Unai Emery spent just under 18 months as the Arsenal manager, from the start of July 2018 to near the end of November 2019. His reign can overall be described as completely underwhelming, especially when the hope that awoke in the hearts of supporters early on is taken into account. As The Guardian put it in an emotional interview with the Spaniard, “he had overseen the best start in Arsenal’s history and their worst run in 30 years”.
It appears that much hope was placed on qualifying for the Champions League after his first season. And it was agonizingly close – the Gunners reached the Europa League final only to be stopped there by Chelsea, and they missed out on top four by a single point due to disappointing results against Crystal Palace and Brighton and Hove Albion late on. It stands to reason to assume that a lot of things would have gone on quite differently from there, had the aim been achieved.
“We lacked that little extra to get through a lot of games in those final weeks. If your application and commitment falls below 100%, you can lose, and that’s what happened”, the former boss reflects.
An attempt was made to regroup after that. Money was spent in the transfer market, 10 players left, eight came in. But Emery admits mistakes were also made then, both in recruitment and departures.
A lot was being said about Aaron Ramsey at the time, whether the club or the coach could have handled his situation differently and whether he’d have stayed if they had.
““[Initially] he wanted to stay,” Emery said on the subject. “He needed to negotiate a new contract and they didn’t reach an agreement. The club had doubts about renewing for a certain sum. Ramsey wanted to feel valued. It was a financial matter; I can’t get involved. And I still didn’t know him well when I arrived. He’s important but I can’t say what they should pay him.”
We all remember the incident with Granit Xhaka which cost him the captain’s armband. Emery was asked about that as well.
“I believed Xhaka could be captain. And the players voted for him, he was respected in the dressing room.”
And he went on to explain the need for the vote and why he didn’t simply choose a captain himself.
“My strategy was 50% me, 50% them. I like to have players’ input, their opinion. There were people with the character to be captain, but you need time and backing. Without the support of certain people or the fans, it’s harder. If Xhaka had Koscielny and Nacho, or Ramsey, he could have eased into it. Emotionally, certain results and attitudes inside didn’t help the team have the commitment and togetherness of before.”
But for all the controversies surrounding Xhaka’s behaviour and Ramsey’s departure, no player was more talked about during Emery’s stint at the Emirates than Mesut Ozil. The German is still the club’s best-paid and arguably most talented player, and yet Emery couldn’t find a way to work with him or to whip up a system which would enable him to shine. Why?
“I spoke a lot with Ozil,” Emery said, and went on after a pause during which a hint of sadness appeared on his face.
“He has to be self‑critical too, analyse his attitude and commitment. I tried with all my might to help Ozil. Throughout my career, talented players have reached their best level with me. I was always positive, wanting him to play, be involved.
“In pre-season I told him I wanted to help recover the best Ozil. I wanted a high level of participation and commitment in the dressing room. I respected him and thought he could help. He could have been a captain but the dressing room didn’t want him to be. That’s not what I decided; that’s what the players decided. Captains are ones who have to keep defending the club, the coach, teammates.”
Judging by this interview, it seems Emery is truly sorry things didn’t work out for him at Arsenal. He had obviously hoped for success just as much as the fans. But it also implies that he simply failed to impose a sufficient level of authority on the players, or to invoke confidence from the club hierarchy. It seems he tried to shake off as much responsibility as he could.
Maybe he had no choice, maybe things were put in front of him that way at the time of his arrival.
But the whole story seems to point in one direction. Arsenal need a coach they can trust, a man to whom the club hierarchy would give a voice in making decisions, a man whose input they would ask for and value; a man who would find it easier to get the players to listen, work hard and do what they’re told to do. A strong man.
Let’s hope Mikel Arteta proves to be that man.