Arsenal sack Emery: Where next for the Gunners?
In a move that hardly came as a surprise, given their loss to Eintracht Frankfurt in this week’s Europa League game, Arsenal have fired their manager Unai Emery. For Gunners fans all over the world, the move probably comes as a relief; the Spaniard had made numerous mistakes over his tenure, didn’t seem to know his best team and had them on their worst run in 27 years with no wins in their last 7 games. However, it’s worth asking the question of whether the problems at the Emirates Stadium started and ended with Emery – or whether there are deeper rooted issues to consider. Arsenal are undoubtedly one of the biggest clubs in England and have some of the richest histories, but can they really get back to the top of the Premier League without a very long look at themselves in the mirror?
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It’s arguable that things haven’t quite been right for the Gunners since the move into the Emirates Stadium at the start of the 2006/07 season. The stadium cost a king’s ransom to build and left Arsenal in debts of around £260m. The club’s power-brokers decided that it was more important to pay off the debts than strengthen the team, often selling their best players and not truly replacing them in order to recoup funds.
That meant the likes of Samir Nasri, Robin Van Persie, Emmanuel Adebayor and Cesc Fabregas departed the club, weakening Arsenal’s squad during a period in time that saw Manchester City receive unprecedented investment from their new owners. While the Gunners were still regular Champions League qualifiers in the seasons that followed, their days as perennial Premier League title challengers appeared to be over. Then-manager Arsene Wenger has since described the period as the most difficult of his life.
Arsenal’s debts were largely paid off by the 2013/14 season, and with that, Wenger was allowed to spend big money again – bringing in the likes of Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and later, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette – but by that time, the tide had turned entirely in terms of how Arsenal fans viewed their situation. Suddenly, anti-Wenger fan protests became a regular occurrence, with the feeling being that the Frenchman was past his best. And as US business magnate Stan Kroenke began to take more control of the club behind the scenes, the feeling of distrust began to grow.
Wenger eventually departed at the end of the 2017/18 season after Arsenal finished 6th in the Premier League table – missing out on Champions League qualification for the second season in a row. But if Gunners fans thought his departure would usher in a new era for the club, they were sorely mistaken.
As we now know, the appointment of Unai Emery simply didn’t work out; the Gunners finished 5th in 2018/19 and made a slight improvement on the later years of Wenger’s reign, but the same old problems – the lack of a killer instinct, a weak defence leading to bad losses, and questionable tactics – continued to rear their heads.
It’s easy to blame Emery for the club’s ills, but realistically, the criticisms Arsenal fans were throwing at him were largely identical to those aimed at Wenger. Realistically, more questions need to be aimed at the backroom team at the Emirates – from Head of Football Raul Sanllehi and his Director of Football, Edu, to principal owner Stan Kroenke. Sanllehi and Edu were supposed to be the architects of Arsenal’s new era, but what have they really done so far?
Mesut Ozil – who has arguably underperformed more than any other Arsenal player in the modern era – was rewarded with a new, eye-watering £350k per week contract at the club, while Aaron Ramsey – who was one of the club’s most consistent performers – was allowed to head to Juventus on a free transfer after talks around a new deal broke down. According to Ramsey, the club were responsible for pulling his deal off the table.
Questions must also be asked about the Gunners’ transfer dealings, particularly in the most recent transfer window. This is one area where it’s hard to blame Emery, as if reports around the time of his appointment were to be believed, the Spaniard had little say in which players were brought into the club.
2018/19 saw the likes of Bernd Leno, Lucas Torreira, Sokratis and Matteo Guendouzi arrive at the club, but while those players have gone onto moderate success, the less said about the disastrous signings of Stephan Litchtsteiner and Denis Suarez, the better. This summer was even stranger; it was painfully clear by the end of 2018/19 that Arsenal’s defence needed an overhaul, and yet the club’s biggest signings was Nicolas Pepe – a forward.
Sure, David Luiz and Kieran Tierney were brought in to attempt to shore up the defence, but in the case of Luiz especially, were hardly the kind of defensive stalwarts that the club really needed following their disastrous end to the previous season.
The whole situation – from the lack of direction from Sanllehi and Edu to the confusing reign of Emery and the treatment of a club legend in Wenger – has resulted in the Emirates developing a truly toxic atmosphere. It could be argued that the fans themselves aren’t helping, either; YouTube channel ‘AFTV’ for example has become renowned for its vicious criticisms of the team and manager, while the Emirates itself has turned into a hotbed of boos and empty seats.
