Even without a Top 4 finish, Emery deserves some accolades
Au revoir Arsene
That was the beginning, the conclusion of Arsenal’s match-made in heaven relationship with Arsene Wenger ushered in the new. The French manager had been on the touchline of the North London club for 22 years and even made the not so informed feel that the club was named after the gaffer’s first name. He had made and unleashed legends such as Thierry Henry, arguably the best play ever in the history of the Premier League who is still the leading scorer in the club’s history at 228 in all competitions; assembled the infamous 2003/04 Gunners squad that became immortal after earning the cloak of invincibility by finishing the entire 38 matches season unbeaten. Even more, the record extended to a remarkable 49 Premier League matches without a loss. What else? His efforts in the training ground and astuteness, compounded with the class of grooming young players ensured the club fetched high on the transfer market. Eventually raising enough funds to aid the construction of that London structure they now call, Emirates Stadium. His closing CV with club reads 3 Premier League titles, 7 FA Cups (the highest ever) and 7 Community Shields. A remarkable record but yet he was more famously known across the world for adorably and controversially staying at the club for a long time as well as being the personification of gentleman character. Remarks and send-off gifts received from some of football’s greatest players and managers as he left the Arsenal role said it all. We actually don’t have enough time and space on this piece to lay it all down but perhaps his own reaction to the praises summarises everything:
The bottom line is that the 69 year-old left some pretty big shoes to fill for any kind of manager on the face of earth. It was obviously a rocket science project to find his successor who would build on his successes but more importantly address the challenges of the club that had become less competitive. Two Europa League appearances in Arsene’s final two years was one agreed upon standard that the club was on a downward spiral, especially after qualifying in nineteen successive UEFA Champions League seasons between 1998 and 2016/17, a record only surpassed by Real Madrid in Europe. Names of possible replacements were thrown in the hat and let us remind ourselves who they all were.
Many were called but one was chosen
We won’t go through them all, but here is a refresher course of Arsenal’s process of appointing their new manager who would now be the head coach and take the club to the next chapter. The earliest reports suggested names like Ralf Rangnick, the current manager Bundesliga’s RB Leipzig who supposedly influenced Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp and PSG’s Thomas Tuchel’s high pressing football philosophy. Then there was the real shortlist of Juventus’ Massimiliano Allegri, Luis Enrique who won the treble with Barcelona in the 2014/15 season and former Bayern Munich and Real Madrid manager, Carlo Ancelotti. Many commentators asserted that to be an ambitious list by former Chief Executive, Ivan Gazidis and his budget conscious Arsenal. True to form, they couldn’t get these for one reason or another. For instance, Luis Enrique reportedly required a yearly salary of £15m, which would have made him the second highest paid Premier League manager behind, Pep Guardiola. A more realistic list comprised of former Arsenal captains, Mikel Arteta, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira who are all pretty much at the infancy stage of their managerial careers. Even names like Jurgen Klopp’s assistant in Zeljko Buvac came into the conversation which left the more ambitious Arsenal fans disgruntled and cheated. Did I also mention Maurizio Sarri, the current Chelsea boss who had gone toe to toe with Juve in the race for the 2017/18 Italian Serie A title, doing more than just threaten to break their Scudetto winning streak since the 2011/12 season. In summary, it was a long list and process that lasted close to two months of phone calls, interviews and board meetings. They were looking for a value driven gaffer who would accept a dialled down salary from Arsenal Wenger’s, with keen interest of developing the current players, comfortable with a £50m starting transfer budget and most importantly maintain or improve Arsenal’s attacking style of play that became synonymous with the former manager. Quite a big ask for a club desperately seeking and going through change. Even more, the task of replacing a manager that had been at the helm of a club for over two decades has never been easier. The example of bitter rivals Manchester United who parted ways with the legendary Sir Alex Fergusson is available for all to see. All the attempted successors in David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and the special one, Jose Mourinho – spending over £500m in transfers were fiascos. Arsenal needed to get it right even with a tighter budget.
Now, when it all looked set that there were about to announce Mikel Arteta as their new Head Coach, the 37 year-old who was Pep Guardiola’s understudy and yet to lead any form of club in his short managerial career – the unexpected happened, much to the delight of Arsenal fans. The former PSG, Sevilla and Valencia coach popularly known for winning three consecutive Europa League titles with Sevilla, Unai Emery, was announced as the new Arsenal Head Coach. Looking at his pedigree of successfully doing a lot with few resources such as was the case in helping Valencia stay afloat in the La Liga during a period when the club couldn’t even foot their wage bill and obviously his silverware record with both Sevilla and PSG – Emery looked a great appointment. In fact, he had won 4 titles with PSG in just two years. The 47-year-old coach’s resume and display of character by picking the Arsenal job which many acclaimed gaffers had sidelined, spoke volumes. However, the task at hand was not at all sunshine and rainbows. To start with, the Spaniard had to start on his English before anything else.
