With much to prove, Unai must toughen Arsenal up

There were gasps of surprise at first, and then some expressions of delight, even relief. There was a gathering of the influential Arsenal Supporters Trust in London on Monday, with fans listening to Ray Parlour reminisce about great days, when news filtered through about Unai Emery.

These are many of the most committed Arsenal followers and the discussion throughout the evening had initially been about Mikel Arteta, and concerns about his inexperience, so the Emery bulletins found support.

There was concern about the quality of Emery's English, which is far from fluent, and about his problems at Paris Saint-Germain, where he delivered one title and four Cups. But he faltered in Europe, even with Neymar, the world's most expensive player, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe. Mention was made of his excellence at Sevilla, and those three Europa Leagues, and that players were more likely to sign for Emery than Arteta.

Maybe this was the board's game plan: allow the Arteta bandwagon to roll, and all the counter concerns be expressed about putting a red Rolls-Royce, albeit slightly dented and needing an overhaul, in the hands of a learner driver. The concerns about Arteta were hugely legitimate.

Promoting an untried coach, for all the experience that he has enjoyed working under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, would have been a risk. After the drift of the past decade under Arsene Wenger, Arsenal needed a heavyweight, authoritative manager. Emery inhabits the rung below that elite category as his record in the Champions League would signal.

Undeniably a smart tactician, meticulous in his preparation, he was still humiliated by Barcelona in his first season at PSG. His approach to the Champions League game with Real Madrid this season was strange, failing to find the right balance in his midfield three to support properly his vaunted front three in that 4-3-3 system.

He can point to an imbalanced squad but he was weak in the face of player-power and comprehensively out-thought by Zinedine Zidane. Outwitted in the Champions League? He seems the ideal successor to Wenger.

His level is Europa League. So maybe that's where Arsenal see themselves now, focusing on the Europa League with a specialist in the competition rather than chasing a true A-list coach who can push them for the Champions League.

At PSG, Emery could not really be his own man, employing his own tactics. His teams look most effective when he has them playing on the counter-attack, as Sevilla did. His preferred system seems effectively 4-2-3-1, and he will recognise Vicente Iborra and Lucas Moura on his travels in England. Sevilla certainly pressed far more than Wenger's Arsenal did.

He has done well on limited resources, which might appeal to Ivan Gazidis and Stan Kroenke, and a decade ago was celebrating modest Almeria beating Real 2-1 at home and finishing eighth. He reinvigorated Valencia despite losing significant players like David Silva, and then repeatedly impressed in Europe with Sevilla, where he was helped by Monchi's alchemy in recruitment. Whatever his cheerleaders say, Emery underachieved at PSG, which is why he was levered out.

Leaving aside his problems at PSG, he still enjoys a good reputation for moulding and improving players such as Juan Mata and Jordi Alba. He even got the best out of Roberto Soldado at Valencia. His level is Europa League. So maybe that's where Arsenal see themselves now, focusing on the Europa League with a specialist in the competition rather than chasing a true A-list coach who can push them for the Champions League.

In truth, the appointment of Emery feels slightly underwhelming. The only uplifting part was that it was not Arteta.

Arsenal could surely have done better than Emery. Let's not forget, this is The Arsenal. This is one of the most historic names in football, with a gleaming stadium, based in London, which adds to a club's lustre, and with a global appeal that Parlour talked about on Monday when recalling tours to Australasia and playing before 80,000 crowds.

It is impossible to escape the feeling that Arsenal have been snubbed by better coaches, by the likes of Massimiliano Allegri at Juventus and Luis Enrique, the former Barcelona coach. They should have gone all out for Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid. If Emery inspires the players, and recruits shrewdly, then the fans will support him. At the moment, it appears the jury is out, with fans simply pleased it is not Arteta.

For Emery to succeed, he must be allowed to bring in the players he wants, with Sven Mislintat, the head of recruitment whose contacts in Germany brought in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal's most important player, reporting to the new man. Emery must also discover and confront the cultural problems at Arsenal.

Arsenal became soft under Wenger, not simply as a team without leaders but in the technical area, upstairs and downstairs. It became a country club, too genteel, rather than a grittier, bolder, success-hunting football club. Gazidis has attempted to toughen the place up, certainly with his recruitment of Raul Sanllehi and Mislintat, making Arsenal more business-like and ambitious. But any look at that soft squad, too many of whom go missing when games go against them, reignites the feeling that Arsenal need a hard man at the helm.

Does Emery offer that toughness? He will need to shake up the changing room. He must show he has the strength to drill Hector Bellerin in learning how to defend better, reveal a decisiveness on whether to move Petr Cech and David Ospina on, seeking a heavyweight No. 1 in his prime, and stop Mesut Ozil's enigma variations and instruct the gifted German to be more consistent.

Emery must have the self-belief to bed in young quality like Ainsley Maitland-Niles. The odds are against him unless he displays the type of willingness to rough up the squad that Simeone would. He needs to make Arsenal more ruthless, harder. He cannot be a nice guy at Arsenal. Unai Emery has to stop Arsenal being a soft touch.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2018, with the headline 'With much to prove, Unai must toughen Arsenal up'. Print Edition | Subscribe