On April 14, 2019 Arsenal moved to fourth place in the Premier League standings. The Gunners had 66 points from 33 games and were only one point behind third placed Tottenham Hotspur. To put this into perspective, the North London outfit had already improved upon its points tally from the previous 2017-18 campaign. Emery’s side had 63 points after match week 33 which was the same as what Wenger’s boys had accumulated after 38 games a year ago. In the next week, Unai’s red and white army thrashed favorites Napoli 3-0 on aggregate and reached the semi final of the UEFA Europa League.
There was an air of relief, calm and excitement around Emirates. Fans started to believe that the club would finish in the top four and end the Champions League exile. Unai Emery seemed like the perfect manager who could not put a foot wrong. In April 2019, fans loved Emery and Emery loved Arsenal. The board was mulling a new contract extension for their commander in chief. What could go wrong from here? A love story that perhaps promised the moon but didn’t receive the fairy tale ending it deserved. It was meant to be the next chapter but instead became the wrong chapter. This is the story of Senor Emery’s rise and fall at Arsenal.
The start of the next chapter
It was the 80th minute of Chelsea vs Arsenal at Stamford Bridge on August 18, 2018. The score was tied 2-2 with Arsenal having come from behind on both occasions. New signing Lucas Torreira had replaced Granit Xhaka at half time and seemed full of energy. However, his mistake would lead to Chelsea scoring the third and inflict Arsenal’s second consecutive defeat of the season. We believe that a match ends at full time but Emery’s revolution began after full time at Stamford Bridge. A visibly upset and angry Juan Carlos Carcedo took Torreira to the exact place where he had lost the ball. With his hands he seemed to gesture at the different passing options Torreira had before he gave the ball away. Arsenal fans loved this attitude shown by their new assistant manager. For years, they had grown frustrated seeing Steve Bould sit next to Arsene Wenger but hardly communicate with his players during the game. Fans were ecstatic that the new regime was more vocal and tough with players.
Life was not easy for Unai Emery at Arsenal. He was subject to intense scrutiny right from the day he was announced Arsenal manager. It was no ordinary managerial job. He was picked to succeed a man who had stayed in the position for 22 years and redefined football. He had big shoes to fill and Unai knew it too. “I cannot guarantee you that we will win, but I can guarantee you that we will work hard,” remarked Emery in his first media briefing at the club. Irrespective of whether you like him or not but Unai Emery was a fighter at Arsenal. He was often mocked for his poor grasp of the language but still continued speaking English in his press conferences and interviews.
Throughout his managerial career, Unai Emery was perceived as a tactician who would fit players into his style and tactics. Some managers do the opposite as well but Emery wasn’t one of them. He inherited an Arsenal side that had individual personalities but struggled collectively as a team. In Pierre Emerick Aubameyang he inherited one of the world’s most lethal strikers. But that was it! Besides one world class player, he had two attacking midfielders albeit on the wrong side of 30. One was the club’s highest paid player while the other had moved to London just six months ago. Alex Iwobi and Ainsley Maitland Niles were his options on the wing. If that wasn’t enough of a problem he also had an aging defense to fix. It was clear that Emery had to clear a lot of the dead wood left over by the previous regime.
Emery signed five players he believed would be best for his squad. He brought in Stephan Lichsteiner, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Bernd Leno, Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi. Lichsteiner and Sokratis were short and medium term solutions to the then defensive problems. Leno, Torreira and Guendouzi were signed as long term prospects who would become mainstays of the future squad. Besides these five signings, Emery offered Granit Xhaka a new contract because he saw him as a key player. Behind the scenes, Stan Kroenke struck a deal with Alisher Usmanov to buyout his thirty percent shares and take full control of the club. A lot was happening at Arsenal. Dubbed as the Bank of England club in the last century, Arsenal were now in complete control of an American real estate tycoon who had rarely taken any active role in running the club before.
Arsenal kicked off their 2018-19 Premier League campaign with a visit from defending champions Manchester City. It was followed by a visit to Stamford Bridge. A place where Arsenal had not won since 2011. Unai Emery could not have asked for a tougher start to life at Arsenal. On expected lines, Emery’s boys succumbed to a 2-0 loss to the hands of Pep’s Manchester City. It was followed by another close defeat at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal lost the match but were definitely the better side on that day. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi wasted two clear goal scoring opportunities in the first half and it would come back to haunt them. It was a game where Arsenal showed steel and resilience. They went behind twice and found a way back on both occasions. It felt like the start of something good and it truly was.
The 22 game unbeaten run
Unai Emery’s first competitive win as Arsenal manager came on August 25, 2018 against West Ham. Arsenal once again went 1-0 behind before scoring thrice to secure a 3-1 win. It was followed by a 3-2 win over Cardiff City. This time his side took the lead but only to give it back. Arsenal had to dig deep again to secure a victory. The string of victories would continue and fans began to feel as if it was the start of something special. By November 2018, fans began speculating about a title challenge by Unai’s men. The 4-2 win in the North London derby against traditional rivals Tottenham Hotspur would go down as one of Emery’s happiest moments at the club.
