Unai Emery is a smarter option for Arsenal, but don’t expect any upsets
Mikel Arteta looked to be the chosen one to follow the Arsene Wenger era at Arsenal, but in a surprising turn of events Unai Emery is on his way to The Emirates.
ENRG Sport’s Gregor Kerr looks at the credentials of the recent PSG manager, and what can be expected in his tenure.
If the prospect of appointing Mikel Arteta as the new Arsenal manager was a bold step into unknown territory, then the eventual, and somewhat surprising incoming of Unai Emery is a safer call and the reception has been far from unanimous.
Both Spaniards have vastly different experiences from one another. The former had a far more decorated career of the two, in his thirteen years as a player in England, seven of those were spent as a star member in David Moyes’ Everton, before moving on to and captaining Arsenal in the years that followed, with Emery spending most of his years in Spain’s second division.
While Arteta has credentials on the pitch, the managerial comparison is no contest as of now. His only experience coaching at professional level stands at just a year, albeit spending it under the unrivalled tutelage of Pep Guardiola where we will no doubt have learned a great deal and will continue to do so.
Whereas Emery has had the full taste of what managerial life can offer, both the rough side and the smooth side, at a low and high level. Similar to Arteta, he was offered his first job at a young age, during his playing career in fact. A defender at Spanish third-tier Loca Deportivo, he missed the majority of the 2004-05 season through a serious knee injury and was offered the managerial job by the club president. What followed was the club’s first promotion to the Spanish second division. Success soon followed at Almeria, and further promotion followed, this time to La Liga, where he finished eighth in his first season at the highest level.
The upwards trajectory continued, and a prestigious offer to manage Valencia was impossible to turn down. With a young but improving side that included World Cup-winning talent such as David Villa, David Silva and Juan Mata he was able to leave an impressive mark. His ability to improve players and help edge them towards their potential has never been more apparent during his time at the Mestalla. He led them back into the Champions League and secured a third place finish, all the more impressive considering the internal and financial problems that resided at the club, and still continue to exist.
Emery’s first taste of managerial failure came at Spartak Moscow, where a short and forgettable spell in Russia ended with Champions League elimination and a five-month tenure, the final nail in the coffin being a 5-1 home defeat to fierce rivals Dinamo.
His property was still hot however, and his move to Sevilla repaired any damage done at Moscow. While league performances were less than convincing, three Europa League titles on the bounce is almost unrivalled, and while it may not have been the top European crown, an achievement like that on a shoestring budget is not to be overlooked. It was by this point that Emery looked like one of the hottest managerial prospects around.
The hope when PSG appointed the Spaniard was that he could take that European prominence and reproduce it in the Champions League. Despite a Ligue 1 win and a domestic treble last season, the Parisians didn’t even come within a sniff of lifting the famous trophy with the big ears. Not once did his side make it beyond the round of 16, and that proved to be his undoing.
So when weighing up all of his previous credentials, it seems a bit odd that many are divided on the appointment, surely?
Most of that division comes with the relative success of the clubs above Arsenal. The difference from Emery to Klopp, Conte, Pochettino, Mourinho and Guardiola is in their managerial history. All of the latter have next to no crosses against their record, meeting and exceeding expectations at all of their previous clubs. Emery is certainly no dud, the fact he was appointed at PSG proves that, but it would be hard to argue that he exceeds any of those names.
His inability to win Ligue 1 in 2017 against Monaco’s young stars left his oil-rich side with egg on their face, as well as the now infamous collapse at the Camp Nou in the same season. From then on, he was a cursed man in Paris. At Sevilla, his away record was a major blimp on his CV, failing to win an entire game on the road in the 2015/16 season, not far off Arsenal this year.
He holds many similarities with Wenger, notably what has been described as his “obsession” for football, and an ability to forge strong personal relationships with players. While both him and his predecessor immerse themselves inside their job, Emery tends to go very in depth with his players, most likely to levels that the Arsenal players are unlikely to have ventured into. His tactical scrutiny is thorough and very few stones are left unturned. Players will not be allowed to delve into their own comfort zone and an intensity which has been missing for quite some time will be welcomed.
During his time in Valencia, he was known for giving his players daily homework. Nothing to do with textbooks, but USB sticks with video instructions for training sessions, upcoming opponents and more. It may work for the more driven players, but not for some others.
One mystery player reportedly was once handed an empty memory stick and reported back to his boss that he had studied the footage provided, a blatant lie. If any Arsenal players think they will be able to pull the wool over their incoming manager’s eyes, then they will be mistaken. At PSG though, he failed to hold any authority over the players, many of whom were signed against his wishes. Enough criticism thrown and Neymar and co. were able to run to the club owner for backing. In that environment very few can cope.
The difference is apparent when it comes to playing style. Emery has often been criticised for being a pragmatic coach, strict with his system and unwilling to take great risks which often proving to be his undoing in the Champions League. You could say that has been the one thing which has held him back from competing at the very top, PSG aside.
There is no doubt he may do well at Arsenal, you wouldn’t bet against him restoring them into the Champions League places, picking up a trophy along the way. However, it boils down to a question of what is deemed a ‘good season’ for Arsenal these days. If Arsene Wenger squeezing into the top four and winning the FA Cup every few seasons isn’t satisfactory enough, it is difficult to envisage Emery raising the bar far higher than that.
He would need to exceed expectations, challenge into the final stretches of the Premier League and Champions League if he is to outperform Wenger’s final ten years, and that is not his forte. Emery is a manager to help players reach their potential, to hit around even par or just over, not to push beyond their limitations and cause upsets.
You can expect his new team to become more solid, tactically aware and savvy in the big occasions. Emery is also comfortable with operating around a director of football, delegating signings to other officials and working within financial limitations. PSG aside, he has never had a ‘war chest’ by his side and has not needed it. That is why he appears to fit in place at The Emirates.
What he does have on his side is time though, while his length of contract is still unclear to most, he can still learn so much at the age of 46. He will need to, if Arsenal do not want to float around in limbo any longer.