Unai Emery at Arsenal – Spanish Sensation or Gutless Gooner?

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Wenger has left the building. I repeat, Wenger has left the building. Since 1996, the Arsenal hot seat has been occupied by a man who sounds so similar to the club’s name, Arsene Wenger as Arsenal manager looks more like a translation of each other as opposed to a job title. For 22 years many football fans, including myself, only know life as the Arsenal touch line being occupied by a gangly Frenchman who had a fascination of long coats and the inability to locate the pockets on them. After a career in England spanning over two decades yielding three league titles and seven FA Cups and even a league season unbeaten, the Frenchman’s chapter in North London has come to a close, although probably not through Arsene Wenger’s own wishes, but that’s a story for another time.

After weeks and weeks of speculation and countless managers’ names being pulled from pillar to post by the media, the decided name was Mikel Arteta it seemed, a former Arsenal player and captain. But it seems he had the rug pulled from underneath him at the very last-minute and that the Arsenal board got cold feet about giving Arteta his managerial break, and opted for another Spaniard, former Sevilla and PSG manager Unai Emery. The appointment has the Arsenal faithful split, some saying he’s an experienced man who has managed top players at the top level, whereas others say that he has failed at the top level and is not cut out to manage at the elite standard with the likes of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho.

The question really is, is Unai Emery the natural successor to Arsene Wenger, or will he be the figurehead of Arsenal’s nosedive to further mediocrity?

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Unai Emery holding the Arsenal shirt after being confirmed as manager

Starting his managerial career where his playing career ended, he managed Lorca Deportiva from 2004-2006 in which time he got the club promoted to Spain’s second division, for the first time in their history. In his second season, he achieved sixth position before seeking pastures new and moved to division two side Almeria. He again got his club promoted in 2007 at the first time of asking, whilst his former side faltered and were relegated. Emery, managing in La Liga for the very first time, helped the team achieve eighth place, which prompted Valencia C.F to approach Emery, which he duly accepted, replacing Dutchman Ronald Koeman. Despite going into a club which visibly obvious financial constraints and issues, he still managed to steer the club to sixth place, which meant they were competing in the Europa League the following season. He took the team further in the league, finishing third and qualifying for the Champions League, and were knocked out in the quarter-final stage of the Europa League by fellow La Liga outfit Atletico Madrid, who were incidentally, the eventual winners. He again finished 3rd in the league for the second year in a row in 2012, before leaving the club.

Unai Emery then left his native Spain to manage in the continent and ended up in Russia, becoming the Spartak Moscow manager in May 2012. He was soon relieved of his duties however, when he was sacked in November of the same year after a poor string of results.

It is at Sevilla where Unai’s stock and credibility really grew as he dominated the European scene, albeit the second tier of it. In his three-year tenure in Seville, he won the Europa League three times on the bounce from 2014-2016, beating Benfica, FC Dnipro and most notably, Liverpool. He achieved 5th twice in a row before finishing 7th in his final season, but got Sevilla qualification to the Champions League via the Europa League win.

French champions PSG came calling next, Unai Emery replacing Laurent Blanc as manager. His first season despite winning a treble of domestic honours was extremely underwhelming and disappointing, as they gave up their league title to AS Monaco by 8 points, a team spearheaded by teenagers. They also enduring the most amazing collapse in Champions League history after being eliminated by Barcelona in the round of 16, despite a 4-0 lead in the first leg and even getting an away goal, losing 6-5 on aggregate after a 6-1 loss at the Nou Camp. After this disappointing season the Parisien club decided to go big in an attempt to break into Europe’s elite by splashing out a world record fee for Barcelona’s Neymar for an obscene £222m but didn’t stop there, they also acquired Kylian Mbappe, on loan from Monaco with a future fee of £166m. Bit ironic really, acquiring the two players responsible for their downfalls for the previous season. Whilst the season ended with the same domestic success as the last season plus the Ligue 1 title reclaimed, Emery once again failed to deliver in Europe’s elite competition, being eliminated in the round of 16 by Real Madrid 5-2 on aggregate. He announced in April 2018 that he was leaving the club at the end of the season. Unai Emery left Paris despite winning multiple trophies, with a slight disdain due to his failure to elevate the club to the upper echelons and laughable, failing in Europe twice and allowing his Qatari fed club to be usurped by plucked Monaco for the league title in his debut season.

A career of ups and downs for Unai, and one that seems to falter when managing outside the borders of Spain. Food for thought there.

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Emery in 2014 with the first of his three Europa League trophies

Unai Emery’s career path is twisted road with many ditches, but how do his tactics fare?

Emery has favoured two formations in his time since breaking into the fore, a 4-2-3-1 system at Sevilla before a switch to 4-3-3 whilst at Paris Saint Germain.

Emery’s style at Sevilla was based upon pressing the opposition high, especially in their final third, to force errors from defending teams and goalkeeper. Having a back line which is defensively adept and keeping its shape and good communication was vital for Unai. Although he enjoyed having overlapping full backs, he did not want them to act as wing backs; defending is foremost for his full back in his time at Sevilla.

