Arsenal never does things the easy way.
Ever since Arsene Wenger announced the end of his 22-year reign at the North London club, speculation about his successor has constantly intrigued the international media. Fans and soccer experts alike have suggested a list of possible replacements, from current bosses at big European clubs like Barcelona and Juventus to former Arsenal players like Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry touted as being in the reckoning. Arsenal’s board, led by CEO Ivan Gazidis, has mostly remained off limits, not leaking too much to the press all this while, except that the club is likely to appoint the new boss before the World Cup begins in Russia.
Then, last week, reports emerged that all the news about possible replacements for Arsene Wenger was only a smokescreen for an appointment which was already set in stone. For the first time in many years, the Arsenal board seemed to think and execute its plan with clarity, appearing close to appointing former Arsenal midfielder, Mikel Arteta, as the club’s next manager. The reports were received with diverse reactions from fans, many of whom applauded Arsenal for appointing someone with an innate understanding of the club, while several others chastised the board for choosing a manager who had absolutely zero experience leading a team as its head coach.
But whether or not people agreed with the impending decision, they had started to get acclimatized to it. Rumors about his assistants and backroom staff started doing the rounds, and fans finally began coming around to the opinion that if given a chance, Arteta would be able to instill a philosophy that could suit Arsenal in the long run.
And then, almost like a bolt from the blue, news came through BBC’s David Ornstein that the Arsenal board had finally made the decision about who was going to finally succeed Arsene Wenger, and it wasn’t Mikel Arteta. It was this man.
Unai Emery, the manager whose contract was not renewed by Paris Saint-Germain despite him leading the club to a domestic treble this season, is all set to be appointed the next Arsenal boss. As BBC’s Phil McNulty noted in his piece about Emery’s appointment, this seemed to be a classic case of 11th-hour cold feet by the Arsenal hierarchy, who appeared to have made a dramatic U-turn by ditching Arteta, who had no job experience to instead choose Emery, who is an established coach with proven trophy winning skills. By all accounts, as brave as Arteta’s appointment would have been, Emery just seems a more logical — and by extension — safer bet.
But now the question arises: what will Emery bring to Arsenal?
For one, he will continue to foster a meticulous work ethic into the club. Much like Wenger, Emery breathes, eats and sleeps soccer, and would demand the same from his players. He is painstakingly diligent with reviewing every game — almost slavish to video replays — preferring to hand out individual advice to all his players. He observes the opposition and researches thoroughly on them, tweaking in each game according to the demands of the context, the style of play, and technical prowess of the opposition.
He has a tactical nous which respects a kind of game where the attack is fundamental to the way a team plays, but he builds the team from the center — something which was lacking in Arsene Wenger’s later years. Sky Sports is already reporting that Emery wants to build his team around Aaron Ramsey, who seems to have been identified by him as central to his plans — both literally and figuratively.
He also has a wonderful European record. No matter how big Arsenal might be considered in some quarters, the club has accepted that it cannot flex the same financial muscles at the Manchester clubs in England, meaning Emery will always have less money to spend compared to Pep Guardiola at City or Jose Mourinho at United. Fortunately for Arsenal fans, Emery has shown that he thrives with restricted budgets, like he did at Valencia, where he helped the Spanish team finish third in the table twice despite working under tight conditions. He also led Sevilla to three back-to-back European trophies, showing that he can maneuver his teams to trophies despite working under restricted conditions.
What Emery is probably best at is his ability to develop young players. This is something he did with some excellence at Sevilla where Monchi, who is now at Roma, would recruit young and unproven players whom Emery would transform into world beaters. Young players like Alex Iwobi, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, and Konstantinos Mavropanos would gain tremendously from Emery’s hands-on approach, and that could again come to benefit Arsenal in the long run.
But those are the positives with Emery. His biggest drawback is that he is still untested when it comes to the English Premier League. The English game is so physical and fast that it comes as a shock to many players who first arrive in England, let alone managers. Unless Emery can adapt quickly to the rigors of the game in England, he could be in for a tough first season at Arsenal.
Also, while Emery has proven himself to be a good man-manager in Spain, he certainly had problems managing the likes of Neymar at PSG. Arsenal may not boast someone as egocentric as Neymar, but it still contains the likes of Mesut Ozil and Jack Wilshere, who will have to be managed well if Emery wants to get the best out of them. For Emery to have his chance at Arsenal, his players will have to show full faith in him, unlike what they showed to Wenger during his last years in North London. Even the slightest fissure of mistrust could derail the Emery-Arsenal train, and that is something Arsenal fans and players need to recognize. Because if anything, Emery’s best game is when his team presses high, his central players tackle from the front, and his full backs bomb forward, taking the defenders wide and creating space in the central areas. But for that to happen, Arsenal’s players will have to show unflinching commitment to his game plan, and while that is as much dependent on Emery himself, a lot of that responsibility also falls on the shoulders of the players.
Overall, Emery cannot be expected to make Arsenal league winners within a season — especially with a limited budget and other teams strengthening — but if the players adhere to his philosophy and work rate, a top four finish along with a trophy is certainly achievable. But it could take a while for Emery to get going, and unless the Arsenal fans and players get behind him, it could be an uphill task for the new boss which could get more difficult as the season wears on.