Fair play to Unai Emery. He departed the club with dignity and warm words. No indication of any hard feelings. The man himself doubtless knew the game was up, but few managers walk these days if there is a pay-off for getting dismissed. Daniel Levy spent time in the week before Mauricio Pochettino’s sacking trying to persuade Poch to resign. So we had the slow tortuous ending, culminating in the first home defeat of the season in front of a sub-20,000 crowd at the Emirates.
Emery was vilified and received unnecessary personal abuse for his failure to revive Arsenal’s fortunes. And as a coach, there is no question that he failed at Arsenal. That he came so close to but fell short of achieving the club’s ambitions last season was not down to poor luck, but poor defending. And yes, there were personal errors and bad decisions, but ultimately, too many for the blame not to fall at the feet of the man picking the side and issuing the tactics. It seemed obvious after the 2018-19 campaign had concluded in Baku that this was not going to change, and yet Raul Sanllehi wanted to give his compatriot a contract extension.
The media are briefing that Sanllehi is the reason that Emery lasted as long this season as he did, and now the former’s stock is low. Emery should have been put out of his misery in the summer, but there was a mistaken belief that new players would lead to improved results. Out went Koscielny, Monreal, Jenkinson and Lichtsteiner. In came David Luiz and Kieran Tierney, with Calum Chambers returning from loan and Bellerin and Holding eventually returning from injury. Calamitous goals were conceded, leads sacrificed and points dropped.
The head coach’s players did not seem to understand what he wanted, or if they did, it looked like Emery wanted chaos. It felt like there was so much different instruction, it concluded with the players looking anything like a team. It had to end, and thank goodness we can all move on. Emery though, is a decent human being, who can certainly be criticized for his tactics and lack of consistency, but who always behaved impeccably. Sadly, this was not reflected in the performances of his players.
Freddie Ljungberg is in charge for the short term, and one hopes to see a new manager bounce with a fresh approach to match preparation. It has been reported that he does not have enough coaching badges to manage the first team for more than three months, although apparently he is actually fully qualified. The players lacked spirit, belief and organization in recent matches, and this will be the first thing that Ljungberg needs to address. Norwich on Sunday suddenly becomes the most fascinating match of the season so far for Gooners. As the players involved on Thursday did not do a training session yesterday, Freddie will not have long to do anything substantive before his first game in charge.
The club are sounding out possible replacements and my personal choice (of the available options) would be Allegri for the reason that I believe he can re-introduce defensive solidity to the team. The Italian would take the job for three reasons – a generous salary, the opportunity to compete in the Premier League, and living in London. However, he may not be so impressed by a relative lack of funds and little chance of Champions League football until 2021. But fans should not underestimate the draw of managing in the Premier League to foreign managers, such is its profile. It’s possible, although Allegri may well choose to enjoy the rest of his year off and will be in demand in the summer.
What Arsenal need to be wary of is giving Ljungberg an extended deal if he has a good first two months in the job, but wait until the end of the season. They need to learn from the experience of Manchester United with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Ljungberg though, has a chance to establish his credentials, and we will find out how good he (or someone he brings in) is at organizing a side not to give away cheap goals. It is to be hoped that his team play to their strengths more than Emery’s did.
The Emery reign will not be recalled fondly, and his inability to master communicating well in the English language will always be the subject of ridicule. With hindsight, he should have used a translator for his first season (as Mauricio Pochettino did at Southampton), and worked on his English with a native speaker so that his pronunciation of words was much better. Because ultimately, it does seem like his ability to communicate with his players was compromised, with instruction not always clear. Put it this way, the way the side played suggested the plan was not always clear, and that it changed from game to game. After an encouraging first few months, the players seemed to lose faith in what Emery was doing.
The 2018-19 season was one of big changes at Arsenal. Arsene Wenger had departed, and during the season two of the men that agreed to appoint Emery also left – Ivan Gazidis and Sven Mislintat. The process of overhauling the playing staff began in the summer of 2018 and continued a year later. It wasn’t a solid base for development and the job was going to be difficult for any experienced coach, not least one who was not familiar with the Premier League nor the language.
However, although the club has seen a long period of decline, this isn’t terminal. Football moves in cycles. Granted, Arsenal could be in an entirely different section of the curve if they’d made less emotional decisions in 2014 when they decided to continue with Arsene Wenger. There were occasions during which they could have secured either of Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp to come to north London. The conservatism of the board and the owner saw the club wait another four years before finally realizing Arsene was never going to return the glory days of his first decade, and Emery came in to try and pick up the pieces. Fans, myself included, were heady with the change, believing his remarkable succession of European trophies at Sevilla could be translated to Arsenal, even if it would take a couple of years. Deeper analysis would have established that his teams habitually conceded too many goals, which is exactly what transpired. Fair play to the man for upholding a decent record in Europe. Arsenal made the final of the Europa League last season, beating some decent enough teams to get there. Sadly, the final was a foretaste of things to come this season in terms of the way his team seemed to collapse in the second half.
At least, with Freddie as an interim manager, things get interesting again, and there will be a bigger crowd next Thursday for the home match v Brighton, although there will still be a significant number of no shows. Were Emery still in charge, it wouldn't have been many more than against Eintracht Frankfurt, and that is why the club had to act. Empty seats are damning, and only good football and results will bring people back. Here’s hoping.
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