-season and needing time to compose themselves and, in Özil’s case, comfort his wife, but the German playmaker was still left out long after returning to first-team training. 

Alexandre Lacazette’s injury was not properly managed and the Frenchman was rushed back into the side before properly recovering, resulting in below-par performances and a poor fitness rate.

His handling of Lucas Torreira also raised some eyebrows. Torreira had been signed by Sven Mislintat. The German scout had simply typed N’Golo Kanté’s name into his own scouting software (Scoutpanel) and found a player with similar attributes and stats and scouted him extensively. 

Lucas Torreira was often mismanaged by Emery

After some impressive performances, it became clear that Torreira was every bit the player that Arsenal needed to finally fill the defensive midfield role that the club had been screaming out for for years. However, after the departure of Aaron Ramsey and the continued banishment of Özil, meant that Emery tried to play Torreira further up the field.

He wasn’t entirely unjustified in his thinking. The aforementioned Kanté had proven to be very effective in the role under Maurizio Sarri and Torreira had the physical stats and the abilities to play the role and really shine in it. The issue seemed to stem from a lack of effective communication as to what Torreira should be doing and a very obvious unfamiliarity with the role.

This began to sap the Uruguayan midfielder of confidence and he was soon demoted to the bench. The fans became frustrated, seeing their promising defensive midfielder polishing the bench while the team’s lightweight midfield was regularly overrun.

The worst was yet to come though.

After Koscielny’s departure, Arsenal had a rather large captain shaped-hole in the squad, which needed filling. Emery said that he intended to announce five new captains for the new season. For many this seemed a bit of overkill, but the sentiment made sense, selecting five captains meant that there would be an established hierarchy in the team and would also give youngsters something to aspire to in the future and the same thing had been done at Manchester City to good effect as well. 

However, weeks passed and yet, Emery still failed to produce the names of his five captains, meaning that Granit Xhaka was asked to step-in, while Emery made his mind up. After several weeks of indecision, Emery changed his mind and asked the squad to vote in a Noam Chomsky-esque approach to captain-selection. 

Emery ended up with five players: Granit Xhaka, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Mesut Özil and Héctor Bellerín. Though this seemed to resolve the issue, it soon raised a new one.

Xhaka being selected as the captain through a player vote suggested that the Swiss international did not have his head-coach’s full backing and that he had only been given the role because the players had voted and not because Emery felt that he was suited to the role. 

Though the issue looked to be shakily resolved, things soon came to a head. An extremely underwhelming performance at home to Crystal Palace at the end of October, saw Emery decide to make changes. Arsenal had blown a 2-0 lead and Xhaka’s performance had been one of the main problem areas of the team’s showing on the day, despite his assist for Arsenal’s first goal, so Emery decided to make a change, bringing on Bukayo Saka for Xhaka. 

Xhaka did not react well to being substituted, as the captain, it was a humiliating thing to have to endure, so Xhaka, somewhat childishly, decided to walk off the field at a leisurely pace. This enraged the Arsenal fans, who’s antipathy towards Xhaka grew with each passing second, with boos ringing around the Emirates Stadium, before it reached a fever pitch. Xhaka mockingly threw his hands in the air, encouraging the fans to continue before noticeably saying “fuck off” to the fans as he left the field of play and walked straight down the tunnel without so much as a cursory glance at his head-coach. It was an ugly site. A site not helped by the end result, a 2-2 draw.

Granit Xhaka’s infamous meltdown against Crystal Palace drew criticism

Emery rightly condemned Xhaka’s actions immediately afterwards in his post-match press conference and interviews, but there was a feeling that Xhaka needed to have a comforting arm around his shoulder to tell him where he had gone wrong and to discipline him but to offer support and a route back into the team. This was not forthcoming and Xhaka, who already felt alienated as a result of Emery’s lack of faith in his pick as captain, was now left further adrift after a furious reaction from fans and had to be consoled in his own home by his teammates. It was like something out of Dream Team. Things were starting to look bad for Arsenal and their league form was taking a nose-dive even aside from their off field dramas.

