Unai Emery’s growing list of issues at Arsenal
When Arsene Wenger’s departure was announced in spring of 2018, a collective sigh of relief came over Arsenal supporters. The issues had gone on so long, his departure seemed to be the only thing that would lift the pall over the fans. Fast forward to today and new manager Unai Emery is already dividing the fanbase with a slew of growing issues that could hinder his tenure at the club.
When Unai Emery was announced as the choice to succeed Arsene Wenger, it was a decision met with collective “huh?” Leading up until the last few days of the appointment, Emery’s name wasn’t even mentioned among the list of candidates we were considering.
In fact, right up until the last moment, it seemed that Ivan Gazidis and crew were intending to take the bold move and appoint Manchester City coach and former Arsenal player, Mikel Arteta.
But it wasn’t to be. Arsenal appointed Unai Emery. Emery came with an impressive CV, winning titles in France with PSG and winning three consecutive Europa Leagues with Sevilla.
People may not have wanted Emery as the manager but when he was announced people accepted it and were curious to see where he would take us.
Initial signs were positive. He exuded energy and excitement. His attention to detail and a desire to change how Arsenal prepared for the season and for matches spilled over to a general excitement and enjoyment not only for the fans, but for the players.
Then the season started and after two early season losses, the Arsenal went on a 22-match unbeaten run and wow – were a lot of people excited?! But the thing about that run was that it masked a growing sense that not everything was right and that it was maybe built on a house of cards.
The 22-match run was capped off with the thoroughly enjoyable win against Tottenham and we were all as giddy as could be, but suddenly on the heels of that came the loss to Southampton and then inconsistent performances and bouts of lacklustre play culminating with last weekend’s loss to West Ham.
During that time since, the loss to Southampton and this loss to West Ham, fans have begun to increasingly question Emery and whether or not Emery is the right choice to manage Arsenal.
Problems with personnel
Yesterday, Sky Sports released an in-depth interview with Emery to get a broader understanding of the man and his methods. One thing that stood out was his quotes around his approach to working with players.
“At certain times, you have to provoke friction with footballers.
“From that friction, you can get something more out of them, something from inside, a greater sense of ambition or maybe even a complaint – a complaint regarding the team can be positive.
“As a manager, you have to be careful because that friction can break a relationship. But I believe in always looking for more, both individually and collectively, with conversations which are comfortable but also with conversations which are less comfortable.”
Friction between players and Emery isn’t something new.
During his tenure at PSG, Emery reportedly had clashes with many of the club’s superstars. His relationship with Hatem Ben Arfa is a perfect example of the manager unable to get anything out of a player and essentially running the player out of a club.
It culminated with Patrick Kluivert, PSG Director of Football, saying:
“You have to leave, the manager doesn’t want you, we have found you a club, Fenerbahce, you’ll see Turkey is a good league.”
The stories of his friction with players at PSG are all over the place. It didn’t seem to get the results he wanted and in the end, the owners sided with the players not the manager and he was let go.
Fast forward to now and his time with Arsenal. Relationships with three players seem to have been brewing over with the Mesut Özil situation coming to a head as David Ornstein today has reported that Emery has told Özil he should consider leaving.
Mesut Özil is a controversial player. We all know the reasons. For some, he is the silky-smooth creative player who, with the right tools around him, could make Arsenal hum and flow. To others, he lacks the grit the British often want from their players.
When Emery was signed at Arsenal, one of the things we were told that won him the job was his extensive knowledge of each of Arsenal’s players. If he had such an extensive knowledge of our players, it would seem fitting that he would’ve known exactly what he was getting in Mesut Özil.
With that in mind, rather than remaining rigid with his tactical ideas, he would try and find a way to fit in a player who can be a difference-maker on his day. But no, Emery is showing the same kind of rigidity that got him into trouble with the players at PSG.
Similar stories seemed to take place with Aaron Ramsey, who along with Özil, is one of the club’s best attacking talents, yet Emery continues to place him on the bench and use him sparingly.
Of course, in Ramsey’s case, he is gone. He will leave at the end of the season for Juventus and likely win a trophy in his first campaign at the Italian giants.
It looked like Emery’s relationship with Lacazette was going sour too when he kept getting pulled off early and the French forward was visibly annoyed by the moves.
Emery’s treatment of players, especially Özil, seems to be a reaction to how things went down for him at PSG. He is “cutting off the limb to retain the body.” He likely feels by doing this, he will retain respect in the dressing room.
One thing Emery may not be counting on though is Özil’s popularity in the dressing room. Many of his teammates have gone on to publicly talk about the importance of Özil to Arsenal. Like this from Sead Kolasinac in December.
“Mesut’s not the sort of player who will scream at you in public just to show the people on the outside that he tries to push us on.
“He’ll speak in the dressing room, he’ll go to every player individually. With his quality, he brings a lot to this team. He’s very important for us as a captain and as a player.”
