From the offset, the hiring of Unai Emery as manager of Arsenal Football Club was a curious one. Conversely, he had the credentials; on paper, he was a serial winner, most notably in cup competitions where he famously achieved an unprecedented three consecutive Europa League victories. However, that hinted at a ceiling, and his time at Paris Saint Germain was fraught with warning signs; the falling out and constant power-play with star players, and the loss of Ligue 1 to Monaco in his first season.
But what mostly didn’t quite make him the perfect fit at the club was his reputation as a counter-attacking coach, a rigid 4-2-3-1 man. At PSG, Emery was fortunate that he didn’t have to alter much and was ultimately forced to bend to the will of his players. (The technical base that Laurent Blanc left, with the help of his assistant, Jean-Louis Gasset, of Verrati, Motta and Matuidi, went mostly untouched, whilst Emery admitted, he mostly had to adapt to his individuals). When he joined Arsenal, his ability to talk a good game landed him the job (apparently, his presentation, “blew away” club officials) – but ironically, it would also prove to be his downfall as he was mocked for his inability to pronounce certain words, and in interviews, often resorted to using the same platitudes and buzzwords (we must “control” the game better etc).
In what would prove to be his final game in charge, he gave himself a simple objective that he thought would reverse Arsenal’s recent poor form (they were 7 games without a win): “We were speaking about how we can improve and the first way of changing that is by being more compact,” said Emery before his team eventually succumbed meekly 2-1 to Eintracht Frankfurt. The Gunners, under Emery, have been a disaster defensively, and the failure to even deliver on this simple promise summed up his reign as Arsenal manager.
When Unai Emery was announced, he mold a bold claim that would come to haunt him. “My idea is to be protagonists,” he boldly proclaimed. “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.”Quickly, though, he reverted to type. As soon as the first game in fact, where Pep Guardiola comfortably predicted that against his Manchester City, Emery would use a 4-2-3-1 despite practicising (most probably to get The Gunners to a certain technical base) in pre-season, with a 4-1-4-1. Of course, Emery was allowed some leeway to get used to his players, and reinvent a playing style that under Arsene Wenger was highly idiosyncratic and probably not in keeping with the modern game. To his credit, Emery realised this, and tried implement to some degree a build-up style that Guardiola popularised – and of which was lacking previously. (Remember, Wenger hated the ball being in his half, and thus tasked his attackers to push up the pitch, and leave the playing out to the centre-backs. There was also an absence of a robust type of positional play; instead, it was reliant on quick interchange, and off-the-ball movement).
The initial matches showed signs of growing pains, though in between, Arsenal scored some stunning teams goals – Ramsey’s back-flick at Fulham, and the two goals against Leicester City spring to mind. However, that quickly led to staleness, whilst the problems at the other end, where chances were offered with alarming regularity never went away. Emery was unable to address either problems from the start right to the end of his reign.
In fact, whatever he did seemed to do to try and fix the problems lead to, if not confusion, then nothingness. With each adjustment, tweak the same problems persisted. He chopped and changed systems, which at the start seemed to hint at a refreshing tactical flexibility, but over time, only eroded what core principles he was trying to adopt at the start.
This was broadly, to play with one of two wide players who step inside and create (Mhkitaryan: ““I was starting as a winger, but had to build play with the defensive midfielder”) whilst the full-backs bomb forward, and the double pivot sit back to cover. The team would mainly build down the flanks, starting with the ball with the goalkeeper.
In the end, whilst he was known as a 4-2-3-1 man, Emery began using the system less and less. There was at least a hint of identity – the consistency of the double-pivot, and use of the flanks to attack – but play became predictable and heavily reliant on his goalscorers finishing the scant chances they get (Arsenal average an average 12 shots a game this season). In the few times he did deviate from the double pivot, plus or minus a number 10, he opted for a diamond system. Indeed, it was until his 42nd league game in charge, in the 2-2 draw with Tottenham that he finally used a 4-1-4-1, the formation perhaps best suited to his description of a “protagonist” style of football. But whatever system he used, his team was always held back by his over-bearing caution on match days.
