The time was right for Unai Emery and Arsenal to part ways after a series wretched performances, but what does this saga say about how the club is run?
Arsene Wenger, it won’t surprise you to find out, is Arsenal‘s longest serving manager, taking charge of a mammoth 1,235 matches, ahead of George Allison in second place with 13 years (although much of that period was during the Second World War when club football virtually ceased to exist).
The Frenchman was in charge for just under 22 years before the club’s hierarchy gently nudged him towards the exit door. It took those running the club just 555 days to decide that Unai Emery was not the man to take the team forward any longer, following a dismal defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League.
That result extended the Gunners’ run without a win to seven matches in all competitions, something they hadn’t ‘achieved’ since 1992. During that period they kept the faith with George Graham, but he had already won two league titles by then, and would go on to win three more trophies with them.
With Emery there was no such belief that he could manufacture the next win, let alone deliver any sort of tangible success. Last season they missed their target of a top four finish, then went on to get hammered in the Europa League final against a Chelsea side that had already qualified for next season’s Champions League and thus had less on the line going into the decider.
Emery and Arsenal is a partnership that just never quite clicked; you never got the feeling that this was the right fit, a la Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool or, for a long time at least, Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham Hotspur. By all accounts the Spaniard comes across as a decent if slightly awkward man, with little or no questions surrounding his likeable personality like, say, Jose Mourinho or Alan Pardew.
Unai Emery arrived at Arsenal training ground early this morning. Was fired at meeting led by Sanlehi and Edu. Emery was very respectful and took it as well as can be expected. He then said goodbye to players and wished them well for the future
— Kaveh Solhekol (@SkyKaveh) November 29, 2019
The supporters, though, clearly lost faith in Emery after last week’s 2-2 draw with Southampton, one of the most out-of-form teams in the league, a side that suffered the joint-biggest defeat in Premier League history a month previously. The fixture with Eintracht was sparsely attended, with those present booing the team at full-time for what was the lowest attendance at the Emirates since it was opened in 2006.
It’s hard to blame them, as it became increasingly clear that Emery was tactically out of his depth. His approach dictated that the team would sit back and play on the counter, but instead of making them defensively solid they have been extremely porous. Against Watford in September they conceded 31 shots, drawing 2-2 with a team that would get hockeyed 8-0 by Man City the very next week. Against the Saints they conceded 22 shots.
It’s worth repeating that these are two of the worst performing sides in the league, and yet Emery chose to essentially give them every opportunity to score. This strategy is compounded by the fact that Arsenal’s biggest weakness is in their defence and their strength the attack. Add that to the fact he was clearly unsure what his best midfield pairing was, he was truly getting the worst out of this collection of talent. Remarkably, he has attained the second best win rate (55%) in the club’s history with this method.
It would be remiss to claim that this was a failure of the manager and the manager alone. People will point fingers at the players, but the structural organisation of the club leaves a lot to be desired. In 2017 they recruited one of the world’s leading talent spotters in Sven Mislintat, but chose not to give him the responsibility they had initially promised to him.
Emery was trusted over Mislintat when it came to the loan signing of Denis Suarez last January, and it was clear whatever relationship was there between all three parties had disintegrated. The German left the club in February after 14 months in London.
It leaves one wondering, what is the plan here? Mislintat made shrewd signings such as Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi alongside big money transfers like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Despite Mislintat’s excellent history of transfers throughout his career, he was overlooked for the position of technical director by head of football operations Raul Sanllehi, who chose former player Edu instead. It should be abundantly clear that the hierarchy favoured Sanllehi over Mislintat purely because he knew a lot of agents.
The Arsenal hierarchy have long accepted mediocrity as the default though, incapable of keeping up with the likes of Liverpool, City and Chelsea in moving forward. Now that Emery is gone, will they learn from the mistakes? Their next move will reveal a lot.