People want to discount the influence of Mesut Özil but during the course of this season alone, he has been the key player for this team, as our friend @WoztheGooner points out below:
• Was key in the Cardiff win
• Scored against Newcastle
• Instrumental vs Everton
• Scored against Watford
• Sensational performance against Leicester
• Put 3 on a plate against Liverpool at home and was class.
• got injured came back broke Burnley down https://t.co/2IYfdOIx4w
— Woz ⚽️ (@wozthegooner) January 12, 2019
With the evidence from PSG and this growing problem at Arsenal, it seems to point to the fact that Emery lacks the ability to motivate players (no matter what the interview says) and make them work together when it matters.
If Emery is not careful, he could try to move one player and wind up alienating a whole slew of others.
Again, when Emery was signed, it was announced he was done so to move Arsenal into the modern era of tactical preparation. We were told the stories of his countless hours of watching video and analysing opponents in preparation for matches.
However, as the season has gone on, people are beginning to question his tactical acumen as Arsenal don’t look much better under him than they did under the last years under Wenger.
Defensively, we look worse as we are conceding slightly more goals per game this year vs last (1.5 vs 1.3).
As things have gotten worse defensively for Arsenal, Emery has switched from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-3, often playing with the two deep-lying midfielders sitting in front of the back-three and not connecting to the players in attack.
The move to the 3-4-3 has also not included any of our creative players like Ramsey or Özil and against West Ham, it was highly noticeable as from the 67th minute on, Arsenal had zero shots in a match they were losing.
For a coach who is supposed to be prepared, the style of play and manner of play don’t seem to align with the fact that Arsenal are prepared for their opponents. Additionally, there is a worrying trend of performances that were consistent with PSG performances under Unai Emery.
We’ve seen levels of the style of football we want – Tottenham at home and against Leicester. But those results are diminished by the abject performances against Liverpool and then West Ham.
You could look at PSG and see wonderful performances against Bayern and Barcelona but then poor performances against Nice and Guingamp and the absolute throttling by Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League.
It may very well be that Emery isn’t cut out for this level of football team. His team has seemingly abandoned the pressing he was so adamant we’d do. There is no support in the midfield for his beloved playing out of the back, both things you’d expect a big time tactical manager to see and fix, but have shown no signs of improvement.
Additionally, his lack of rotation during the festive fixtures and during a time of increased injury to his defensive unit likely hurt the team more than it should have.
It’s clear to me he can’t be trusted with young players as he has no faith in putting a defensive youngster in and would rather play Xhaka as centre-back than give a chance to the likes of Zech Medley who is an actual CB.
Then, there are his game time substitutions. His half-time switches are now almost comical. They appear to be more about showing how smart he is than actually responding to the match he is playing.
Interestingly, we should note that at PSG, he often waited until the 80th minute a lot and it looked more like he was panicking than reacting to the game.
This can’t bode for a league where the competition is tight. You can’t make these mistakes in the Premier League and expect it to end up right. At PSG, they were so good with their talent that winning the league was an afterthought and hardly in peril.
His tactical weaknesses (once thought a strength) could likely scupper any chance of Arsenal hitting its minimal target for the year – qualifying for the Champions League.
Nothing more than a bridge manager
There has been an inordinate amount of change at Arsenal. And Ralph Honigstein said on yesterday’s GoonerTalkTV podcast its actually what goes on at a football club normally.
We’ve lost Arsene Wenger, had Stan Kroenke move to single ownership, lost Ivan Gazidis, and now losing our Chief Scout. Additionally, we know that money is tight, it all seems like problem after problem.
That leads me to wonder whether or not the decision to bring in Emery was less about evolution and keeping things steady while everything in the background shifted.
With all the turmoil going on, could Emery have been the safe choice for the coach’s seat while everything in the background got sorted out?
While he may not be a top-tier coach, he’s still good enough to keep Arsenal in touch with the top six and if lucky, get something from the Europa League. At worst, Arsenal would be exactly where they were under Arsene Wenger.
While he keeps a steady ship, the new backroom staff can pilot the club through jettisoning poorly crafted contracts, getting in players on deals more manageable and reshaping the club from the back to eventually, the front.
The end result would be a coach who stays 2-3 years at the most while the trajectory of the club is set up to move forward from that and then finally bringing in the talented forward-thinking coach the club needs to challenge for titles.
This is being written from a position of disappointment. I want(ed) Emery to succeed, even though he wasn’t my choice for manager. I thought he said all the right things and his positivity had me hopeful we’d made a good choice for right now.
That never moved me beyond the fact that his appointment seemed “out of the blue.” Based on the growing number of issues, I am beginning to feel that my initial thoughts on him were right.
I want him to succeed, and Emery may be just what we need for right now at this moment. However, if Arsenal are going to be the club we know they are and can be, then Unai Emery isn’t the man we need at the helm.