In the end, the news came swiftly. And brutally. Arsenal fans had been agitating for Unai Emery to be sacked for weeks but the Arsenal hierarchy had relented.
Until a 2-1 home defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt made his position untenable. Then, as reported by David Ornstein in The Athletic, Emery was given the boot prior a morning training session. ‘Unaware of his fate’ even as he prepared the team to face Norwich at the weekend.
In truth, Emery has been a dead man walking for weeks. Certainly since the dismal 1-0 away defeat to Sheffield United which ushered in a run of one win in nine games. Perhaps as far back as the ruinous run of form towards the end of last season which saw Arsenal meekly surrender in the race for the top four and then suffer the humiliation of losing 4-1 to Chelsea in the Europa League final – a match that Arsenal needed to win to return to the top table of European football, while Chelsea had already qualified.
If many Arsenal fans had been prepared to cut Emery some slack during what was at times quite a painful adjustment period to his new methods – Petr Cech trying to play out from the back and only succeeding in almost passing the ball into his own net on the opening game of last season against Manchester City springs to mind – the conclusion to 2018-19 and the start to 2019-20 had effectively extinguished all hope that the replacement for Arsene Wenger would be a long-term fixture. It was hard to discern any kind of plan.
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Emery arrived at Arsenal with a reputation for having a sophisticated pressing system. Initial signs were that Arsenal were going to be more proactive and organised. But that soon disappeared. Formations have come and gone, players, like Lucas Torreira, given instructions which have confused them. Amid reports that he was struggling to communicate with his players, was even being openly mocked by some, Emery fell out with the best creative player Arsenal have had this decade, Mesut Ozil, and then caused a problem entirely of his own making by appointing Granit Xhaka as captain and inviting further scrutiny on a player who was already a lightning rod for supporter criticism. And we know how that ended.
If Emery struggled to connect with his own players, communication was a problem which affected his relationship with supporters too. A fanbase who had been treated to Arsene Wenger’s masterfully articulated philosophies on football, love and life over 20 years – even if they didn’t always agree with his conclusions, and were even occasionally angered by them – were suddenly being fed the most bland, empty proclamations about “process”, “moments” and “being clear that we have to work hard”.
By the end, Emery had found an almost Moyesian or Hodgsonian ability to irritate supporters and betray a lack of understanding of the culture of the club with his public statements. After a 1-1 draw against Vitoria in the Europa League at the start of November, he made the bizarre claim that “Offensively, this team [Vitoria] is very organised and it’s not easy to have a lot of chance.” Last night, after a 2-1 defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt, he was still maintaining that “I think today we improve”.
Statistics told another story, with Arsenal’s chances created drying up and the team conceding more shots on target than ever before. It was, by the end, a considerable mess. A clear failure of management in all facets.
Freddie Ljungberg was a player of considerable repute but his coaching and man management skills will be severely tested as he tries, in the short term, to turn Arsenal around. More pressingly, though, the club have started the search for a new permanent manager. On which note, there is one glaringly obvious contender, and one close to home.
Not Mikel Arteta, who retains a certain aura around him after having been close to landing the job 18 months ago, accruing extensive experience as assistant to Pep Guardiola and retaining some credibility despite captaining Arsenal through one of the more difficult periods of the Wenger era. But he is a complete novice. This is not the moment to hand a big club in dire straits to fresh hands.
Mauricio Pochettino bei Tottenham
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Instead, there is an out-of-work manager who knows his way around North London. Maybe it’s a total flight of fancy, and maybe he would never consider taking the Arsenal job so soon after leaving Tottenham, but could there be a better option than Mauricio Pochettino?
The great fraud of the brief Emery era was his insistence upon taking the job that he wanted to make Arsenal “protagonists”. Upon landing the job as Wenger’s successor, he told the press that, “the history here is a team that love playing with possession and I like that personality. When you don’t have possession, I want a squad that are very, very intensive with the pressing. The two things are important for me to be protagonists – possession of the ball and pressing when you don’t have the ball.”
Far from being protagonists, by the final few weeks of Emery’s reign Arsenal were more like bystanders, watching matches pass them by. Even when Alexandre Lacazette scored an injury-time equaliser against Southampton at the weekend, the players could barely animate themselves to celebrate.
Pochettino is a manager who can make this promise come to life. His body of work at Tottenham was clearly outstanding, even if results slipped alarmingly in the Premier League over the past nine months. For considerable spells prior to Liverpool and Manchester City’s elevation to the elite levels they currently occupy, Spurs were arguably the best team in England. A team who were exceptionally well drilled, brilliant pressers and at times, thrilling to watch. Yes, Pochettino never won a trophy, but Arsenal’s aspirations are simply just to challenge for Europe again. And he’s shown that he doesn’t have to have vast funds at his disposal to transform a team. Which will be useful under a Kroenke regime.
If Emery clearly struggled to forge bonds with his players, that has not been a problem for Pochettino. Spurs players reportedly grew tired of his methods after five years in the job, and the almost evangelical feeling around his flock seemed to drop off, but it was still noticeable that Harry Kane and Dele Alli paid personal visits to his house in the days after his sacking.
Given the way he was bundled out of the door to be replaced by Jose Mourinho, Pochettino owes Tottenham no debt of loyalty. If there is any chance of bringing this truly transformative coach to the club, Arsenal should do everything in their power to make it happen.