Comment and Analysis @nicholaspwright
Unai Emery was out of sync with Arsenal and didn't give fans enough to believe in
Unai Emery is a distinguished coach who came to Arsenal with a strong track record, but he failed to hit the right notes with a fanbase craving greater ambition
Last Updated: 29/11/19 9:24pm
Manchester United fans will remember, in the wake of a 4-1 loss to Manchester City only a few months after Sir Alex Ferguson had steered them to the title, when David Moyes, his successor at Old Trafford, said they were "aspiring to reach the sort of level" their rivals were playing at.
They will remember, a few months after that, when he previewed a home game against Newcastle, who had narrowly avoided relegation in the previous season, by promising to "make it as hard for them as we possibly can". The fans, he added, "will have taken lots of belief" from United's performance in a 1-0 loss to Everton a few days earlier.
United went on to lose that game against Newcastle, consigning them to a second consecutive defeat against mid-ranking opposition. But the suspicion that Moyes was not the right man for the job was fuelled as much by his comments off the pitch as by what happened on it. It just didn't feel like he was thinking in the way a Manchester United manager should.
Perhaps, another five years from now, Arsenal fans will look back on Unai Emery - sacked on Friday, 18 months after taking over from Ferguson's old sparring partner Arsene Wenger - in a similar way.
They will remember his insistence that Arsenal had "improved" in Thursday's 2-1 loss to Eintracht Frankfurt. They will remember his description of Vitoria Guimaraes, the fifth-best team in Portugal, a team who had only won once in their previous six games, as "very strong defensively" after a dire 1-1 draw - comments he repeated in an interview with Sky Sports a few days later.
They will also remember, not long before that, the claim that Arsenal's 1-1 draw with Wolves at the Emirates Stadium, a game in which they conceded 25 shots on goal, the most by any Premier League side in any home game this season or last, had "worked how we wanted" tactically.
There were many more examples. Emery arrived at the Emirates Stadium with an impressive body of work behind him. There were promises to modernise Arsenal's style of play, to put pressing and "protagonism" at the heart of a transformation that would finally realign them with the elite.
But it did not materialise.
By the end, few disagreed with Jamie Carragher's rather blunt assertion on Monday Night Football that he was "not at the level" Arsenal needed. "Arsenal fans don't care about what he's done," added Carragher. "They care about what they are looking at and what they have seen at Arsenal."
They cared about what they heard, too. Emery was able to hit the right notes at the start. His declaration at his unveiling that he wanted Arsenal to become the "best team in the Premier League and also the world" may have been unrealistic, but fans welcomed the ambition after such a long period of stagnation under Wenger. It was what they wanted to hear.
After that, though, he offered little else to inspire optimism.
Communication was, undoubtedly, an issue. It was evident in Arsenal's confused performances and muddled tactics out on the pitch. It could also be seen in how the sagas surrounding Mesut Ozil's future and Granit Xhaka's captaincy were allowed to spiral out of control.
Emery's determination to communicate in English from the start of his tenure was commendable, but it was only when sitting down with him to speak in Spanish at Arsenal's London Colney training ground that he was able to articulate himself freely.
He was engaging company on those occasions, responding to questions in far greater depth than usual, his steely intensity reflecting his absolute commitment to doing the best job he possibly could. Emery was desperate to succeed and gave it everything he had. Of that there can be no doubt.
But even in his native language, he could provide little clarity about what it was, exactly, that he was trying to do with his team. He said he needed more time, but the more he got the more difficult it became to identify what the intended identity actually was. Arsenal fans craved a clear direction. Emery could not provide one.
The eyebrow-raising comments were not limited to his English-speaking media appearances either. In his most recent interview in Spanish earlier this month, he angered fans with his description of his first campaign in charge, a campaign which ended in a costly Premier League collapse and a chastening Europa League final defeat by Chelsea, as a "good season".
Was he aiming high enough?
It felt like he was not attuned to the expectations of the fans and it did not help that he approached games so cautiously.
Too often, his Arsenal sides were set up to nullify opponents rather than impose themselves on games in the way the fans - and, perhaps, the players - expected. His deployment of five defenders and two holding midfielders for the recent visit of crisis-hit Southampton summed it up.
Arsenal's squad contains formidable attacking riches, but it was telling too that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Ozil and record signing Nicolas Pepe did not start a single game together under Emery. Arsenal only won three of his Premier League games in charge by a margin of more than two goals - and two of those were against relegated Fulham.
What's most damning, however, is that for all Emery's caution, for all his inherent conservatism as a tactician, his side remained so bewilderingly easy to play against.
Even in what Emery described as their "best first half of the season", when they went into the break two goals up against Watford at Vicarage Road in September, they conceded eight shots - five of which were on target.
By the end of that game, they had let that two-goal slip and faced a staggering total of 31 shots on their goal - more than in any other Premier League game in the club's history. So far this season, only Norwich and Aston Villa have given up more shots to their opposition. Arsenal ranked in the bottom half in that metric last season too.
There were moments to enjoy in that first campaign, of course. The 22-game unbeaten run, the wins over Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United. But without an overarching vision for the side, it soon felt like he was scrambling for solutions, his desperation summed up by the reinstatement of Ozil and the return of Xhaka, who could be seen joking with opposition players after Thursday's dismal loss to Frankfurt.
Emery inherited Arsenal in adverse circumstances. The rebuilding job after Wenger's exit was always going to be an immensely challenging one. But the reality is that he leaves them in a worse position than he found them. Arsenal can only hope it does not take them as long as it is taking Manchester United to get back on the right track again.
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