The task of replacing a stalwart manager is always a tough one – just look at Manchester United in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era. Arsene Wenger leaving Arsenal after 22 years was a move to make the Gunners a tougher outfit who competed for titles again, but there has been little to suggest that Unai Emery is the man for the long-term.
Of course, Emery was only a cog in the wheel of changes at Arsenal in the summer of 2018. Raul Sanhelli was brought in as Head of Football, assuming more senior responsibilities when CEO Ivan Gazidis departed for AC Milan, while Sven Mislintat has come and gone as Head of Recruitment.
The club were laying foundations to take power away from the manager and run operations themselves, with a head coach to train and select the team. It’s a similar system to the one that Emery worked under at Sevilla with the renowned Monchi, so Arsenal may have been expecting similar results.
Wenger left behind a squad with bags of potential going forward, with two of the Premier League’s finest forwards in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. Mesut Ozil initially looked invigorated after switching to his favoured No. 10 shirt, while Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi have proved to be sound acquisitions from above. The defence still looked questionable, but this can be improved with coaching.
However, Emery’s Arsenal quickly found themselves having an identity crisis. Billed as a pressing team who could play from the back, that now looks like a theory without much substance. Aside from a memorable north London derby win at the Emirates Stadium, the Gunners have looked uncomfortable in possession and hopeless out of it, often relying on moments of individual brilliance to bail them out.
Their luck ran out towards the end of last season; when failure to beat Crystal Palace and Brighton meant Arsenal missed out on the top four again, and they were embarrassed by a predictable, one-dimensional Chelsea side in the Europa League final. Given Emery was billed as the king of this competition, the result and performance were an embarrassment.
Rumours early this summer suggested failure to qualify for the Champions League would restrict Arsenal’s ability to recruit in the transfer market, but they have made some great signings, notably that of Dani Ceballos on loan and Nicolas Pepe. Again though, Emery is not making the most of the quality at his disposal. The club has backed the Spaniard but he is yet to prove he is better than Wenger at his lowest point.
There’s still time for Emery to turn it around, though. The squad is good enough to secure a top six finish despite the shaky start to the season, and there is an abundance of talent throughout the team, while this generation of academy players coming through has a high ceiling. Arsenal can afford to be top heavy because they aren’t challenging for the title, just for a top four spot.
An example Emery needs to follow works at the other end of Seven Sisters Road. Mauricio Pochettino had an up-and-down season in his first year at Tottenham, and an inconsistent start to his second left a few fans wanting him gone. However, Spurs kicked into life with a remarkable 4-1 win against Manchester City in September 2015 and haven’t looked back, becoming the side they are today.
In another north London vs Manchester clash, Arsenal head to Old Trafford to play United next Monday, and a strong performance against their rivals could kickstart their season. Emery’s contract is up at the end of the season, though the club hold an option to extend it for another year – he needs to start showing progress if he is to remain in charge at the Emirates.