Arsenal is a major club, even if it hasn’t behaved that way in years. The money behind the squad is more flush than all but three or four other sides on the planet. The facilities and resources are no less than pristine. There’s a whisper of “sleeping giant” at pretty much every turn around Highbury.
So why turn to Unai Emery? Was this really the right move for Arsenal?
Why do that with the likes of Juventus wizard Max Allegri, or former Barcelona boss Luis Enrique, or the recently nabbed Thomas Tuchel supposedly on the market?
To be fair, Emery is a good manager. He’s earned his share of trophies, which will be discussed later on. He was a good player during his decade-plus career in various tiers of Spain’s soccer pyramid. He comports himself in an incredibly respectful manner away from the pitch and the training ground.
None of this is to libel his character. All of this is to question his hiring at Arsenal.
The news Monday that Emery would be named Arsenal’s first post-Arsene Wenger manager was met with surprise. It was mostly not, however, met with skepticism. The 46-year-old Spaniard hadn’t been mentioned in tabloid rumors, or listed as a betting favorite to take the job, or appeared in any other admittedly nebulous measures of likelihood.
That’s encouraging, on the measure. Arsenal should have given this hire a 360-degree view, should have realized this move would signal the direction of the club for years to come, should have spent its due diligence on finding the right person to push it into a new era.
Emery doesn’t feel like that.
It feels like a lazy hire. It feels like the safest available hire. It feels like a “sushi shop” hire, if you will. It feels like Arsenal’s board looked out the window, saw the first manager who came into their purview, and pointed and said, “OK, we’ll go with him.”
It’s not exactly a “Unai who?” scenario, but it’s also not the golazo appointment the club had years to plan and consider. Emery is a darling of detail and a favorite of a significant portion of the soccer populace, but does his track record truly bare that out?
Nobody’s hiring Arsene Wengers or Sir Alex Fergusons anymore. The game of world football has changed too much to expect anyone to stay in charge for multiple decades, especially at domestic giants. It’s unreasonable to expect the next Arsenal hire to last 10 years, and maybe even half that.
And it’s also unreasonable to expect Arsenal to become a hitman hire club. Jose Mourinho has been roundly successful in pretty much every job he’s taken, but there’s a finite budget on his time. Mega-clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City have won big but also won with a commitment to quick hooks.
So it makes sense Arsenal would commit to a manager like Emery, who’s young and has cut his teeth in the pressure cookers of La Liga and Ligue 1.
The sterling notes on his CV include three straight Europa League titles from 2014-16 with Sevilla, and what might be comparably (and tellingly) impressive was his work to guide nearly bankrupt Valencia back into the Champions League around the turn of the decade.
But while there’s no outright failure on his record, there’s also reason for pause. Emery managed Paris Saint-Germain the past two seasons, and in 2017 his side ceded the French top flight to a bunch of for-sale youngsters at Monaco and blew seemingly insurmountable leads against Barcelona in the Champions League on multiple occasions.
Sure, Emery won the league-cup double this year, and was saddled with both a ridiculously difficult draw in the Champions League and a nightmare injury to Neymar that impeded the campaign. He also clashed repeatedly with the PSG front office, and figures to get more leeway at Arsenal.
But is he the right man for Arsenal? And what exactly does that constitute?
The unvarnished truth is the Gunners are closer to the Sevillas and Valencias of the world — and you even could argue they’d be lucky to be considered in that tier — than they are to the PSGs. So they need a manager who can make the most out of more limited resources, relatively speaking.
Arsenal has the cash reserves to be a major player, but it also has an uncomfortable track record over the past decade or so of not putting it to good use, and you can’t entirely pin that on the notoriously frugal Wenger. Will Emery be able to talk the board into the kind of spending he likely wants, and will likely be required to not only return Arsenal to the Champions League but compete for the Premier League title each year?
There are serious questions about that. There are also serious questions about his two-year spell with PSG. It’s hardly a slam dunk. If his time in Paris represented his first real stab at managing one of the world’s upper-crust clubs, which is at least what Arsenal envisions itself as, how can confidence be coursing through the supporters’ veins? How can they not feel any hint of hesitation?
Perhaps this is an old-man-yelling-at-clouds scenario. Then again, maybe Emery’s appointment is a mistake. As of yet, there’s no compelling reason to argue.
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