Arsenal hung Emery out to dry, but he's not blameless for his sacking
Unai Emery was hung out to dry at Arsenal. This doesn't mean it is wrong that Emery has been sacked -- it isn't, as he was largely responsible for his own demise. But in the era of the "personality manager," where selling an idea and an identity can be almost as important as results, he was never going to be right for the job unless he had a strong, visible, public voice capable of convincing fans, media and the ex-players that this wasn't a club in a permanent state of drift.
And he never got that.
Charisma and communication matter. When Emery spoke in public, he delivered a stream of cliches and non sequiturs, delivered in a slapdash way. His grasp of English didn't help, but nor was it the central issue: He isn't much clearer in Spanish either.
As the face of any club, let alone one that for more than two decades had been sculpted in the image of Arsene Wenger as compelling, thoughtful and inspirational, Emery was always going to struggle. In fact, scan the other 19 Premier League clubs and see how many have a less charismatic manager: You won't need more than the fingers on one hand to count them, or possibly more than a single finger.
Did it necessarily mean Arsenal were doomed to failure the minute they appointed him? No. In fact, you could even make an argument that after two decades of a Wenger-size personality, a more low-key coach, together with a top-drawer footballing structure that simply rebuilt the club and delivered results, might make more sense. That's what former chief executive Ivan Gazidis was aiming to do when he brought in Raul Sanllehi as head of football, Sven Mislintat as head of recruitment (later effectively replaced by Edu as technical director) and Huss Fahmy as chief contract negotiator.
If this was a tech startup, Emery would be the brilliant coder who designed the system architecture, while the others would run the business side: recruiting talent, schmoozing clients and investors and negotiating deals. The problem is, other than Edu (and that's just because he played for the club for four seasons), the other guys wouldn't get recognised walking around the Arsenal club superstore.
So, week after week, it was Emery in the spotlight and it was Emery taking ownership of every decision. That included all the poor choices that were made before his arrival, all the poor choices made at the boardroom level and, of course, the many poor choices he made.
Let's remind ourselves of what he inherited. It was only last January that Emery announced he could only make loan signings in the winter transfer window. That was in large part due to the decision 12 months earlier to tie up some £115 million in salaries -- 1/5 of the total wage bill -- on three players who are all now 30: Mesut Ozil, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Ozil, one of the highest-paid players in the world on a deal worth £350,000-a-week, has started less than half of Arsenal's Premier League games since Emery's appointment and lasted 90 minutes just 13 times. Mkhitaryan isn't even at the club anymore, farmed out on loan to AS Roma. Aubameyang has played and been prolific, though given they already had Alexandre Lacazette, you wonder if signing another expensive striker was the best use of resources. Bottom line though is that, as a whole, those huge decisions made in the space of a week backfired badly and would mark the Emery era before he even arrived.
It didn't end there, of course. Arsenal's transfer activity seemed to epitomise a lack of clear thinking. Ahead of Emery's first season, they picked up a short-term Band-Aid of a right-back in Stephan Lichtsteiner on a one-year deal even though they already had two viable right-sided defenders in Hector Bellerin and Carl Jenkinson. Lichsteiner played 14 Premier League games. Then in the autumn, they offered a new deal to club stalwart Aaron Ramsey, only to then rescind it and watch him leave on a free transfer to Juventus. Last summer, they dragged the Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny contract situations out until the very last minute (Mustafi stayed, while Koscielny left in acrimonious fashion) before grabbing another knee-jerk Band-Aid in David Luiz (again, small fee, but he's 32 and on a huge salary).
Despite all this, it's worth remembering that Emery dragged Arsenal to the Europa League final in May, overcoming Napoli and Valencia along the way. But for some poor finishing against Brighton, they would have finished third and be in the Champions League this season. And for all the negativity and chaos, they are one point away from fifth place and have all but qualified for the knockout rounds of the Europa League. This is not to exonerate Emery; it's simply to provide context. There is no question that he was also the architect of his own demise with a series of decisions that are difficult to wrap your head around. He lost the fan base, with the Emirates deserted for his last match, a 2-1 Europa League defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt.
There's Denis Suarez, the solitary mid-eason loan reinforcement who had starred for him at Sevilla. He started as many games for Arsenal as Gunnersaurus (zero) and was on the pitch for a total of 101 minutes. Then there's Nicolas Pepe, the club's record signing who has started less than two-thirds of league games (and none since October), and rarely in a 4-3-3 -- easily his best position and the one he played in becoming one of the most coveted players in Europe with Lille.
Then there's the whole captaincy debacle. It's not that putting it to a vote was necessarily a bad idea, it's that a competent man-manager ought to work out that if the players select Granit Xhaka, already one of the most abused and targeted players by his own fans, then he'd better know Xhaka well enough that he's not put off by the boos, but maybe even thrives on them. We all know how well that worked out. It all boiled over when he was substituted against Crystal Palace, and Xhaka was stripped of the captaincy.
The fact that Emery inherited Ozil isn't his fault. Nor is it his fault that Ozil was understandably traumatised by an attempted carjacking that affected his start to the season. What is Emery's fault is the way he handled him, especially in public when he appeared to question whether the player was actually injured. Maybe it was part of a strategy to get Ozil to take his giant salary somewhere else. Maybe it was the fact Emery is often literal and grasps nuances about as well as Data from Star Trek: TNG. Whatever the case, the outcome was that his highest-paid -- and least saleable -- star became isolated and unhappy.
To further compound matters, guess who played every minute of Arsenal's last three league outings (after making one appearance since last May)? Why, Ozil, of course. Which then meant ditching the 4-3-3 and moving to Ozil in the hole behind two strikers and Pepe watching from the bench. It smelled of a guy ripping up the blueprint and proceeding by trial and error.
That, fundamentally, is why Emery is no longer Arsenal manager. There was no vision or, if there was, it changed far too often.
Arsenal's defense is Exhibit A and while it's tempting to mock the players for "not being good enough," it's pretty clear that neither the revolving door of formations and personnel nor the insistence on playing out from the back helped. That's all on Emery and it's disappointing because his time at Sevilla (and, even more so, before that at Valencia and Almeria) showed he's tactically astute.
But you can only execute if you have the faith of the players and you can get your message across. At Paris Saint-Germain, it didn't matter as much because there was so much talent. At Arsenal, it has made all the difference. He remains a very good coach, albeit one who was unable to sell his ideas -- to fans, media and players -- and then stopped trying and simply did an about-turn on a near-weekly basis. At a different club, with a different structure -- where the people upstairs show their face and participate in selling the club and the project -- it might have been different.
Here, he was left alone. And he never had the full skill set to deal with the demands of this particular job on his own.