The pressure is on Unai Emery to deliver at Arsenal this season. Failure to finish in the top four or win a trophy could signal an abrupt end for Arsene Wenger’s successor at London’s biggest club. Wenger’s early success and general brilliance ultimately afforded him 22 years running football affairs so replacing him was always going to be a challenge despite fortunes waning towards the end of his reign.
Emery was given the dubious honour of replacing Wenger (ref. Manchester United post-Alex Ferguson) last summer, but his three-year deal has a break clause next June and a once-docile management team might not be so hesitant to cut their losses if these nine months are a repeat of his first.
That would not be ‘the Arsenal way’ or remotely sane having invested so much time and money to put a structure in place to succeed, but it is the new culture Emery has signed up for and having been extensively backed in the market with significant signings in every area since his arrival, the manager will now be expected to deliver.
Arsenal conceded a record 51 goals last season and, in doing so, threw away a top-four finish by one point. Just a draw at home to Crystal Palace would have secured qualification ahead of a humiliating defeat by London rivals Chelsea in the final of the Europa League, a trophy Emery had won three times before and was the lowest piece of hanging fruit available according to many of the club’s supporters.
Many of those fans have turned on the club’s absent American owner ‘Silent’ Stan Kroenke and spending well over £100m (€108.5m) allied to a good start to the season will possibly stunt the growth of the #wecaredoyou movement as Emery will be expected to erect an impenetrable shield between the money men and the great unwashed by winning football matches.
Their valid argument is mainly about the club losing its soul, disengaging with over-charged supporters and a fear of sleepwalking into the dreaded relegation-free European Super League. Only time will tell if that is why Kroenke and co. have sanctioned transfers aplenty.
Manchester City and Liverpool are too far ahead of the curve to expect Arsenal’s revitalised squad to challenge for the trophy they most crave and they cannot compete for £80m (€86.8m) defenders such as Harry Maguire or even fellow Manchester United defensive recruit Aaron Wan-Bissaka at £50m (€54.2m), but as a rebuilding process goes the Spanish coach now has the materials to at least get Arsenal back into the Champions League with their other top-six rivals well within reach.
Arsenal supporters were so taken aback by the eventual extent of their spending, following a widely publicised summer budget of £45m (€48.8m) that the hashtag favoured by disgruntled fans was being overtaken in popularity by #BetterCallRaul in homage to the club’s transfer fixer Raul Sanllehi.
None of this positive argument could have been made had Arsenal not concluded the transfer window by shifting deadwood for decent money and then signing two defenders of proven quality.
Celtic and Scotland man Kieran Tierney had been tracked for years and it took a persistent badgering of the Glasgow club to bring him south of the border. Only time will tell, but he has the pedigree of a player who should be a key first-team starter once fit and settled. French recruit William Saliba, a snip at £25m (€27.1m), has been parked back at St Etienne for a season, so Emery reuniting with his former PSG defensive lynchpin David Luiz was slightly less expected but he is a player Arsenal have also coveted for some time and the Brazilian’s admiration for Emery’s methods make him an ideal replacement and upgrade on departing club captain Laurent Koscielny.
Speaking ahead of May’s Europa final, Luiz stated: “Unai came to Arsenal to try to build a new philosophy and to try to gain the trust of the players, from the fans, from the club. I think he has been doing an amazing job.
I had the opportunity to work with Unai for a few months. He’s a great guy, a great coach, a great person. He’s passionate. He loves his work. He likes to build teams who are spirited, play with passion and you can see that.
“He has had the opportunity to work with a lot of young players and I think they have understood his philosophy.”
With those words of praise and understanding, the 32-year-old is by far the senior statesman of Arsenal’s summer spree and expect him to be named as one of Emery’s captains ahead of Sunday’s opening Premier League weekend trip to Newcastle.
Who else features in Emery’s strongest starting line-up remains to be seen, but photographers will be hoping Luiz and Matteo Guendouzi at least walk out together for the most hair-raising Premier League side. And the reason the club spent most of its efforts recruiting attack-minded players such as £72m (€78.1m) Ivorian Nico Pepe and Real Madrid midfielder Dani Ceballos, albeit on loan, was to create more chances for Alex Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The strike duo score more than their share, but Emery’s stat team identified they were not getting sufficient chances. The £6m (€6.5m) Brazilian forward Gabriel Martinelli will serve as no more than back up, especially as promising English forward Eddie Nketiah is going out on loan again.
Emery had a free hit in his first season and it could be argued he should be allowed at least another year of building a new Arsenal side before he can realistically be expected to challenge for honours, but Arsenal are definitely back in the conversation and the Spaniard will be hoping his name is not mentioned in negative terms too many times — or he will be out of it altogether.