A warning to all those disenchanted Arsenal fans heaving a sigh of relief that the Unai Emery era has drawn to a close: while there are a number of credible candidates who could take his place, I don’t think there is a manager out there possessed of the kind of magic wand which would be needed to cure all the club’s ills overnight. Or, for that matter, any time soon.
Certainly, Emery’s race was run long before the 2-1 defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt in front of a sparse attendance at the Emirates on Thursday night. Personally, I hadn’t been enamoured with what I’d seen from Arsenal for about a year now. The collapse at the end of last season, when it looked like we had qualification for the Champions League in the bag and then let it slip, was really alarming.
And there were other worrying signs, like Granit Xhaka being made one of the main men in the team when, under Emery, he was only getting worse, as evidenced by his increasingly bizarre decisions on the pitch, like silly tackles and not tracking his runners. So the fact that the manager made him captain at the start of this season really left me scratching my head. And that was long before things culminated in the poisonous atmosphere which came to surround the Swiss international at the Emirates.
Then there was Emery’s bafflingly inconsistent treatment of Mesut Ozil. Initially, I was impressed with the apparent strength of character the manager showed in discarding such a marquee name because, in my opinion, Ozil is basically untrustworthy in terms of what you’re going to get from him. But when this season the results started to become a bit iffy and the fans started chanting for Ozil, the next minute the German international was back in the team.
And what that tells me is that Emery didn’t have a plan or a project that he would adhere to and which the players could buy into.
In fact, that kind of uncertainty on the manager’s part had actually been evident right from the very start of his tenure, especially in the way he was prone to making changes at half-time. When the results went our way, people were inclined to commend his bravery for making these calls but, in my head, the nagging question always was: well, why didn’t he pick the right team to begin with?
The last two months were simply a continuation of that but with decreasing success, as Emery chopped and changed personnel and formation in a fruitless bid to halt the team’s decline, before his inevitable exit finally came on the back of seven games without a win.
But while the buck always stops with the manager, Unai Emery cannot be held solely responsible for Arsenal’s current woes. Of concern too is the direction the club has taken under the regime which is now in charge. The Arsenal board, which admittedly is getting on in years, has been more or less made redundant, no longer having any input into the big decisions being made at the club. And that means the loss of a lot of years’ worth of experience in football.
Once owner Stan Kroenke got 100% control, the power was centred among an executive team of people, including Raul Sanllehi, the head of football recruited from Barcelona. And, in any assessment of why and how things went so badly wrong for Emery, one of the big questions which has to be asked of the hierarchy concerns the club’s misguided recruitment policy.
After Arsenal failed to make the Champions League last season, it was obvious the team needed strengthening, especially at the back. Yet the proposed solution turned out to be David Luiz, a player who, in my honest opinion, is not going to improve any defence. He’s one of those who falls into that category of top flight footballers from whom, game to game and even moment to moment, you just don’t know what you are going to get. He might look a leader in terms of his willingness to get on the ball and run with it from the back but his defensive attributes were and are seriously lacking, with the all too predictable result that, since his arrival from Chelsea, the defence has actually become an even bigger problem area for the Gunners.
Meanwhile, we splashed out €84 million on Nicolas Pepe, an awful lot of money to spend on a forward when it was blindingly obvious that the most urgent investment was required at the other end of the pitch. To be fair to the powers that be at the club, they haven’t been afraid to spend money; the problem is that it has been spent badly. And I don’t think the fault for that can be laid solely at Emery’s door: he was just one of team of people responsible for those decisions.
And so to the likely candidates to succeed the Spaniard in the job.
Mauricio Pochettino is a strange case.
Spurs have had a really disappointing start to the season and, despite reaching the Champions League final, they were poor in the second half of last season too. If Arsenal hadn’t blown it, it’s Spurs who would have missed out on Champions League football this time.
Yet, despite the circumstances of his departure from Spurs, Pochettino’s managerial stock remains high. And rightly so. Because, notwithstanding the decline towards the end of his tenure, he did a really good job over the whole span of his time with Tottenham.
Understandably then, that would make him a target for any of the big English clubs, including Manchester United as well as Arsenal. For the Gunners, I don’t think that Pochettino coming from our North London rivals would be an issue: he always behaved himself professionally and properly at Spurs, never doing anything to rile or upset the Arsenal supporters. They might not have said it out loud, or only said it begrudgingly, because of where he was doing his job but Arsenal fans, like so many others, would have held him in high regard as a manager.
The question, however, isn’t whether Arsenal would want Pochettino but whether, having assessed the current squad, Pochettino would want Arsenal. I think it’s going to require a major overhaul, taking perhaps a couple of years, to put things right at the club. And I’m not sure Pochettino would be attracted to the kind of challenge. I suspect he would prefer to go to a club, whether in England, Spain or elsewhere, where he would be much more immediately in with a chance of winning a domestic title or even the Champions League.
While I would love to see a real Arsenal man back at the club, there are no such candidates out there you would think of as close to the finished managerial product. Mikel Arteta hasn’t managed before so it would be a big call to recruit him from Man City while the likes of Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry are two other club heroes who haven’t pulled up any trees as managers so far.
Depending on how keen he is to get back into the game, ex-Juve boss Massimiliano Allegri has to be a contender while from the current crop of Premier League bosses Nuno Espirito Santo and Brendan Rodgers are definitely credible contenders. Take Jurgen Klopp out of it and Rodgers is the man currently doing the best job in the Premier League. His Leicester team is well organised, plays attractive football and sit second in the table. So, yes, he would be a good man for the job but, a bit like Pochettino, I wonder would he take one look at the current Arsenal squad and just decide that he is better off staying where he is? And who could blame him if he did.
Along with interim boss Freddie Ljungberg, the joint favourite with the bookies is Nuno Espirito Santo. And that’s no surprise at all. The way he has Wolves playing is both formularised and attractive, and when you add in the excellent recruitment under his watch at the club and the knowledge he now has of the Premier League, I think he would probably be my favourite to take the reins.
But whoever succeeds Unai Emery will have a huge task on their hands because there is simply no quick fix to Arsenal’s deep-rooted problems, not least out on the pitch where, frankly, this is the poorest squad at the club in a very long time.
It’s painful for us Arsenal people to recall now but when Arsene Wenger first took over he inherited Dixon and Winterburn as full-backs, Adams, Bould and Keown as centre-backs, Seaman in goal, Ian Wright upfront and Ray Parlour on the right. And of course, he then went on to brilliantly enhance the team and the club.
But the Arsenal of 2019 are a very long way from those glory days now. And it’s going to take a hell of a manager, doing a hell of a job, to get my old club back on track.