I was thinking a bit about what Unai Emery’s remit is at Arsenal for this season. I’m just guessing, but I suspect it boils down to one thing: finish in the top four and return Arsenal to the Champions League. I know we have two paths to that ultimate objective as winning the Europa League would get us there, but first and foremost there has to be an improvement in the league. Winning in Europe but finishing 7th would achieve what we wanted but also be domestically unsatisfying, despite the trophy.
I think most people looked at his record in the Europa League and thought it was probably a factor in his appointment. As we prepared for a second season in that competition, it was like a bit of insurance when Ivan Gazidis green-lit a somewhat surprise move for the Spaniard. His track record spoke for itself in the Europa League, three consecutive wins with Sevilla was an impressive part of his CV, but how closely did the Arsenal executives look at what surrounded those final triumphs?
In 2013-14, Sevilla finished 5th in La Liga, 7 points off 4th placed Athletic Bilbao who were entered into the qualification round of the Champions League. At that point, the Europa League winners didn’t get that second prize of entry to the CL, and as we know they went the distance again in the same competition, beating Ukrainian side Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in the final.
This time they did get that bonus of feasting from Europe’s top table, which is just as well as in La Liga they finished 5th again, albeit this time just a point off Valencia in 4th. However, their Champions League campaign was disappointing, and they were shunted back into the Europa League after finishing 3rd in their group, taking just 6 points from Man City, Juventus and Borussia Monchengladbach. Back where he belonged, Emery took Sevilla to that impressive third final, beating Liverpool 3-1 in Basel.
Hurrah, Champions League qualification again for Sevilla, and again it was fortunate for them because this time their final league position left them outside the European places entirely – finishing in 7th with just 52 points from their 38 games. That was also the season when Emery’s Sevilla side went through an entire season without winning a game away from home.
At that point, manager and club parted ways, with PSG and their mega-money proving a job impossible to resist. You couldn’t blame Emery for wanting to take that jump, but with the most expensively assembled squad in French football, his new team finished second in his first season. In fairness, Monaco had an incredible campaign, and the following year PSG won the title by 13 points, but they’d taken Kylian Mbappe from the previous title winners, who also lost Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy, and Tiemoue Bakayoko as their sell-off began.
So, as you read that you wonder how much depth did the Arsenal executive committee of Ivan Gazidis, Raul Sanllehi and Sven Mislintat look at Emery’s record. We heard all about this incredible dossier he had on every player, and the more I think about it, the more it sounds like spin. Perhaps he did, by all accounts he’s a studious man who enjoys preparation, video analysis and all that, so working with his staff to put together something like that isn’t beyond the realms of possibility. But, we should remember the man who told us that this was a great thing (Gazidis) is the same man who proudly, and on video, showed off our ‘tunnel area’ as if there was something great and unique about our tunnel compared to the rest of them.
Did they look at his track record in the Europa League as a bonus, like an extra power in a video game, or was it that in itself which convinced them? Because if they’d dug into his track record at Sevilla and their league finishes, they’d have seen a man who finished 5th, 5th and 7th. After Arsenal’s worst season away from home in Premier League history, they hired a man who went through an entire season without winning a game on the road. That’s either an unfortunate oversight, or a lack of research.
Yes, he had a good spell at Valencia, in four seasons finishing 6th, 3rd (25 points off 2nd), 3rd (21 points off 2nd), and 3rd (30 points off second and 39 points behind the champions that season, Real Madrid). So, PSG aside, the last time Emery achieved Champions League qualification by virtue of final league position was six years before he was appointed manager of Arsenal. He did have a spell at Spartak Moscow before he came back to Spain with Sevilla, but he was appointed there in May 2012 and sacked in November after a 5-1 defeat in the Moscow derby – so it’s safe to say that didn’t work out.
Basically, we made a conservative appointment based on his track record in a much weaker Spanish League (as it was back then), the Europa League triumphs with Sevilla, and his time at PSG, which isn’t really a true marker of anything because of the financial muscle they can throw around. Even winning the title there wasn’t enough, because he couldn’t produce what they wanted in the Champions League. That Round of 16 tie with Barcelona felt remarkable at the time, and I do think PSG were a bit unlucky with some of the officiating in the second leg, but after a full season and a bit more with Emery in charge of Arsenal, there’s something in that second leg performance/capitulation that resonates.
As a Guardian report at the time stated:
Successful though Emery has been in the past two months, his failure to pick his team not only on merit but with a sense of continuity at this crucial moment, in the competition for which his expertise was supposedly required, was PSG’s undoing …
… his personnel decisions looked as fallible as his tactical ones.
It makes for really interesting reading this morning because so much of it feels relevant to us right now. As we struggle with issues of tactics, personnel, performance and expectation, there was plenty in Emery’s history that suggested this might be the case. The optimism that greeted this new season after what felt like a very successful summer in the transfer market and in pre-season has well and truly evaporated, and you can’t help but wonder if Arsenal have given Emery a job he’s not quite able to do.