It wasn’t just the league were Arsenal’s form suffered, despite an impressive start to their Europa League group, the team began to show signs of struggling. A 3-2 home win over Vitória de Guimarães was mainly down to two impressive free-kicks from Nicolas Pépé, who was brought on in a last-ditch attempt to salvage what remained of the game. It perhaps said a lot that Pépé refused to celebrate his two spectacular finishes, but Emery’s lack of celebration was perhaps more telling. Arsenal were on thin ice and needed to reclaim form fast.

The return fixture against Vitória was equally uninspiring as Arsenal played out boring 1-1 draw. This was a key example of what Arsenal were facing as Arsenal failed to record a single win in all competitions throughout November, which all culminated in a 2-1 loss at home to Eintracht Frankfurt, a result which ultimately cost Emery his job.

The performance against Frankfurt was perhaps what summed up what Arsenal had become under Emery the most. An undeserved lead grabbed in the dying embers of the first-half, which was followed by a lacklustre second-half performance, in which the team’s obvious defensive frailities were exposed in devastating fashion. 

Emery’s dismissal was not entirely unexpected at this point. The team had failed to win a single game in all competitions since the 24th of October and had failed to win a league game since a scrappy 1-0 affair at home to Bournemouth. 

Though some fans were happy to see Emery leave, there was a sense of disappointment of how the Spaniard’s appointment had gone. 

Off the field, Emery was everything Arsenal fans had grown accustomed to under Arsène Wenger, reserved, genial, refusing to speak about other teams or individual cases, respectful and classy, but Emery’s respect for his opposition perhaps went too far, which angered the fans and seemed to reflect how his team would prepare for games. 

Emery’s tenure draws to a close

Emery’s grasp of English was another issue for fans as well. While Arsenal fans seemed to universally praise Emery for trying to persevere with a language that he was unfamiliar with, it did seem to affect how he was communicating with the fans. As Emery’s press conferences were the only communications that the club had between them and the fans, Emery’s rudimentary grasp of the language proved to be more of a hindrance than a help.

These issues did not just present a problem with the growing apathy of the fanbase, it also presented a problem for the players, especially the youth players, many of whom showed visible confusion at Emery’s instructions when taking to the field and youngsters like the newly promoted Joe Willock, Emile Smith-Rowe, Bukayo Saka and Reiss Nelson all had to turn to the recently promoted Freddie Ljungberg (who coached the U23s side last season and became interim boss after Emery was relieved of his duties) for clarification of what was expected of them on the pitch. 

The players didn’t seem overtly magnanimous in their responses to Emery’s departure. Though some spoke on social media about being sorry to see him leave, many kept shtum, predictably, Özil was one of them.

After a few weeks of Ljungberg and Head of Academy Per Mertesacker (who filled in as Ljungberg’s assistant) in managerial limbo, Arsenal ended up with Mikel Arteta, their initial choice for the position.

Emery left a disappointing tenure behind him. To call it a total failure would be unfair, the Spaniard managed to get Arsenal to a European final and came within two points of achieving a top four finish in his very first season.

Arsenal’s abilities from set-pieces improved a lot as well, especially under the tutorship of Juan Carlos Carcedo, who is something of a set-piece specialist. Emery also handed a number of players their debuts at the club and trusted in youth more than fans had expected, especially in the cases of Mattéo Guendouzi, Joe Willock and Bukayo Saka.

Emery seemed to understand the importance of Arsenal’s famous Hale End Academy and how important it was for fans to see their youngsters being trusted and given real chances to shine and it was notable that upon signing his new contract at the club, Bukayo Saka personally thanked Emery for the trust and faith shown in the youngster.

Emery is now at Villarreal, a team that seems more suited to his overall style and in a country where issues with the language are unlikely to present themselves, as they had done in France and England. Emery had been linked with potentially taking over the Everton job before Carlo Ancelotti took the reigns, but opted to return to his native Spain.

Meanwhile, Arsenal moved on with Mikel Arteta, and despite a disappointing end to the league campaign, ended the season with a record-extending fourteenth FA Cup, following a 2-1 win over Chelsea in the final.

Both seem happier for the change, but Emery remains an indelible part of Arsenal history, a man who was devoted to the team and had a near unrivalled passion for the game. It may not have worked out in the long-term, but Arsenal will surely be wishing him and his coaching staff every success in the future and Emery will surely wish the same for Arsenal.

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