By now it is clear, or else it ought to be, that Unai Emery’s appointment just hasn’t worked for Arsenal. I am speculating, but I imagine that the executive team had planned to give him the duration of his second season to prove himself a worthy candidate for the job, but it is crystal clear that things are unravelling for the Spaniard who is executing a tactical impression of deckchair rearrangement on the Titanic.
Personally, I am not enormously upset that Unai Emery and Arsenal has proved to be an awkward marriage. The club have done a decent job of putting a structure in place that is not totally coach-centric. Nowadays, I just think managerial appointments are a case of trial and error at the top level. Arsenal will find this out again as they consider their succession plan.
Because the ideal candidate probably doesn’t exist. It didn’t in the summer of 2018, which is kinda sorta how the Gunners ended up with Unai Emery in the first place. Despite the subsequent spin, Arsenal were torn between appointing Emery and his compatriot Mikel Arteta. In a nutshell, the club will face a similar dilemma again this time.
I would like to think that Unai Emery has only survived this long because there is some furious back channel planning going on. I think, and hope, that the board are in the process of constructing shortlists and contacting agents to decipher availability. Sacking Emery is the easy part. Appointing the next manager is decidedly trickier.
Back in the summer of 2018, Arsenal mulled over the choice between a highly rated novice in Arteta, or an experienced manager with a slightly underwhelming overall record. I entirely understand why the club opted for Emery. I admit that I was very much on the Arteta train out of a fan’s sense of curiosity and excitement. I understand why highly paid executives have to think a little differently.
Were it my nuts on the line, I probably would have opted for the safe choice too. It hasn’t worked, which I think is ok. However, I think Arsenal are about to be presented with some similar dilemmas as they ponder the next move. Most of Arsenal’s contemporaries have arrived at their managers via a furious trial and error process.
Liverpool had to sit through Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish before they landed on Klopp. Spurs ‘enjoyed’ the Tim Sherwood era and a slightly awkward entanglement with Andre Villas Boas before Pochettino became their Mr. Right. Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich are all struggling to identify suitable coaches, while Manchester United continue to fumble for the light switch in the post-Ferguson age.
The pace of managerial change is relentless and there are only so many top class coaches out there. This presents even more of a problem in November, when potentially desirable candidates are settled comfortably into jobs. Erik Ten Hag has already ruled himself out of the newly vacant Bayern Munich post because he wants to see out the campaign with Ajax.
Arsenal may have to go down the interim route. Freddie Ljungberg has emerged as a potential favourite for the post, but this would represent an immense roll of the dice- more so than it would have for Mikel Arteta. When one starts to consider a list of potential candidates, two distinct choices become apparent.
The club may have to go for someone experienced and maybe a little underwhelming and ill-suited. If, say, they could spirit Rafa Benitez way from China or else gamble on Niko Kovac rediscovering his Eintracht Frankfurt form. Otherwise, they are going to have to take a gamble on as yet untapped potential (Arteta, Ljungberg- assuming either would actually want the job of course). This is a big test of Josh, Raul and Edu’s mettle and I imagine that’s why they have given Unai Emery every chance to revise the team’s ailing fortunes.
There will be lots of noise and external pressure from supporters (I have certainly been a part of that) and the eyes of the Arsenal fan base will be firmly on the executive team. They might get the appointment right, they might take a gamble on Freddie Ljungberg and find that he’s the next Pep Guardiola.
This is, after all, almost exactly how Barcelona stumbled upon Guardiola’s coaching talents in the first place. We will all proclaim their genius if they took such a move and it worked, when in reality serendipity would take a large slice of the credit. Likewise, if the next appointment proves to be a busted flush, the good will the likes of Edu and Raul built up over the summer will start to evaporate.
Make no mistake, they have a difficult, difficult job on their hands. That comes with the territory in highly paid executive positions. You are the bottom line. As fans we are also guilty of blithely assuming availability. For instance, I think it is fair to debate whether Brendan Rodgers might be a suitable candidate. He actually only achieved one top 4 finish in three seasons at Liverpool, however, it is fair to assume that he might have developed and grown as a coach since then.
But he would be well within his rights to look at the Arsenal job and the Leicester job right now and think that he is ok where he is- especially as we are about 1/3 of the way through his first full season at the King Power. Allegri is available, but there are doubts over whether he would provide a good fit for a squad top loaded with attacking talent like Arsenal.
The club legend route has become a popular one among top clubs in Europe of late, but Thierry Henry’s stint at Monaco was a disaster and Patrick Vieira has not done enough to demonstrate he is ready for a job like this one. It is also unlikely that he would accept the role on a sort of trial basis for the remainder of the season, given that he has better job security at Nice.
If Arsenal wanted to take that gamble, they would have to go all in. The club doesn’t have a sizeable transfer kitty and needs to develop their core of talented young players as a necessity. Even leaving aside the fact that he is a noxious, odious individual, it is difficult to conjure a more ill-suited coach for Arsenal’s current situation than Jose Mourinho.
All of which is to say that this is a difficult situation for the club that requires delicate handling. Mr. Right probably isn’t out there, so Arsenal need to decide whether to go for another safety first appointment and hope that it works out better this time than it has for Unai Emery, or else they are going to have to take an almighty gamble on a potential up and comer. It’s a tight rope and the world is watching.