Unai Emery’s style of play and record in big matches are reasons to worry about Arsenal’s new head coach.
Unai Emery ticks a lot of boxes for Arsenal. He’s a serial Europa League winner, has a fine track record developing young players and knows how to work on a budget and get a team punching above their weight.
Add in Emery’s experience working with diluted responsibility under the watch of a director of football, and the 46-year-old looks like the right man at the right time for the Gunners.
For all the obvious positives, there are still reasons to worry about the man who was officially unveiled as Arsenal’s new head coach and successor to Arsene Wenger on Wednesday:
Style of Play: Poet or Pragmatist?
Remember Jose Mourinho’s cringeworthy poets vs. pragmatists diatribe after Manchester United beat Ajax 2-0 in the 2017 Europa League final?
Mourinho, soccer’s arch practitioner of pragmatism, was drawing a parallel between those who win by any means and those seek to win with style.
Arsenal under Wenger were firmly in the latter category. Yet Emery may not continue the Frenchman’s fidelity to attractive play.
He made all the right noises about style at his introductory press conference. Emery cited two Ps Wenger would surely approve of, per Henry Winter of The Times:
He even expressed a brave sentiment as Wenger-like as it gets, per James Benge of the London Evening Standard:
The problem is Emery’s history doesn’t quite match his bold promises about a style pleasing on the eye.
His Paris Saint-Germain team played soccer with a swagger this season, netting 108 goals in 38 Ligue 1 matches. PSG also scored 25 goals during six group matches in the Champions League.
All of this sounds good, but Emery had the players for an expressive game in the French capital. It’s impossible not to play on the front foot with Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe up top, while Angel Di Maria and Javier Pastore offer support.
Playing with this much flair wasn’t even Emery’s choice. Instead, his more functional 4-2-3-1 formation was ditched by PSG’s star names, who wanted to return to the slick, “tiki-taka” passing they had practiced under Laurent Blanc, according to BBC Sport’s Julien Laurens.
Left to his own devices, Emery’s history has been defined by caution rather than ambition. A look at the assessments of some of those who have covered Emery’s career reveals a worrying pattern of negativity.
Sky Sports Spanish football pundit Terry Gibson (h/t John Cross of the Daily Mirror) described Emery’s style as a “defensive rather than an oppressive form.”
Meanwhile, Andy Brassel wrote in The Independent how Emery didn’t win over everybody during his solid spell in charge of Valencia:
His predilection for a 4-2-3-1 shape is not an alien one but his teams tend to be reactive. Fan frustration grew at Valencia over the years, despite a trio of top three finishes, with his team’s inability to take the risks needed to go further.
The ball was paramount during Wenger’s reign. Respect for it was key, as training sessions were largely defined by how well players performed in one- and two-touch passing drills.
Yet Emery may be the antithesis of this approach based on how he trained his players at Almeria, per the Guardian‘s Sid Lowe:
And nor is it just the dead-balls, the entire pattern of the team is mechanised: Almeria play 11-a-side games without a ball, just to get the movement right. And if the players get bored, the coach never does.
Throughout his coaching career, there is a pattern of pragmatism to Emery’s work. It’s a trend he summed up best with this quote in an article on UEFA.com:
The way I’d describe myself is that I want to be competitive. And I want the team to be competitive. What does that mean? Playing whatever way takes us closer to victory.
Wenger’s adherence to the beautiful game may have left Arsenal rudderless defensively at times. But at least it was a laudable philosophy which produced more entertainment than dark days.
If the extent of the Gunners’ ambition is a top-four finish in the Premier League, along with possible Europa League success, the journey will be a lot more palatable if they are still playing in an attractive way.
The legacy of expansive soccer Wenger left behind shouldn’t be betrayed. It’s a core value Arsenal should be proud to preserve.
Emery’s pragmatism could be a slap in the face of the man who transformed “Boring, Boring Arsenal.”
Big-match record is hardly ideal
One of the major concerns about Emery has to be how poorly he has fared against the big boys down the years. His PSG teams flopped against Barcelona and Real Madrid in consecutive seasons at the last-16 stage of the Champions League.
The collapse against Barca in 2017 was historic in both scale and embarrassment. Les Parisiens blew a 4-0 first-leg lead to lose 6-1 at the Camp Nou.
It was the kind of result all-too similar to Arsenal’s painful 10-2 aggregate hammering at the hands of Bayern Munich in the same year. Unfortunately, the similarities between Wenger and Emery’s failings at Champions League level don’t end there.
Emery has never gotten past the Round of 16 in Europe’s premier club tournament. The dubious record should give Arsenal nightmares after Wenger suffered nine last-16 exits, including seven in a row to cap his final years taking the Gunners to the continent’s top table.
Things don’t look much better domestically, given Emery’s struggles against the marquee managers in England’s top flight. Specifically, the Basque tactician has failed to get the better of Mourinho or Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, according to OptaJoe:
Wenger’s final seasons at Arsenal were often undone by dismal performances against other members of England’s top six. There were particular issues away from home.
Emery may make the Gunners tougher to beat in the other games, but history indicates he won’t solve recent failings in the bigger ones. If he can’t Arsenal won’t be winning top titles any time soon.
Extent of ambition from new management structure
Emery has gotten the job because of his willingness to fit into Arsenal’s new management structure. Decisions will be led by chief executive Ivan Gazidis in consultation with head of football relations Raul Sanllehi and head of recruitment Sven Mislintat.
Being amenable to having choices regarding transfers made for him is one thing other candidates didn’t share with Emery. Football.London’s Charles Watts said City coach Mikel Arteta and Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri, both prime candidates, weren’t receptive to sharing power.
By contrast, Emery worked with master overseer Monchi at Sevilla, before consulting with sporting directors at PSG.
While it’s an alien notion to fans and pundits in England, football writer and editor Rupert Fryer believes this way of operating is more common than many think:
Still, the fact Gazidis and Co. hired a coach eager to supplicate to the new order of things has a few troubling implications for the extent of Arsenal’s ambition.
The first concerns Emery’s track record. His PSG stint aside, his background has been defined by guiding clubs with financial restrictions to places higher than their limited budgets say they should be.
Buying cheap, selling big and punching above their weight was common for Emery’s teams at Almeria, Valencia and Sevilla. It’s all commendable stuff, but also sounds a lot like the model Wenger’s Arsenal followed during the so-called ‘Project Youth’ years after the move to the Emirates Stadium in 2006.
Emery’s similar approach could lead to another slew of fourth- and third-place finishes like the ones Wenger made the norm post-Highbury.
Emery finished eighth in one season in La Liga with Almeria. He was sixth, third, third and third again with Valencia. Finishes of fifth, fifth and seventh followed at Sevilla, a tenure better remembered for three Europa League trophies in as many years.
Arsenal’s ambition post-Wenger must surely be to get back to winning the Premier League, something not done since 2004, and competing in the Champions League.
Achieving those aims would likely require heavy spending and a bolder, bigger managerial appointment. Gazidis, Sanllehi and Mislintat have shunned those things by hiring Emery.
There’s a hard-headed practicality behind this appointment. It speaks to a willingness to look facts in the face, facts like Arsenal are the sixth best team in England, one at Europa League level with reduced spending power.
Emery’s work outside the French capital shows him as the antidote to these problems.
Yet while the restraint shown by Gazidis and his cohorts is admirable, it may also be too cautious to allow Arsenal to keep up with the Joneses in today’s game dominated by mega-rich deals and uber-coaches.
Emery is right for the new way of working Arsenal have laid out post-Wenger. But if his tenure ultimately disappoints these will be the reasons why.