What has happened to “The Arsenal Way” under Unai Emery?
“Victoria Concordia Crescit”. Victory through harmony. The famous motto of Arsenal Football Club for the past 70 years. It proudly featured on the club’s official crest from 1949 until 2002 and has even adorned the inside neck region of a number of Arsenal shirts in the past.
It is ironic then how both components of this esteemed motto are currently in scarce supply over at the Emirates. Just two victories in their last 10 Premier League games and two mutinous acts from each of the Gunners’ previous two club captains (during the same season nonetheless) just hint at the turmoil gradually engulfing the club at present.
Arsene Wenger, after 22 years at the helm asserted during his farewell speech in 2018 that his successor had to “respect the values of the club” and had to be “honest, loyal and committed” to upholding these principles.
Quite frankly, it would be very remiss and distasteful to even suggest the incumbent head coach Unai Emery has sought to intentionally compromise these prized values during his past 17 months in charge in North London.
Upon closer inspection though, it actually would not be too egregious to suggest that Arsenal’s three core values have arguably never been as distant from the heart of the club as they’ve appeared to be in recent months under the Spaniard’s leadership…
Value #1: Act with class
If we’re discussing a lack of substantial class at Arsenal right now, Granit Xhaka’s ill-advised dissent during the 2-2 home draw against Crystal Palace last month feels like the only place to start the conversation.
The Swiss international’s actions during that match have since cost him the captain’s armband and perhaps will have brought his time in North London to an abrupt and ignominious end.
What has been noteworthy is the various reactions from notable figures from years gone by, alluding to the great honour and tradition that comes with being Arsenal captain.
Former Double-winning midfielder and World Cup winner Emmanuel Petit deemed Xhaka’s actions to be “unacceptable”, whilst scathingly referring to how former skippers Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira were “real leaders” and “big captains”, expressing how “they showed the personality and character… to be Arsenal captain, whatever happened on the pitch.”
Even Wenger, who purchased the midfielder for £34 million back in 2016, spoke last week in defence of his former player but also mentioned how Arsenal is “built on values” and how “everyone has to respect these values and the manager has to get them to be respected.”
Although it must be noted, Xhaka is not the only player who has failed to act with the necessary “class”, befitting an Arsenal captain.
William Gallas wallowed in laughable self-pity on the pitch away at Birmingham after a controversial 2-2 draw in 2008, Cesc Fabregas went on strike before departing to Barcelona in the summer of 2011 and Laurent Koscielny outright refused to join the club on their pre-season tour back in July, before he secured his protracted move to Bordeaux a month later.
Even Tony Adams, widely regarded as the club’s greatest-ever captain was fortunate to retain the armband after serving three months in prison for drink-driving in 1990.
Perhaps, the widespread notion of “class” as a non-negotiable prerequisite for any Arsenal captain does not have as much credence as many would believe.
Thus, it is intriguing now to ponder whether most of these past indiscretions by former captains were overlooked by supporters because of the obvious talent these players possessed.
Alternatively, what also may be worth considering is the situation at Arsenal has potentially not been this alarming in a very long time, with the club suffering their worst start to a league season in 37 years; hence the large levels of scrutiny and frustration Xhaka has been enduring from supporters, even prior to his fateful act of insubordination.
Then again, regardless of whether their initial booing of the Swiss international was unmerited, the palpable disdain emanating from Arsenal fans could be justified, simply in how none of their previous captains had even dared to flagrantly disrespect the badge in such a manner, as was the case in late October.
Value #2: Be together
One conventional wisdom which often comes to the fore in football is that when results are going badly at a football club, this is probably the optimal moment to gauge how together a team truly is.
For example, at Chelsea under new manager Frank Lampard, the Blues succumbed to a humbling 4-0 defeat away at Old Trafford on the opening day of the season, before winning just one of their next four games in all competitions.
Yet the overbearing mood in West London was firmly one of calmness and trust from players and staff that the manager would turn the club’s fortunes around, no matter the concerns being raised from outside influences.
Lo and behold, Chelsea have now embarked on a six-game winning run in the Premier League, now sitting in third, with Lampard’s unwavering commitment to his young players reaping copious rewards at the moment. (albeit heavily influenced by the club’s year-long transfer ban at the start of the season)
In contrast, when observing the state of affairs at the Emirates, you need not look too far to notice the signs of discontent burgeoning amongst the Gunners’ playing staff.