So how can things be turned around for the Gunners? Well, for starters – assuming Sanllehi and Edu remain in place – the appointment of Emery’s successor should be a huge deal. Arsenal should not fall into the same trap that their biggest rivals from the 1990’s – Manchester United – did. Club legend Freddie Ljungberg has been confirmed as the club’s interim manager today, but even if the Swede oversees a rebound in form, Arsenal should probably hold fire when it comes to appointing him full-time.
Ljungberg has no actual management experience per say; he’s clearly a serviceable coach, as his promotion from coaching the U-23 side to the senior side suggests, but to leave him in charge would be a huge risk. Instead, it might be smarter for the Gunners to take a leaf out of the book of their most bitter rivals, Tottenham Hotspur.
In 2013/14, Spurs fired boss Andre Villas-Boas and replaced him with club legend – and inexperienced manager – Tim Sherwood, and although Sherwood oversaw an improvement in form, the club were still quick to dispense of him at the end of the season to replace him with Mauricio Pochettino.
Arsenal might be smarter, then, to almost write off 2019/20 and allow Ljungberg to finish the season, before looking to appoint Emery’s successor in the summer. There are highly-rated free agents out there at the minute – Pochettino (who likely wouldn’t join Arsenal anyway) and Max Allegri, but appointing mid-season would be as big a risk as waiting. If Arsenal do have their sights set on Nuno Espirito Santo, as reports suggest, why not wait until the end of the season to make an approach, when they might have more success in prising him away from Wolves?
At the very least, Arsenal’s board need to attempt to get the fans on-side with their appointment. Back in May 2018, it was suggested that Emery was the club’s first choice to succeed Wenger, but since then, rumours have stated that he actually wasn’t top of Arsenal’s list – former midfielder Mikel Arteta was – and Emery was only introduced as a late candidate and was eventually chosen as a ‘safe pair of hands’ as opposed to the risk that the inexperienced Arteta would’ve represented.
That meant that questions were asked about the Spaniard’s ability to bring success back to the Emirates from the off – and may have contributed to the fans turning on him so quickly when a more popular appointment might’ve been allowed more time to embed himself into the club and its culture.
Regardless of the appointment, things clearly need to change on a higher level for Arsenal – particularly when it comes to their transfer dealings. More money isn’t necessarily needed, but a less scattergun-type approach is certainly required if the club want to regain their footing.
For instance, why was Nicolas Pepe – a winger/forward with just one impressive season to his name – signed for such a huge fee this summer, when the Gunners already had Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, as well as exciting prospects like Reiss Nelson and Bukayo Saka capable of performing a similar role?
And why was Shkodran Mustafi not offloaded when it was clear that he wasn’t part of Emery’s plans anymore? The German centre-back has not appeared in a Premier League game this season and was responsible for some of Arsenal’s biggest defensive gaffes last season, so why keep him?
However, it must be stated that perhaps Arsenal’s fans may have to change too, particularly when it comes to their expectations. Simply put, the Gunners cannot keep the pace with either Manchester club in financial terms, Liverpool are miles ahead of them when it comes to squad quality, and while there are questions around Tottenham right now, both Wolves and Leicester are pushing to break into the Premier League’s elite and also have a lot of financial muscle behind them. To put it bluntly, Arsenal are no longer perennial title challengers anymore; they’re one of a number of teams vying for a spot at the top table.
So maybe Gunners fans should take a leaf out of the book of the fans of their other big London rivals, Chelsea. Blues fans came into 2019/20 with little expectations after being hit with a transfer ban and following the appointment of the inexperienced Frank Lampard as boss, and while they’ve done surprisingly well thus far, the impression is that their fans would’ve been happy regardless due to that lack of expectation.
Like Chelsea, Arsenal have a squad full of impressive young prospects produced by their academy – Nelson, Saka, Joe Willock and Emile Smith-Rowe to name a handful – and while their squad isn’t brilliant overall, largely due to that dodgy defence, with a few tweaks it could actually be excellent.
Maybe then, the key word for Arsenal – meaning their board, their owners and their fans – should be patience. Success can no longer be an expectation, particularly with the side miles off the pace when it comes to the race for the top four right now, but if the right decisions are made in the coming weeks, Arsenal could yet make their way back to the top of the Premier League pile.
Axl Rose once sang “take it slow and it’ll work itself out fine, all we need is just a little patience”. Arsenal and their fans would do well to heed those words.Published 30 Nov 2019, 04:58 IST