“Good afternoon” world
Arsene Wenger had become popular with reporters for usually saying, “look here,” when responding to their journalistic requests. On the day of Emery’s first press conference as the Gunners boss, after being formally introduced by the then Chief Executive, Ivan Gazidis, he uttered the precious words, “Good afternoon,” in a strong Spanish accent. Quite a bold statement of intent and purpose by the gaffer who barely knew the language as amazed onlookers by completing the entire press conference in the new language, though stammering his way through. The message was clear on plain tables, he was ready and not really short of the gentleman that Arsene Wenger is. Even until now, Emery is known for firstly passing on the greeting before responding to questions, “Good morning”, “Good afternoon” or “Good evening” depending on the time of the day. He vowed to speak to each and every single Arsenal player individually as part of his settling plan, even waiting on those who had been on international duty at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
Memories from his first training sessions with the Arsenal squad had the words intensity and demanding written all over them. He was reported to have banned fruit juice and even relaxed some of Arsene Wenger’s norms by allowing players to use mobile phones. He held double training sessions, made some big calls by allowing loyal servants of the club such as Jack Wilshere to leave for West Ham even as he worked on his English. It really was all good vibes as far as the training pitch was concerned but their rivals were never going to make it easy for Emery and his new look Gunners to attain their targets. Emery and Arsenal’s goals for the 2018/19 season were widely communicated, “make the club competitive once again” clearly by avoiding some of Arsene’s humiliating losses and more importantly bring back champions league football to the club by finishing in the top four of the English top flight league.
Minnows amongst the top six
Manchester City, Tottenham, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal are the ugly sisters of English football as of now. They are the so-called big six amongst the 20 Premier League teams that compete in the top flight who go at each for the title and only 4 UEFA Champions League qualification spots every season. At the onset of Emery’s Arsenal career, they were highly considered to be underdogs amongst the six, given they had finished 6th in the 2017/18 season and also the state of affairs at the club. Champions, Manchester City were in no doubt favourites to return the Premier League title with their obsessive manager Pep Guardiola and expensively assembled squad. Liverpool were tipped to be Rocky Balboa to City’s cause, who would be Ivan Drago considering their impressive recording breaking 2017/18 campaign where they bagged a 100 points. That was Liverpool coach, Jurgen Klopp’s analogy with regard to his club’s title chances. The Merseyside club was of course boosted by the acquisitions of £66.8 million goalkeeper in Alisson Becker from Roma, Virgil Van Dijk for £75 million (record fee for a defender) and the highly rated Naby Keita for £52.75 million from RB Leipzig. In fact, Naby Keita’s transfer fee was almost the equivalent of Arsenal’s entire transfer budget. Ultimately, with these two, it was a no contest for Arsenal.
Bitter North London rivals, Tottenham, did not make any summer signings as they budgeted on completing their £1 billion stadium but still looked a stronger side than the Gunners. Pochettino’s squad was fairly balanced from the defensive point safeguarded by the likes of Toby Alderweireld (a Manchester United target) and Jan Vertonghen as well as in the middle going up top with the likes of Christian Eriksen, Delle Alli and Harry Kane. Furthermore, the successes of Poch in bringing back champions league football back to Spurs was all the confidence Tottenham Hotspur needed whereas Arsenal has to adjust to a new manager for the first time in 22 years, with a defenceless squad that had become famous for shipping in goals such as was the case in their 10-2 aggregate loss to Bayern Munich in the champions league. Obviously Chelsea were dealing with a new managerial appointment of their own in Sarri but were tipped to adjust quicker given the nature of the club’s serial appointments. They were also boosted with acquisitions of a £57 million midfielder in Jorginho and the most expensive goalkeeper in world football, £71.6 million Kepa Arrizabalaga – virtually making them favorites to secure a top four spot ahead of Arsenal. Finally, it was clear that all was unwell in the Manchester United squad with Jose Mourinho’s mourning for a centre-back even after getting Fred for £52 million and wing back Diogo Dalot for £19.3 million. In truth, no one expected United to finish outside the top four especially after rivalling City for the title in the previous season with a similar squad and the same special Mourinho.