Unai Emery preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation at Arsenal. He only altered his formation on a few occasions to match stronger sides. Emery preferred to play Aubameyang up front, Xhaka and Guendouzi as his midfield pair with Mkhitaryan and Iwobi on the wings. Ramsey found himself in and out of the eleven due to off field issues while club’s highest earner Mesut Ozil was completely frozen out. In the 2018-19 season, Emery’s first choice back four was Bellerin, Holding, Sokratis and Monreal. Club captain Laurent Koscielny was still making his way back to full fitness while Calum Chambers was on loan at Fulham and Shkodran Mustafi’s performance raised eyebrows.
It can be argued that Arsenal’s 22 game unbeaten run was a false hope and the Gunners didn’t deserve the points. On the other side of the argument, you can point that Arsenal were beginning to show more character and steel. They didn’t lack cojones anymore and were grinding out results. They were converting draws into wins by scoring late goals and defeats to draws by snatching a late equaliser. Emery was a shrewd tactician and it reflected in his substitutions. He could single handedly turn a game around with half time substitutions. Against Spurs, he brought on Aaron Ramsey at half time and the rest is history. More often than not either of Ramsey, Torreira or Guendouzi found themselves substituted at half time. It injected fresh energy in the midfield and helped the team dominate possession in the region.
Injuries, injuries and contract issues
On December 05, 2018, Unai Emery received not one but two major injury setbacks on the same day. Both Rob Holding and Aaron Ramsey were injured against Manchester United in a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford. Arsenal would comfortably win their Europa League group without breaking a sweat but trouble was on the horizon. Scans revealed Rob Holding had suffered a ligament injury which ruled him out for the remainder of the season. Emery had no choice but to trust Shkodran Mustafi again. In dramatic fashion, Southampton ended Arsenal’s 22 game unbeaten run at St. Mary’s with a 3-2 win. It was followed by a 2-0 capitulation against Tottenham Hotspur in the league cup. December was about to turn more cruel with a visit to Anfield. Arsenal were hammered 5-1 after going 1-0 up in the 11th minute. No one expected Arsenal to win that day but no one expected Arsenal to surrender as well. Arsenal conceded not one but two penalties in the match. Both were down to individual errors rather than tactical mistakes.
Aaron Ramsey was an icon of the modern Arsenal. The highest scoring central midfielder in the club’s history had joined the club as a 17 year old teenager from Cardiff in 2008. It was a close battle between Manchester United and Arsenal for his signature. But Arsenal prevailed and brought him to London. Aaron Ramsey went on public record stating his preference to stay at the club. Wage parity issues with Mesut Ozil, and Arsenal’s dwindling finances due to consecutive years outside Europe’s biggest competition meant the club could not offer a contract extension. It was the end of Arsenal and Aaron Ramsey’s story together. Unlike a certain Chilean, the Welshman maintained professional behavior until his last day at the club and was in tears at his farewell.
Arsenal welcomed Chelsea to the Emirates Stadium in late January 2019. The club welcomed captain Laurent Koscielny after a lengthy spell on the sidelines due to injury. In the 69th minute Hector Bellerin collapsed on the ground clutching his knee. It was another long term injury to an Arsenal player. A teary eyed Rob Holding saw the proceedings from the stands and knew that Bellerin had suffered the same injury as his. Arsenal’s makeshift back four lost their first choice right back. After this all players in Arsenal’s first choice back four were above the age of 30. Lichsteiner and Koscielny had serious fitness issues while Monreal and Sokratis were no longer as athletic as they used to be.
Time for reality check
Somehow Arsenal kept scraping results in the league despite missing key players. On the other hand, Arsenal were a completely different beast in the Europa League. No challenge was too difficult for them and they kept sailing through. On April 14, 2019, the Gunners were fourth in the table, accumulated more points than last season and only one point behind Tottenham Hotspur in third place. Unai Emery had brought Arsenal within touching distance of a return to the Champions League. In an unremarkable turn on events, Arsenal only managed to accumulate 6 points in the next 5 games. They narrowly missed out on the last Champions League qualifying place by a single point. In May 2019, Unai Emery led Arsenal to its second European final in 15 years. It was a competition he knew very well and had won it thrice with Sevilla. Standing between Unai Emery’s first Arsenal trophy were local London rivals Chelsea. In the two league games earlier this season each team had won one match apiece.