This was the other reason Emery was never able to reach the level that he desired because his team selections, as he says, depended “30% on the opposition, and 70% for us.” As such, he was only able to motivate his team to a level but he was never able to add the extra value that would overwhelm teams; there was always undue focus on the opposition. Conversely, it’s not that he didn’t have a specific idea of what he wants in match – to control matches, stop counters – but it’s almost as if it’s enough that the team “tries, work hard” to fulfill it; but he couldn’t add anything beyond. As Daniel Zeqiri wrote for The Independent: “By design or dysfunction, Emery’s Arsenal have a strange habit of finding parity with opposition no matter their level – with the exception of fixtures against Liverpool and Manchester City..” After the 1-1 draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers, Emery proclaimed his team did “tactically well”, almost making it sound as if the proposition of playing Wolves, (and grappling with each game, the change of system), harder than it should be. That’s why any promises he makes to improve things come with the same disclaimers; that the team will always set up as underdogs and if there’s a suggestion of a step forward in one game, he’s liable to change things again the next.
In the end, Emery had to go because his philosophy was muddled, rather than his performance as a whole, and there was little indication that he would get the team to the level he desired. He never tried to implement a pressing style, mainly because he never got to grips with finding a defensive balance, and in fact, up until his last game in charge, he was still trying to correct the building out from the back – the first thing he tried to implement at the club. But the advantage that Arsenal initially gained from Emery’s focus on playing out dissipated, and if anything, was becoming a bit counter-productive because the team was essentially grappling with the manager’s vanity project.
I say this because the build-up was flawed, unconventional, and perhaps a statement by Emery to show that he could create a distinctive playing style, just as Wenger did, but at the same time, to make Arsenal “competitive.” He used two holding midfielders almost always behind the ball, which essentially showed up the fallacy of his idea of “controlling” matches because the team was unable to effectively force opponents back. With the build-up inevitably being funneled wide, it meant the team couldn’t create numerical superiority between-the-lines, and beyond the Iwobi-Kolasinac link-up in the first-season, you can argue that Emery didn’t established even one definitive partnership which the team could fall back on (i.e like Alexis and Ozil, Fabregas, Nasri and Van Persie). It’s no wonder then, that the no.10 was often marginalised, mainly because there was nobody to properly link up with.
Ultimately, the tweaks that Emery made from game-to-game were having a minimal effect, indicating that he was actually hindering his players rather than allowing them to “play”. That was always the danger in his second season, after signing Nicolas Pepe, because that would mean he would have to find a way to compromise between his cautious style, whilst also allowing the players to play with a degree of freedom. In his final few games, he relegated Arsenal’s record signing to the bench. How could the team play like “protagonists”, as he promised, if he didn’t grant them any autonomy?
Unai Emery’s reign therefore can only be summed up by the promises he failed to deliver on. He had a chance to build his own masterpiece, but that meant a reworking of his core principles and ideals, and in the end, that was a step too far from Emery. The galling thing really, is that Emery brought a certain level of coaching which you felt should be the groundwork for more, but often ended up nothing much more than close to his, and the team’s, ceiling.
A timeline of tweets:
1. First reaction to Emery’s hiring
2. Digging out his history
3. He says all the right things
4. Some pre-season observations
5. The obsession begins
6. Establishing an early identity
7. The honeymoon period is over, now the identity is glanced with a critical eye
8. Too much focus on opposition, not enough on letting the team “play”
9. Feels like the beginning of the end, and it’s only 7 months in
10. Not shooting enough..again
11. Emery starting to double-down on identity, of making Arsenal protagonists, instead opting to be more “competitive”
12. Would the transfer window see a more forward-thinking Emery?
14: When I’m not objective anymore, you know it’s over