Ordinarily, succeeding a legacy manager is a tough job because of the shadow cast by your predecessor. In the case of Unai Emery, his predecessor’s legacy creates issues that are a little less visceral. It is absolutely right that the Spaniard has the patience and full-throated support of the Arsenal fan base, most of whom had thirsted for change well before the departure of Arsene Wenger.
Last week, David Seaman clacked his tongue in irritation at the suggestion that Arsenal must qualify for the Champions League next season. Spunky’s objection was made on reasonable grounds, that Emery needs space and time to manage a tough transition. The reality is that the demands of the Arsenal job are currently a little unreasonable, but no less prescient.
Arsenal do have to qualify for the Champions League as a matter of urgent priority. As Arsene began to thrash for answers at the end of his reign, his solutions became increasingly desperate. As a result, Emery has inherited an expensive, unbalanced attack largely comprised of 30 year olds with an unbalanced wage bill to match. The age profile of the squad will need to be reset very shortly.
The defence consists of a series of 3 star hotels and without Champions League football, the Gunners are losing cash hand over fist and the reputational damage incurred by another season in the Europa League would make the imminent rebuild even more difficult. Arsenal simply must be in the Champions League next year.
That is not Emery’s fault, or a situation of his making, but unfortunately, his ‘transition tariff’ was used up during the drift of Wenger’s last two seasons. He has inherited a squad with a short shelf-life for a short term purpose as the club chases its fiscal losses trying to get back into the land of milk and honey.
Arsenal have, bafflingly, decided not to try to sell two of the few attacking players they have that are yet to enter their prime years, preferring to lose Aaron Ramsey and probably Danny Welbeck on free transfers. The stark truth is that Unai has a few seasons of mismanagement to unpick and he does not really have time for a gentle transition. If Arsenal don’t qualify for the Champions League next season, he won’t have much money for one either.
One area of the club where Emery can have few causes for complaint is the quality of graduate from Hale End. Alex Iwobi, Ainsley Maitland Niles and Emile Smith Rowe are all a part of the coach’s immediate and future plans. Reiss Nelson’s form on loan at Hoffenheim surely makes him part of that conversation too.
One of the ways in which Emery can conceal the mismanagement of his predecessors is to shape some of these rough diamonds into gems. Arsenal are certainly in a position where they need to find an edge in the transfer market and Sven Mislintat’s imminent promotion to Technical Director should hopefully yield results.
Arsenal could certainly do with some more Guendouzi / Torreira like ‘discoveries’, whilst the contacts lists of Mislintat and Sanllehi can hopefully nudge Arsenal to the front of some queues when it comes to bigger ticket deals. But if Arsenal are looking at resetting the age profile of the squad on a relative shoestring, it is a necessity for development of academy talent to form a big part of that process.
Again, that is not especially fair on the likes of Nelson, Smith-Rowe or Maitland-Niles, who deserve the opportunity to grow in a more insulated environment, but Arsenal is not an insulated environment. What the situation at the club will give some of those young players is opportunity.
Phil Foden is struggling for opportunity in Manchester City’s well-heeled utopia. Meanwhile, Alex Iwobi played for 83 minutes at Bournemouth on Sunday because the coach did not trust 30 year old, £350k a week Mesut Özil. Emile Smith Rowe already has a goal to his name in European competition because his team plays opposition like Qarabag and Vorskla of a Thursday evening. Flowers grow out of dirt.
Last season I wrote that Arsenal’s “silver generation” need not necessarily match Manchester United’s Class of 92 to be considered a success. Some good squad filler would be a good outcome. Outgoing CEO Ivan Gazidis identified a background in youth development as essential criteria for Wenger’s replacement.
It being Ivan, he proffered this as one of the club’s “values”, something intrinsically linked to the ‘Arsenal brand.’ But the truth is, it is an economic necessity now. Youth development has gone from ‘nice to have’ to ‘essential’ for Arsenal. It would be incredibly convenient, for instance, if Reiss Nelson could emerge as the replacement for Danny Welbeck in the forward line.
Whilst not exactly the same type of player as Welbeck, Nelson does potentially offer Arsenal something they are missing- a genuine wide forward. Nelson, I think, could potentially fit Emery’s vision for wide forwards who play in the half spaces quite nicely. If Reiss is able to step up to that mark next season, the club will have effectively rectified their own error in allowing such a marketable player to leave on a free.
I am not convinced that Aaron Ramsey requires a like for like replacement. The Welshman has struggled to adapt to Emery’s vision for a central midfielder or an attacker. In Xhaka and Torreira, Arsenal have a decent midfield partnership with two players at good ages on strong contracts. Matteo Guendouzi offers back up and competition for those two spots for at least the medium term too.
Given the work that needs to happen in defence and attack, ideally Ainsley Maitland-Niles can develop sufficiently to provide competition and support in central midfield and at full-back- where Arsenal are a little short, particularly at left-back. Emile Smith Rowe going on to completely fulfil his potential could save the club valuable pennies as they contemplate the departure of Aaron Ramsey and eventually replacing Mesut Özil as he negotiates his 30s.
Rob Holding and Calum Chambers are a little further along the path in development terms, but one or both becoming valuable defenders, alongside Dino Mavropanos would also be convenient for a team that has to squeeze every penny. The short term target is for the team to re-establish itself as a regular in the Champions League.
If and when that happens, the club can contemplate upgrading their options in order to make the next step- much as Manchester City did at the outset of the Sheikh Mansour project. Gareth Barry, Joleon Lescott and even Joe Hart were eventually considered dispensable once City had smashed the glass ceiling as serial title challengers.
Much has been written about the role of Sven Mislintat’s ‘diamond eye’ when it comes to gradually overhauling this Arsenal squad, but developing existing young talent is just as crucial to Arsenal’s medium term prospects. The club has to be smart with how it assigns its resources and not just externally. Unai Emery needs to turn a few frogs into princes in the coming seasons.
Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available to order here.