Arsenal have been in the midst of an identity crisis for some time now. Once it became clear that the club’s iconic, long-serving manager Arsène Wenger had seen his once-adamantine grasp on the levers of success steadily loosen over the years—a slackening some overly unsympathetic spectators might say had reached unforgivable levels nearly a decade ago but which probably only happened certainly and irreversibly just a couple years ago—those in charge of Arsenal had to decide what kind of club they wanted to be. Did they wish to be a club of undying loyalty and gratitude, allowing the man who, through single-minded brilliance and force of will, turned Arsenal into the massive club it is today to occupy his position until he himself decided he’d had enough? Or did they wish to become something new and, more importantly, something better by putting an end to the backsliding the team had undergone during the tail end of Wenger’s tenure by looking for a new leader?
When Arsenal announced that Wenger would step down at season’s end, they revealed that they did aspire for something new. When they announced yesterday that the man to lead that effort was Unai Emery, they revealed that they don’t really have all that clear of an idea about what that new club should actually look like, nor if it would be all that much better.
None of this is really about Emery. The 46-year-old Spaniard, who burnished his rep during a couple very impressive stints with second-tier La Liga clubs Valencia and Sevilla only to then tarnish that rep during his brief and ignominious two-year stewardship of PSG—remember, while helming a squad that cost approximately one gazillion dollars to assemble, PSG lost the 2016-17 league title to Monaco, were twice humiliated in the Champions League at the hands of each of the two super clubs of Spain, and never found a style of play that got the best out of one of the most formidable and expensive forward lines in recent European history—is a perfectly fine coach. He’s by all accounts incredibly intelligent and deeply knowledgable about the nuances of the game thanks to his famously maniacal work ethic; he’s shown the consistent ability to cobble together cohesive, stony defensive structures erected around coordinated pressing; he is thought of as some kind of specialist in knockout competitions in light of his leading of Sevilla to three consecutive Europa League titles.
Sure, Emery may lack the ability to command unyielding respect and demand accountability from his players, and he might not have much of a clue about how to draw up an offensive gameplan that brings out the best in star attackers, nor might he have any notable track record for bringing along and developing young players—but none of those are necessarily fatal flaws. There’s no way to state with any certainty at this point whether or not Emery will be a success or a failure at Arsenal in the coming years. Yet that doesn’t prevent us from looking to what his arrival and the circumstances around it do say about Arsenal’s vision of its own future.
Let’s take a step back and assess the situation. Arsenal finished this past season in sixth place in the Premier League, never seriously challenged for one of those all-important top four places in the table, and reached the semifinal stage of the Europa League. They have a worse squad and/or a smaller budget in comparison to all five of their Big Six rivals in England. With a legendary though declining manager on his way out, they’ve chosen not to bring in a big-name coach with a proven track record of winning major domestic and international titles (say, a Carlo Ancelotti), nor a promising up-and-comer whose background in greatly improving the fortunes and performances of somewhat smaller teams bodes well for his ability to do something similar for a club with more resources (maybe Thomas Tuchel), nor even a coach with a playing philosophy that aligns with the club’s identity as formed by the outgoing manager (Maurizio Sarri would’ve fit this bill nicely). Instead, they’ve gone with a manager whose forte is defense, who, while doing well before with medium-sized clubs, colossally fucked up his one opportunity to compete with the elite, and has proven little more than the ability to perform well in Europe’s consolation prize tournament. It’s hard to see Arsenal’s choosing of a second-tier manager as much more than their acceptance that they are becoming a second-tier club.
The identity of Arsenal’s runner-up for the managerial gig lends more evidence to the notion that the club doesn’t have a clear plan in mind for how it will return to the top of the game. Former Arsenal midfielder and current Manchester City assistant Mikel Arteta was reportedly a whisker away from getting the Arsenal job, until Emery’s name popped up in the 11th hour and the club reversed course. Arteta has no head coaching experience but is regarded very highly by the likes of his boss at City, Pep Guardiola, and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino, and because of that and his contributions to the sky-blue juggernaut in Manchester, he projects well as a promising young coaching prospect. Arteta’s playing style throughout his career and the types of managers he’s learned under would imply that he’d favor an attack-minded philosophy that would mirror the style Arsenal fans have come to expect and Arsenal’s squad has been assembled to perform. He was definitely the most intriguing candidate for what is a fascinating job.
Giving Arteta the job would have been a risk, to be sure, but it would at least be a stylistic continuation implemented by a player who had been taught by Wenger himself. Not only that, it would’ve been a potentially high-reward proposition should Arteta turn out to be a super-coach in the form of his managerial idols Guardiola, Pochettino, and Wenger—an important consideration for a club that aims to be one of the best in Europe but is apparently wary of or unable to bring in a manager already established at the highest levels. (Sorry, Gooners, but Max Allegri was never going there.) By getting so close to signing Arteta and instead veering off in the complete opposite direction with Emery at the last minute (a turn of events reportedly spurred by Arteta’s desire to have more power in the decision-making process than the more deferential Emery demanded) proves that the people running the club don’t have a concrete vision for the future. While Arteta would’ve been something different, in some important and encouraging ways he would’ve been more of the same, as he would’ve served as Arsenal reaffirming their belief in their own proud tradition and that by committing to the tenets of Wengerball, they could once again climb the mountain back to the very top.
Arsenal threw away that option, and now have a manager bearing no commonalities to Wenger and the things Wenger stood for, and will need to prove that he’s a much better manager than he’s demonstrated the past couple seasons. It’s not a abjectly terrible choice by any means, as Emery could very well turn out to be just the right kind of change the team needs, and to some extent hiring a Europa League specialist when you’re a club whose clearest path to the Champions League lies in winning the JV tournament makes a lot of sense. Regardless of what happens next, though, by signing Emery Arsenal have gone a drastically different direction. Only it’s not very clear whether their final destination will differ much from where they currently are.