On the surface, it appears the players in the Arsenal dressing room remain committed to redressing their terrible run of form as well as all being firmly in support of Emery, as per Kieran Tierney’s comments ahead of the Leicester game.
However, if this is the case, the Spaniard’s bizarre treatment of playmaker Mesut Ozil so far this season may have inadvertently contributed to somewhat of a disconcertedness around the club, even when considering the German had played the fewest amount of Premier League minutes (1742) he had ever done during a season at Arsenal under Emery last campaign.
The German has been reintegrated into the first-team for the last two league matches, but on a whole the 31-year old has only featured in three of the Gunners’ 12 league fixtures, with just 251 minutes of Premier League action from a possible 1080; something made all the more puzzling by Emery’s eyebrow-raising admission last month that Ozil’s omissions were agreed upon not only by himself but also by executive members of the club.
This tactless handling of a player of Ozil’s stature is unlikely to have instilled huge levels of confidence or togetherness into Emery’s players or the supporters but incidentally, the Spaniard has encountered similar issues in dealing with high-profile players in previous roles.
This most notably occurred at PSG, where he not only struggled to manage the great influence Brazil superstars Neymar and Thiago Silva had on his squad but also found difficulty appeasing more mercurial talents, such as Hatem Ben Arfa and Lucas Moura.
Once again, Frank Lampard has usurped Emery this season, this time in regards to man-management, as demonstrated with his adept handling of Christian Pulisic at Chelsea.
The 21-year old attacker, a £58 million summer signing had to “work to show… he deserves to play”; according to his manager, who elected not to start the American in the league after August, similar to Emery’s line of thought with Ozil this season.
However, unlike his managerial counterpart, the Blues boss still retained Pulisic within his Premier League matchday squads to avoid ostracising his young player, who has now gone on to notch five goals in his last three Premier League games, all from when Lampard finally assigned the American his first start in the league for almost two months, something which “Captain America” duly capitalised upon, with his hat-trick away at Burnley in late October,
Therefore, when also taking into account reports from Lucas Torreira’s agent that the Uruguayan midfielder is “not happy” with his recent change of position to a box-to-box midfielder this season, Emery has not appeared to have inspired the togetherness so highly valued at Arsenal.
To compound matters further, the board’s stance in support of their head coach, (as revealed by David Ornstein in The Athletic after the Leicester game) would have probably just perpetuated the division between the board and the Arsenal fanbase, not only because of their message but for how it was delivered, with supporters’ complaints dismissively branded as “noise”.
In truth, the board should be wary not to antagonise the club’s supporters, given the outpouring of mass discontent that contributed to the uneasy atmosphere at the Emirates and massive rifts within the fanbase during the final few years of Arsene Wenger’s reign.
Yet, it is almost a sad indictment on Arsenal right now that full, collective togetherness from all entities of this great club: the fans, the players and the board, feels like more like a fanciful prospect than a tangible reality.
Value #3: Always move forward
Arsenal Football Club is a sporting institution that has prided itself on being innovators throughout its illustrious history.
For instance, Herbert Chapman, the legendary manager that sent the club on their way to three straight league titles from 1931- 1933 was the notable proponent of the W-M formation, as well as the man behind the official naming of Arsenal underground station in 1932.
Several decades on, Arsene Wenger, the first manager from outside the British Isles to win the Premier League, also introduced revolutionary training regimes during his incredible first decade at Arsenal that forever changed the face of English football, culminating with the success of “The Invincibles” in 2004.
However, judging from the current state of affairs in North London, it may be a long time yet before success and innovation on those types of scales make their long-overdue return to the club.
The substantial gap between the Gunners and the summit of the English game, where Liverpool and Manchester City are currently situated, looks in ever-more danger of becoming a chasm with every tepid, uninspiring performance Unai Emery’s men eke out on a weekly basis.
One of the chief targets requiring urgent improvement when Emery took over from Wenger in 2018 was the team’s abysmal away form, which produced just a single away league victory under the Frenchman during that same calendar year.
Yet, only four away league wins have been accrued by the Gunners in 2019, with just 2 clean sheets in the 25 away league fixtures Emery has presided over since assuming the role as head coach.
