Unai Emery Arsenal revisionism needs to stop

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 18: Mikel Arteta, Manager of Arsenal, and Unai Emery, Manager of Aston Villa, look on during the Premier League match between Aston Villa and Arsenal FC at Villa Park on February 18, 2023 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

I bear Unai Emery no ill will. I feel it is important I state that up front before I start.

I think the man is a great manager and I believe that’s more fact than opinion.

I also feel people, including me, were too harsh on him when he was at Arsenal.

With that out of the way, I now think the Unai Emery revisionism currently underway due to his success with Aston Villa is a little ridiculous.

There is no doubt that Emery is working miracles at Aston Villa. Just like he drove Sevilla and Villarreal to Europa League glory time and time again, he has a knack of taking clubs with ‘villa’ in their name to heights beyond their station.

In recent days, we’ve had a number of journalists, pundits and former players claim that, had Unai Emery been given more time at Arsenal, he would have won them the league or other similar claims.

For instance, Arsenal legend Tony Adams said, “I love him Mikel Arteta. I love his passion and enthusiasm. I’ve always said he’s a little bit inexperienced and perhaps needs to draw on someone in his staff who is a little more experienced.

“I’m talking about going across the line last season.

“We all make mistakes and aren’t perfect. He perhaps didn’t rotate players early enough last season. People were running out of steam.

Adams then said, “last year, weirdly, if Unai Emery was our manager, then we could have perhaps won the league.”

To this, I call ‘bollo**s’.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28: Unai Emery, Manager of Arsenal gives instructions to Kieran Tierney of Arsenal during the UEFA Europa League group F match between Arsenal FC and Eintracht Frankfurt at Emirates Stadium on November 28, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 28: Unai Emery, Manager of Arsenal gives instructions to Kieran Tierney of Arsenal during the UEFA Europa League group F match between Arsenal FC and Eintracht Frankfurt at Emirates Stadium on November 28, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

If Emery had been Arsenal‘s manager last season, I doubt very much we would have been in a position to challenge.

Emery seems to thrive with mid-table clubs, pushing them beyond their limits. However, when handed a chance at a club a few levels above, he has been found wanting.

His spell as the manager of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) was a tale of two extremes, marked by expected domestic dominance but marred by European disappointments.

When Emery joined PSG in 2016, he came with a reputation for tactical acumen, primarily built on his success in the Europa League with Sevilla. At PSG, he continued this pattern of success in domestic competitions, although with PSG‘s finances that wasn’t a hard job.

He steered the club to multiple domestic trophies, including the Ligue 1 title in the 2017-2018 season. His PSG side was often dominant in France, showcasing a blend of flair and tactical discipline in a league they were expected to dominate.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN - MAY 29: Unai Emery, Manager of Arsenal looks dejected as he walks past the Europa League Trophy after collecting his runners up medal following his team's defeat in the UEFA Europa League Final between Chelsea and Arsenal at Baku Olimpiya Stadionu on May 29, 2019 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – MAY 29: Unai Emery, Manager of Arsenal looks dejected as he walks past the Europa League Trophy after collecting his runners up medal following his team’s defeat in the UEFA Europa League Final between Chelsea and Arsenal at Baku Olimpiya Stadionu on May 29, 2019 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

However, Emery’s tenure at PSG is best remembered for the team’s underperformance in the UEFA Champions League, which was a key reason for his appointment.

PSG, with its star-studded lineup, was expected to make a significant impact on European football. The most notable disappointment came in the form of the infamous “Remontada” against Barcelona in 2017.

PSG squandered a 4-0 first-leg advantage in the Round of 16, eventually losing 6-1 in the return leg at Camp Nou, a result that sent shockwaves through the football world.

This failure was followed by another early exit from the Champions League the following season, this time at the hands of Real Madrid in the Round of 16.

These European failures overshadowed his domestic achievements and led to a perception of his tenure as a disappointment, given the high expectations placed on Champions League success.

Ultimately, Emery’s inability to translate PSG‘s domestic dominance into European glory led to his departure from the club in 2018.

Before he arrived in Paris, Emery’s brief stint at Spartak Moscow in 2012 was another challenging chapter in his managerial career, markedly less successful compared to his other appointments.

Emery joined Spartak in the summer of 2012, bringing with him a promising track record from his time in Spain, particularly with Valencia.

However, his tenure at Spartak Moscow was short-lived and fraught with difficulties. Emery struggled to adapt to the Russian Premier League, facing issues that ranged from language barriers to cultural differences.

This hindered his ability to effectively communicate his tactics and build rapport with the squad.

Daily Mail 24 April 2019
Daily Mail 24 April 2019

On the field, Spartak‘s performances under Emery were inconsistent. The team struggled to find a rhythm and failed to challenge effectively in the league. Their European campaign was also disappointing. Spartak finished bottom of their UEFA Champions League group, which included a heavy defeat to Barcelona.

The culmination of these struggles led to Emery’s dismissal just a few months into the season, in November 2012, following a string of poor results, including a significant loss in a derby match.

I remember the end of his time at Arsenal, you probably do as well given it was only a few years ago. Fans came as close as imaginable to wanting Arsenal to lose, just to see him gone.

Against Southampton, even Alexandre Lacazette looked gutted when he scored in the 96th minute to salvage a 2-2 draw that meant Emery would stay a little longer.

He lasted just one more match.

As Arsenal lost to Eintracht Frankfurt 2-1 at home in the next game, Emery’s bags were already being packed.

It was not a fun time and there was no sign that Emery would have been able, or inclined, to change the entire culture of the club the way Mikel Arteta and Edu have set about doing.

We are, of course, in the realms of fantasy.

We will never know what would have happened had Emery been given longer at Arsenal, but there is more evidence to suggest Arsenal would be as far from challenging for the title as they were back then.

That’s not necessarily Emery’s fault. It was always an impossible job to follow Arsene Wenger and, no matter who it was, was always destined to fail.

It was not his time and that’s no reflection on him, but this revisionism needs to stop.

Daily Mail, 16 May 2020
Daily Mail, 16 May 2020

Just because he’s succeeding with Aston Villa does not make all those other factors from his time at Arsenal magically disappear.

I remember Arsenal when Emery was manager. There was nothing to indicate that he would turn things around dramatically. The atmosphere around the club was tense, and the disconnect between Emery and the players was evident. The team’s style of play had lost its direction, and there was a growing sense of frustration among the fans.

Emery’s approach, while successful in other contexts, didn’t align with what Arsenal needed at the time, leading to a parting of ways.

In hindsight, Emery’s time at Arsenal can be seen as a learning experience for both the manager and the club.

It’s a reminder of how challenging it is to find the right fit in the high-stakes world of football management, where success depends on a complex mix of strategy, personality, and timing.

His current success, however, tells us nothing about his imagined time at Arsenal in a parallel universe and quite a few people would be better served to remember that.

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