In summary, Emery and the Gunners were simply minnows in that top four race, few gave them a chance but the continuation of the story outlines a different proposition.
Changes and even more changes
As if their managerial change and ill-preparedness to compete with the rest of the top six as far as transfers are concerned, Unai Emery and Arsenal still had to deal with a few more roadblocks in their pursuit of champions league football.
Over 50% of the backroom staff including medical doctors followed Wenger out of the Arsenal door and more surprisingly, the Chief Executive who led the hiring of Emery. Ivan Gazidis who had been in charge of Arsenal for most of Wenger’s reign, left his own party for AC Milan and so did the adored billionaire Russian, Alisher Usmanov. Many Arsenal faithfuls had hoped that Mr. Usmanov would eventually assume majority ownership of the club from American Sports Entrepreneur, Stan Kroenke, whom they believe is less eager to spend on the club. Instead, the Russian surrendered his stake into the hands of the less adored Kroenke completing yet another set of roadblock in Arsenal and Unai Emery’s highway to the desired change.
This was not the end of it. The celebrated scouting genius, Sven Mislintat, who had masterminded the recruitment of Lucas Torreira, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Matteo Guendouzi, left his role, just less than two years into the Arsenal job. All this just gives even more context as to the seemingly impossible task on Emery’s plate to smooth sail the ship of change. How did he do though? Let’s find out.
The unbeaten run & players’ modern day Zorro
An impressive pre-season, decorated by the outstanding performance of midfield prodigy, Matteo Guendouzi and the tantalizing prospect of the combination of Lacazette, Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang and Ozil (LMAO), preached hope. Two matches into the Premier League season, two losses to both Manchester City and Chelsea became a reality check. But what happened next couldn’t have been in the script. Unai led his charges to a 22-match unbeaten run in all competitions. The 22-year-old Nigerian, Alex Iwobi, international who had a mixed start to his career under Wenger suddenly earned the nickname, The Nigerian Messi. The new midfield acquisitions in Torreira and Guendouzi proved to be huge bargains as they strengthened the Arsenal spine which had been questioned since the departure of Alex Song. The two even started to bring the best out of the Swiss international, Granit Xhaka, whose fingerprints featured on most crime scenes that involved Arsenal conceding goals of their own accord. The 26-year-old has is slowly becoming a force to reckon with in the Arsenal setup though he still does have a few off days, here and there. Emery continued with his demanding attitude and even became a point of discussion in the January transfer window as he resorted to dropping the German artist and world cup winner, Mesut Ozil. The Arsenal head coach was undone, he appeared to have had a midas touch on all of the Gunners’ current crop of players even the long-forgotten Carl Jenkinson who has been on the fringes got some minutes under his belt. Time won’t permit me to mention the likes of Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding who had lost their heads during Wenger’s last few years, perhaps as a result of self-esteem issues but bounced back to become regulars in Emery’s team. Lacazette and the Gabonese international, Aubameyang are still soaring as perhaps the deadliest striking duo in the Premier League, even when they do not play together. The latter already has 18 goals to his name in his first full EPL season and very much on the toes of top scorers, Egypt’s Salah and Sergio Aguero who are both on 19 goals.
He’s like the Latin comic hero, Zorro, saving the day and redeeming North London again to yield to Arsenal’s causes.
The possible fairy-tale ending on the horizon
Adding some few numbers to Emery’s case for a great job so far, we learn that Arsenal is the third most prolific team in the Premier League with a total of 66 goals in 33 outings, just behind title chasers, Manchester and Liverpool who are head and shoulders above the rest. He is clearly succeeding in retaining the attractive style of play he was hired to. Arsenal already have 66 points with 5 more matches to play, that is 3 more points than their total tally for the whole of last season. There are on course to reach the Europa League semi-finals, if they preserve their 2-0 advantage heading into the second leg against Napoli – a route that also presents an opportunity to get champions league football if they go ahead to win it. They are currently 4th on the Premier League table and considering their run—in of games, still to play Leicester, Wolves, Burnley, Crystal Palace, and Brighton, they have a better chance at landing the 3rd spot as opposed to 3 other top six rivals who still have to face teams above them on the log. The only statistic that will matter is Arsenal’s final position after match-day 38. Should that position be 3rd, taking into account all the circumstances that confounded Arsenal’ season, the Spaniard definitely deserves some accolades. The Gunners could slowly creep back into title conversations in the next few years with the right backing of its board in the transfer market.
What are your thoughts?