Most tellingly though, after defeat in his 50th Premier League match away at Leicester, Emery now has fewer points in his first 50 Premier League games (87 – W25 D12 L13) than Arsenal’s final 50 league matches under Wenger (88 – W27 D7 L16).
What makes matters worse is the expansive style of play Emery had spoken about in his first press conference, where Arsenal would be the “protagonist” during matches could not be in more stark contrast to his team’s languid and disjointed performances this season.
Arsenal have found themselves on the back foot more often than not, during most of their league fixtures, conceding the third-most shots in the league so far this season, behind only Aston Villa and Norwich, with goalkeeper Bernd Leno having to make more saves than any other Premier League goalkeeper in this time.
An even more startling fact for Arsenal fans is that with three top-quality attackers at Emery’s disposal: £72 million summer signing Nicolas Pepe, who has struggled to truly acclimatise to English football as well as star strikers Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, it is rather inexplicable how the team has a goal difference of -1 at this stage of the season.
Ominously, the Premier League table ahead of the international break contained the largest points gap between the teams in fourth and fifth (nine points) after 12 games in 18 years.
Arsenal, a club for whom Champions League qualification was a guarantee not so long ago do not even occupy fifth place at the moment; with the Gunners situated one place behind Chris Wilder’s newly-promoted Sheffield United side, who have been excellent this campaign.
Emery is rumoured to have until Christmas to turn results around, despite the large evidence pointing to the contrary does not convey the hallmarks of a club desperately yearning to return to the apex of English football.
Spare a thought here for Niko Kovac, jettisoned as Bayern Munich manager in early November, despite securing a league and cup double the season before and sitting just four points from the top at the time of his dismissal.
Not to mention Tottenham Hotspur’s sacking of Mauricio Pochettino yesterday, only six months after he reached the Champions League final.
Amazingly though, his team’s unsatisfactory start to the Premier League season that ultimately led to his unceremonious exit left Spurs languishing in 14th, but still just three points behind their North London rivals at present.
Based on these two examples alone, Emery with only the less impressive achievement of reaching the Europa League final from last season can count himself very fortunate to retain his position unless a dramatic turn of events unfolds in the red half of North London in the coming weeks.
What has been evident over the last six months or so at Arsenal is that there is an entropy becoming increasingly noticeable in the team’s performances under Emery.
Should this malaise continue any further, head of football Raul Sanllehi and his colleagues will be tasked with deciding who will be next in the home dugout at the Emirates.
Some of the names touted for the role in recent months include Leicester’s Brendan Rodgers or Ajax’s Erik ten Haag; posing the question of which manager if any would best suit a club long-steeped in valued principles like Arsenal are?
Arsenal could do much worse than appointing managers like Rodgers and ten Haag, who not only fit the mould for the beautiful, attractive football both men have been lauded for but also for their distinct managerial philosophies.
Rodgers, for instance, is a notable advocate of the T.I.P.S (an acronym of Technique, Insight, Personality and Speed) model for purchasing and developing players as a part of his managerial ethos, which stems from the model implemented at Ajax, Erik ten Haag’s current club.
Incidentally, ten Haag, who despite not actually having played for the club during his playing career has been thoroughly imbued with the responsibility of upholding the club’s proud principles of expansive possession football that gave rise to an Ajax side who were double-winners last season as well as Champions League semi-finalists.
That Ajax team contained young home-grown talents, such as Frenkie de Jong and Mathius De Ligt, now at Barcelona and Juventus, respectively. It feels pertinent to mention this, with the recent crop of promising academy graduates coming through at Arsenal right now.
Obviously, the manager’s undoubted focus at Arsenal would be on first-team endeavours, but with an abundance of young talent at the club, such as Joe Willock, Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson, Emile Smith-Rowe and even Eddie Nketiah out on loan, would the team and these players, in particular thrive more under “progressive” managers, such as Rodgers and ten Haag?
Anyways at this point, it is worth remembering the mantra of “Remember who you are, what you are and who you represent”, long espoused by generations of players and staff at the club; first declared by Bertie Mee, the manager who captured Arsenal’s first Double in 1971.
Now, it just seems ever more apparent that somewhere along the line, especially in more recent years, Arsenal perhaps have forgotten the core values that once distinguished this club as one of the most honourable in the world.