Unai Emery: Arsenal’s choice of new boss makes sense but still carries risk

By Phil McNulty | BBC Sport |

Arsenal’s switch from the seeming formality of a coronation of former captain Mikel Arteta to naming Unai Emery as Arsene Wenger’s successor may smack of an 11th-hour case of cold feet.

Unai Emery
Unai Emery

The appointment of 36-year-old Arteta, a key member of Manchester City’s manager Pep Guardiola’s title-winning coaching team, was regarded as a certainty until former Paris St-German coach Emery’s name emerged on Monday.

It was a dramatic twist that was greeted with widespread shock – and yet there is logic to Arsenal’s change of direction.

Arsenal go for experience

Arteta had appeal for both the purists and the romantics – he combined Arsenal pedigree with the glory of Guardiola’s 100-point Premier League record breakers, regarded there as the manager’s most trusted sounding board.

He has a glowing, growing reputation and was of serious interest to another former club – Everton – when they sacked Ronald Koeman in October.

There was, however, a huge element of risk in Arsenal appointing an unproven manager as successor to someone who had become an institution over 22 years at the club.

In the end, given the stakes, maybe it was simply too much of a risk for chief executive Ivan Gazidis and his fellow decision-makers, too much of a leap into the unknown at a crucial point in the club’s history as they face an uphill battle to pull themselves back into contention for the Premier League’s top four, let alone the title.

Arteta may be one for Arsenal’s future, although whether that prospect has been soured by this experience remains to be seen.

He will now return to the backbenches at Manchester City, not exactly a hardship, but this will still be a blow after seeming so close to the top job at a genuine Premier League superpower.

Former Arsenal stars Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry had been touted as contenders, along with ex-Barcelona coach Luis Enrique, Juventus’ Massimiliano Allegri and former Chelsea and Bayern Munich boss Carlo Ancelotti – but the winner of the race made his late run on the rails.

Emery’s name drifted into the public domain late on but he will have been on Arsenal’s radar from the moment he left PSG following two seasons in which he won Ligue 1 once and four domestic cups.

He was unable to win the Champions League, conceding a 4-0 first leg advantage to Barcelona in harrowing fashion last term before an exit to this season’s finalists Real Madrid at his second attempt. His failure to satisfy the desire of PSG’s Qatari-owners for European success saw him displaced by German Thomas Tuchel.

And yet he has the track record that, on the surface, makes him a far more logical choice than Arteta.

He can boast a remarkable record of three straight Europa League wins with Sevilla, the last a comprehensive 3-1 win against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in Basel in May 2016.

And, in the final reckoning, it is this that looks to have persuaded Arsenal to go with that they will regard as a safer bet who can actually place his managerial honours on the table.

Gazidis also knows his own reputation, and perhaps future, at Arsenal, will be shaped by the appointment of Wenger’s successor.

Emery still represents risk

The news that Emery was close to being appointed Arsenal manager drew a mixed initial response.

There was approval in some quarters that Arsenal had switched their sights from the rookie Arteta to Emery, with his fine European record – but there was also sympathy for Arteta, especially from those who had grown used to the idea of a seventh former player taking charge.

Former Arsenal striker Ian Wright told BBC Radio 5 live: “What’s going on at Arsenal? Where’s Unai Emery come from? I can’t get it out of my head.

“You’d have thought that by now they would have known exactly what’s going on. Emery has had loads of money to spend at Paris St-Germain and now has to come to Arsenal with £50m, with a bunch of players who have been playing in second gear.

“His coaching ability will have to get going instantly and he will have to find some gems instantly.”

But Wright added: “I wouldn’t be disgruntled as an Arsenal fan about Emery. I think the fact he’s come out of left-field when everyone’s thinking ‘it’s going to be Arteta’, that’s the only problem. If we do see a difference in intensity, drive and consistency, everybody will get onside and that’s all Arsenal fans want to see.”

Emery has a limited command of English, and of course is untried in the Premier League.

He is, however, regarded primarily as a fine, meticulous coach who is happy to work with a director of football, as he did so successfully with Monchi at Sevilla. He will be embedded within Arsenal’s structure alongside head of football relations Raul Sanllehi and head of recruitment Sven Mislintat.

He has a hands-on, enterprising coaching style in which he gets close to players. Emery was famous at Sevilla for his slavish attention to detail, especially using videos. There is no danger of Arsenal’s players being unsure of his demands.

Emery will also add to the Premier League’s technical area theatre, an animated figure living every kick, often from a crouching position.

And it is worth remembering how he produced a series of tactical tweaks to completely outflank Liverpool manager Klopp in that 2016 Europa League final, transforming a 1-0 interval deficit for Sevilla into a 3-1 win that was more convincing even than that scoreline suggests.

Emery’s arrival carries, risk, albeit less than Arteta, but it is one Arsenal clearly believe is well worth taking after their recruitment process.

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