When Unai Emery left Arsenal, I felt a sense of relief. The kind that made you feel everything would be ok now the main problem in your football life had been removed.
The truth is that Unai Emery is a winner, a highly skilled coach with a strong CV, and a list of successes, but he looked baffled by the Premier League and more importantly, Arsenal. He struggled to get his approach across, he found it difficult to communicate and he never established a rapport with the players.
Having said that, he inherited a misfiring and average team and somehow managed to get them to the Europa League final but having witnessed what followed, I wish they’d been knocked out earlier. Emery started to lose his grip in his final months, the players weren’t playing for him, they looked lost and confused. He tried everything he could to resolve the problem without realising he was the problem.
His departure was certainly no surprise, he wasn’t good enough for Arsenal at a time when they needed something special but that’s not all his fault to be fair. Gazidis and the other suck-ups appointed him when there were other qualified and credible candidates available, but Arsenal knew they had the right man. He was an honourable and loyal man, a yes man, and someone that would concentrate on the team without involving himself in the running of the club.
The simple truth is that the next man after Wenger could have been anyone and the result would have been the same. Unai Emery was just phase-I of the post-Wenger revolution that allowed the limelight seekers their opportunities to shine and gain the type of power and control that eluded them under 22 years of Wenger reign.
Once Emery departed, he should have taken it on the chin, licked his wounds, and regrouped his thoughts. He is still a good coach and his destiny is surely at a club with a less manic boardroom and confusing structure. Where he can genuinely mould a team of his own and not just be told whom he’s keeping, buying and freezing out.
So that essentially is that, but the Spaniard can’t seem to find closure and has made his excuses for the 18 months of obvious failure.
In fairness to the club they did invest, spending an unexpected £130m on eight new players but somehow, he still couldn’t solve the defensive issue and midfield problems. Worse still, he now had Lacazette, Aubameyang, and Pepe as a strike force which on paper alone should have blown the opposition away.
Yet, Unai Emery was beset by distractions in the form of Ozil, Xhaka, the ongoing contract fiasco, the Gazidis departure, as well as the involvement of Mislintat, Edu and Sanllehi. That speaks for itself, but now Emery has tried to explain his thoughts in an article that has appeared in The Guardian:
“The first season we did a lot well,”
“I thought: ‘This is my team.’ People said: ‘Unai, we can see your personality in this side.’ There was spirit, games with intensity, energy – Tottenham, Manchester United, Chelsea – and we reached Arsenal’s first [European] final in 13 years, playing very well against Napoli and Valencia. Finishing third was in reach but we lost four decisive points against Crystal Palace and Brighton.”
Which led him to remark that those losses were “incomprehensible”. He further lamented the dismissal by reminiscing about the start of his reign rather than the middle and end:
“(At first) things went magnificently; there was a good spirit in the dressing room.
“Ramsey’s injury, when he was at his best, had a big influence: he conveyed positivity, so much energy. And playing a lot of important games in April without him, we needed 100% implicación from every player.”
He meant application obviously, but I don’t want to dwell on the communication side which unfairly made him into a universal figure of fun and probably undermined him within the fan base, club, players, and media. He went on with his autopsy:
“I told the people running the club there were decisions that didn’t go well. Mistakes were made, and as coach I take responsibility for mine. For example, all four captains left. Ramsey had decided he was going. It would have been better for the team if he had continued, and for me. Petr Cech was retiring; fine. But I wanted Laurent Koscielny to stay, Nacho Monreal to stay. All those leaders went, which makes the dressing room something else.”
“We signed [Nicolas] Pépé. He’s a good player but we didn’t know his character and he needs time, patience. I favoured someone who knew the league and wouldn’t need to adapt. [Wilfried] Zaha won games on his own: Tottenham, Manchester City, us. Incredible performances. I told them: ‘This is the player I know and want.’ I met Zaha and he wanted to come. The club decided Pépé was one for the future. I said: ‘Yes, but we need to win now and this lad wins games.’ He beat us on his own.”
Then he finally conceded what had happened on his watch when he observed:
“It’s difficult. The energy slips, things drift; everything does, everyone does. Some support you but you feel the atmosphere, relationships [shift]. And that transmits to the pitch. Losing leads against Palace and Wolves reflected our emotional state: we weren’t right. It wasn’t working. I told the players: ‘I don’t see the team I want.’ That commitment and unity wasn’t there any more. That’s when I see I’m on my own. The club left me alone, and there was no solution.”
Unai Emery doesn’t need to rake over the past anymore, the whole situation wasn’t just his responsibility. The former coach was on a beating from the day he arrived and those that stood behind him were only too happy to push him forward as the bullets began to fly.
I remember the press conferences before he left, where he looked like an exhausted and anxious man, uncertain of his next move or what to do just to remain still. He will go down as one of Arsenal’s failures in the eyes of many but Arsenal are as guilty of that failure as anyone.