The last 10 years of the Arsene Wenger era felt like a purgatory for the Arsenal faithful, a period of deflating results and a seeming loss of ambition not only drew criticism of Wenger, but also of the owner: Stanley Kroenke. Upon the announcement of Wenger’s exit from the club, many feared that the despair in recent years hadn’t only seeped into the stands, but had trickled through the ground and was embedded in the very foundations of the Emirates Stadium.
Enter Unai Emery, the somewhat unremarkable decision for a replacement, seen by many as a safe bet or risk prevention. In what could be seen as an almost perfect side-by-side comparison to Gareth Southgate, many thought he wasn’t the man to enact change, early results were neither bad nor impressive but both men rapidly won over their teams’ respective fans.
What Unai Emery has done is bring true hope back to the Gunners. Not the fleeting feeling of change that occurred when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was brought in, or the two week wave of dopamine that followed the FA Cup win – this is true hope, and with good reason. Despite often starting shakily in games, Emery’s team followed two losses out of two at the start of the season with an unbeaten run of 20 games (15 wins, four draws) in all competitions, starting on August 18th and continuing even now. He has made marvels with a good team built on shaky ground, and can only be commended for that.
My favourite stat about Arsenal under Emery is that, in all the Premier League games played this season, they haven’t once been ahead at half-time and that includes the 5-1 trouncing they handed to Fulham (1-1 at the break). This is a team with a new philosophy, one that promotes team work but also emphasises the importance of individual brilliance and taking initiative. One, however, which discourages hurried play and I assume, scoring in the first half.
The point of this whole article though isn’t just to sing Emery’s praises, I wouldn’t be saying anything new by doing that, the point is that this couldn’t have come at a worse time. This new philosophy, the confident manager, the support of the fans all comes in the year when Pep Guardiola looks to improve on one of the best seasons in Premier League history with Man City, Jurgen Klopp looks to win the title with the amazing team who made it to the Champions League final and Maurizio Sarri has steadied the ship at Chelsea, a team with N’Golo Kanté, Eden Hazard and now Jorginho in midfield. Emery’s wave of brilliance and the way he united the team would be a return to the top in any other league, at any other time, but as it is he’s fighting a battle with a well-organised, motivated army whilst trying to take on one larger army, and two bloodthirsty titans.
Unai Emery has enacted change, he’s united a divided fan base and won back the players, but he doesn’t have the firepower, budget-wise, that his opponents do. A fourth-placed finish was predicted before he arrived and a fourth place finish is looking like the most realistic end – the only difference is the fantastic way he’s going to get there this time.