It wasn’t meant to be Arsenal’s night as Emery’s half time substitutions didn’t work. In the end, Maurizio Sarri, a banker turned football coach who had never played professional football, would go home with the winners’ medal. A dream fairytale ending for Sarri’s time at Chelsea but a horrific night for Unai Emery and Arsenal. At the start of April, Arsenal were favorites to win the Europa League and finish in the top four. By May, they had lost the Europa League final and finished fifth in the league title. There was a sense of disappointment in the fanbase but it was not anger. Majority of fans believed the club was headed in the right direction and Emery was the man to take Arsenal forward.
In the summer transfer window Arsenal signed Nicolas Pepe for a club record fee. Brazilian Centre back David Luiz was signed as a like for like replacement for Laurent Koscielny. Kieran Tierney was signed as a long term replacement for Nacho Monreal while young defender William Saliba was loaned back to St. Etienne for a year to continue his development. Spanish midfielder Dani Ceballos was signed on loan from Real Madrid to compensate for Aaron Ramsey’s departure to Juventus. Brazilian teenager Gabriel Martinelli was an unknown player but seemed an exciting prospect. It finally seemed that Arsenal had covered their bases and would push for a top four finish whilst also trying to win the Europa League. What followed in the 2019-20 season was pure capitulation and destruction.
A memoir of failed experiments and setups
Unai Emery focussed a lot on build up play. He wanted the ball to move from defense to attack like a river flowing down a hill. In the 2019-20 season he overdid it. A classic Emery strategy was using wingers to build up play. He would pull his wingers behind and build a virtual four in the midfield. It was helping strengthen the midfield but it led to lack of bodies during attack. It was too big a task for Aubameyang to rescue Arsenal with his individual brilliance each time. Henrikh Mkhitaryan who was sent on loan to Roma for the 2019-20 season complained the same about Unai. In an interview, he blasted his previous manager for asking players to play in different roles during build up. It is the same reason why Nicolas Pepe has struggled in his first season at Arsenal. He didn’t find the expected support and space.
Mesut Ozil was completely frozen in the 2019-20 season. Lucas Torreira found himself playing in an unconventional attacking midfielder role as his replacement. The idea behind this move was not wrong. The best way to inflict damage on the opposition is to win the ball in their own third to overturn possession. Catching the opposition off guard would lead to goal scoring opportunities. Lucas Torreira could make tackles and win the ball back but he lacked support from his teammates. On multiple occasions, he would make a sideways or backward pass after successfully winning the ball back. He didn’t have the requisite passing skills to complete a defense splitting pass. In some ways, this idea had parallels with Maurizio Sarri’s handling of N’Golo Kante in the previous campaign.
Granit Xhaka’s storming off the pitch against Crystal Palace didn’t help Unai Emery’s cause either. The Swiss was appointed permanent captain after Koscielny’s departure and he owed his manager a lot more than what he did that night. Xhaka’s temporary suspension meant more strain on the midfield. Torreira can make tackles but not complete forward passes. Guendouzi can make forward passes but is susceptible to adrenaline rush leading to rash decisions. Ceballos was more like an attacking midfielder in the side and could not defend. It wasn’t Xhaka alone who stormed off the Emirates that night. In some aspects, Unai Emery’s hopes of staying as Arsenal manager were also over on the same night. Without his midfield general he was fighting a battle which was already difficult to win.
Failing to recruit a deputy for Hector Bellerin for two consecutive seasons was one of Emery’s biggest problems. Stephan Lichsteiner was on the wrong side of 30 and struggled to match the pace of the Premier League. He was released after one year at the club and Ainsley Maitland Niles was promoted to the first team. A midfielder in his youth days, Maitland Niles often found himself playing at right back throughout his first team career. It was a position he didn’t enjoy playing and it clearly showed. He tried his best to do well but his heart was set to play as a midfielder rather than a full back. Bellerin’s long term injury was confirmed on January 20, 2019. It was clear that he would need almost 12-16 months to achieve match fitness. With ten days still left in the transfer window, Arsenal did not make a move for a right back. Instead they signed Dennis Suarez from Barcelona on a short six month loan. Dennis Suarez’s Arsenal story is even stranger than that of Kim Kallstrom. Not bringing a second right back after Bellerin’s injury was one of Arsenal’s biggest mistakes.
As weird it may sound but the truth is Arsenal started the 2019-20 season without a left winger. Can you believe that one of Europe’s biggest superclubs did not have a left winger at the start of the season? Alex Iwobi’s move to Everton and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s loan to Roma meant Nicolas Pepe was the only established winger at the club. He would play on the right flank and there was no one to play on the left flank. The Gunners promoted Reiss Nelson to the first team hoping the youngster would step up. Perhaps it was too big a task for the youngster. Aubameyang was moved to the left wing not to accommodate Lacazette but to ensure quality across the front three. Another reason which looked small but contributed much to Emery’s exit.
In the end, it didn’t end well and Unai Emery was released from his duties as Arsenal manager on November 29, 2019. It was a story that promised the moon but didn’t reach the fairytale ending it deserved.
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