His midfield set up is most intriguing however as although he’d initially set out a match with two defending midfielders with one slightly ahead acting as a link and playmaker, often Ever Banega, when out of possession, he would slot back to form a three-man midfield, making the shape akin to a 4-3-3. This meant that has furthest midfielder forward would often act as more of a box to box midfielder as opposed to an out an out playmaker, a role played by Ever Banega and Ivan Rakitic before him.

This midfield fluidity would also mean that Vitolo, often the first choice left winger, would move across to Banega’s initial position that he vacated. This in turn would cause an overload on the right side, which Sevilla would use as a means of distraction to shift the ball to the empty spaces left by the opposition being concentrated on the overloaded areas. Not often using wide men who operate in the half spaces, he preferred a winger who hugs the touchline and can cross the ball into the box, for target man Carlos Bacca to direct towards goal, who was used as a pure finisher, to finish chances in and around the box.

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A graphic highlighting Sevilla’s system under Emery in 2015.

When the Spaniard swapped Seville for Paris however, he tweaked his tactics ever so slightly, especially in the season just gone, which oversaw the arrivals of Neymar and Mbappe. Changing the system, Emery changed from a 4-2-3-1 to a more natural 4-3-3, which his former system often converted to in practice.

Whilst at Sevilla the club were not afforded much possession although at PSG, where possession and dominance is a mainstay of the club’s modern philosophies, Emery has had to adhere to these demands. Setting his team out in a 4-3-3, the emphasis in this set up is possession and controlling the game, but still has the core values of counter attacking fast football embedded into it. Based upon the personnel Unai has at his disposal and the quality of them, the system is less reliant on a strong defensive base as both full backs Kurzawa and Dani Alves (Or Thomas Meunier) push well forward into the final thirds of the pitch, providing width and often giving cut backs into the box.

The midfield set up also differs from Emery’s Sevilla days as the trio is more together, as the centre of the three in Thiago Motta staying back and shielding the back line, especially when the full backs bomb forward. The two wider midfielders were often Marco Verratti and Javier Pastore, with Adrien Rabiot often swapping in with the latter. These two roles alternate between each other as to which of the two would go forward and aid the attack, whereas the other would stay in the centre, often helping to recycle the ball with lateral passing across to keep possession.

The front three of PSG is where things vary the most for Emery’s evolution of tactics from Sevilla to Paris Saint Germain. Utilising Edinson Cavani as a sole striker, something barely had the chance to do due to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, shoving him to the left, the former Napoli man acted as a target man for his aerial threat and also as a man to hold up the ball in the final third to link up play. This allowed the wide men Neymar and Kylian Mbappe to operate in half spaces, whilst the width was provided by the overlapping full backs. Due to the sheer pace PSG possess on the flanks, Emery had the team operating in a system not too dissimilar the Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool team, high pressing and counter attacking to unbelievably devastating effect.

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How PSG were set up by Emery in 17/18

For all of Unai Emery’s tactical nous, there are questions of the former Sevilla man’s man management skills and ability to build a cohesive squad. During his time at PSG he had players like Julian Draxler lambasting him publicly regarding their Champions League exit to Real Madrid for not going win enough and there was also of course the infamous penalty gate situation between Neymar and Edinson Cavani having an argument on who should take a penalty, a squabble that should barely have happened on the training ground, let alone in a televised Ligue 1 match. Emery seemed to have let the situation boil over into the match and did little to defuse the situation after it, avoiding the inevitable questions about it multiple times before scathingly stating that he doesn’t need to reveal the penalty takers of the club and insisted his team is strong and united, which planted a seed of doubt regarding his ability at handing issues which require a good level of man management.

It is interesting to see how Unai Emery fares at Arsenal as he was given a two-year contract and was appointed as their head coach, not manager. A fact that another London-based manager loves to scream around like a baby is that a head coach does not have full control of transfers and with him only having two years, it will be curious to see if and how many of Emery’s own signings will actually happen. In the Arsene Wenger era, which is extremely strange to say now it’s officially over, Arsene had complete control over all footballing matters in terms of managing the team, the coaching, the transfers and including most of the scouting. This is a stark change to how the Arsenal hierarchy is structured now, with a Director of Football and Head of Recruitment now appointed in Raul Sanllehi and Sven Mislintat in the past year.

When thinking about how Unai Emery would set Arsenal up, it is an interesting proposition. Both favoured formations for the Spaniard have been long ditched by Arsene Wenger in recent years, who has opted for three at the back. Another point to note is that Emery had made a point of having a strong vocal point up front and with Arsenal having £110m pair of strikers being bought in the last 12 months, this can prove worrying for Alexandre Lacazette, who’s endured a hard debut season in England, despite the late flourish. Emery’s main concern however will be Arsenal’s utterly woeful defence and how he improves that is anybody’s guess, including his own most likely.

Overall, Unai Emery is a solid pick for Arsenal in terms of experience at the top-level but his seeming failings at clubs outside of Spain leave a lot to be desired and lack of man management skill can be a concern also. I personally believe that Mikel Arteta would have been a better choice as he has worked with Wenger and Guardiola for the past 7 years in different capacities. He also knows the club well spending a chunk of his career at the Emirates. It also would have been good for Arsenal to take a risk on a virtually unknown entity. They did it in 1996 and that worked out pretty well, right?

Despite this, Unai Emery could prove to be a shrewd set of business for the Gunners and for their sake, not the start of the Manchester United esque demise.

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