Thursday 5 December 2019

Sam Dean: 'No review of Emery's wreckage avoids the language barrier but fans didn't care when they were winning'

Manager's inability to cope with difficulties plus regression of young stars left owners with little choice, writes Sam Dean

Emery was Arsenal’s head coach, not their manager. His focus has been on the first team, rather than on the club, and so he never built relationships with club staff. Photo: Reuters/Eddie Keogh
Emery was Arsenal’s head coach, not their manager. His focus has been on the first team, rather than on the club, and so he never built relationships with club staff. Photo: Reuters/Eddie Keogh

Sam Dean

When Unai Emery comes to sift through the wreckage of his time at Arsenal, one question will haunt him more than any other: just how did things turn so sour, so quickly?

Is it really only 12 months since Arsenal were riding a wave of momentum, unbeaten in months and looking once more like a modern, forward-thinking team? This time last year, the pocket of Arsenal supporters that travelled to Kiev for a Europa League tie against Vorskla Poltava warmed themselves by chanting that Arsenal were "Unai Emery's red and white army".

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'It feels damning that Maitland-Niles has regressed so dramatically.' Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images
'It feels damning that Maitland-Niles has regressed so dramatically.' Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images

The final memory of the Emery era will be a quarter-full Emirates Stadium treating the manager to a barrage of boos at the end of a dismal defeat by Eintracht Frankfurt.

To be clear, it is the team's results and performances this season that have caused the backlash and ultimately cost Emery his job, but it is also clear that there has been little goodwill for him to fall back upon amid his side's struggles.

Emery was Arsenal's head coach, not their manager. His focus has been on the first team, rather than on the club, and so he never built relationships with club staff. His distance is more the result of an intense concentration on his personal duties than aloofness, but the end result was that few truly shared a personal connection with him. While Arsene Wenger's exit triggered a period of "mourning", according to one source, there will be few tears shed over Emery.

No dissection of the Spaniard's difficulties can avoid the language barrier.


The mocking of his accent has never been fair - he has pronounced "evening" correctly for months now, but the "good ebening" barb has stuck regardless - yet it is only recently that he has been able to speak with real conviction in English.

Journalists who did not cover the club on a consistent basis would often ask the regulars to translate his words into coherent sentences, and it would be naive to think these difficulties in understanding were not shared by supporters or - most importantly - the players, who have regularly been baffled by his instructions.

There had been an improvement. Emery has felt confident enough to move on without a translator, and it took courage to speak to the world's media in a language he barely knew. But he has still been largely reluctant to reveal much of the personality - a damaging oversight in England's football culture, which is obsessed by personality.

Ultimately, there would not have been an Arsenal fan who cared about Emery's communication problems when they were enjoying an 11-game winning run at the start of last season.

Back then, Emery's methods felt fresh and exciting, his detailed and forensic approach to tactics a marked contrast to Wenger's laissez-faire style. Arsenal were also far more flexible, jumping between systems, scoring plenty of goals and winning plenty of games.

Emery believes the high point of his first season was the thrilling 4-2 victory over Tottenham Hotspur, but over the following months it became increasingly hard to recapture.

Arsenal lost their consistency in the league and concerns grew that Emery was becoming too worried about opposition strengths and less focused on finding a system that best suited his players. If they were under-coached by Wenger, were the players now being over-coached by Emery?

Spring brought three consecutive defeats - by Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester - as Arsenal lost their grip on the top four. The Palace loss, just three days after a terrific victory in Napoli, was the most galling.

Emery felt compelled to rotate his team, picking players such as Carl Jenkinson, Mohamed Elneny and Konstantinos Mavropanos, and they proved inadequate. For Emery, it was a damning indictment of the lack of depth in his squad.

The manager had never dictated Arsenal's recruitment policy - indeed, early on in his tenure, he expressed a desire to keep Calum Chambers, only for the club's inability to sell Shkodran Mustafi resulting in Chambers being loaned to Fulham.

There were soon rumblings of discontent about the club's plans for the summer following the sudden departure of head of recruitment Sven Mislintat, although Emery was not helped by the failure of loan signing Denis Suarez, a move largely driven by him.

The Europa League final thrashing at the hands of Chelsea meant that Arsenal had failed in their primary objective of qualifying for the Champions League. Off the pitch, too, there were issues - what Emery has described as "circumstances", which upset the "emotional balance" of the squad.

The first was the acrimonious departure of Laurent Koscielny, the club captain. Koscielny's contractual dispute was largely with the club, but it was a worrying reflection of Emery's authority that the defender was both so desperate to leave and so willing to ignore the Spaniard's repeated pleas to attend the pre-season American tour.

The departure of Koscielny, along with the loss of Petr Cech and Aaron Ramsey, left Arsenal with a troubling leadership void. Privately, it is understood Emery felt the lack of leadership within the dressing-room - after a summer in which 11 senior players left the club - was deeply damaging.

As an example, one source said the form of new signing Kieran Tierney has deteriorated in part due to the absence of experienced figures who could provide support when fans have been groaning at every mistake.


The attempted carjacking of Mesut Ozil and Sead Kolasinac was, obviously, outside of Emery's control, but the knock-on effect was a further destabilisation after a pre-season in which Ozil in particular had looked invigorated. Having been dropped, recalled, dropped and then recalled again last season, Ozil looked ready to play a more consistent role in a team that had received genuine investment. The security threats to the German prevented that from happening, then Emery once again gave him the cold shoulder, before again relenting and welcoming him back. Indecision ruled.

Perhaps the most significant "circumstance" of all has been the stripping of the captaincy from Granit Xhaka. The criticism of Emery for holding a vote to decide on his captain has been largely unfair, as Xhaka was already Emery's pick having worn the armband in the start of the new campaign. The delay in confirming it, though, only added to supporters' unhappiness, with one of their least favourite players being anointed as the team's leader.

When Xhaka lost his temper with fans after being substituted against Crystal Palace last month, the player refused his head coach's request to apologise. Much as it was with Koscielny, this was a reflection of Emery's dwindling authority.

A big part of the reason Emery was given the job, Ivan Gazidis (then chief executive) said, was that he had impressed with his knowledge of the squad and plans for improving players.

The example given by Gazidis was Ainsley Maitland-Niles, a versatile academy product. In his interview for the job, Emery supposedly revealed his plans for Maitland-Niles, mapping out a pathway for his development.

It therefore feels particularly damning for Emery that Maitland-Niles has regressed so dramatically. He has not played in the Premier League since September, and looks like a young man whose confidence has been ripped away - as do other young players such as Tierney, Joe Willock, Lucas Torreira and record signing Nicolas Pepe.

Sources close to Emery have described the coach's surprise at Pepe's difficulties in adapting to the Premier League. But the regression of a £72m forward has not been a good look, especially when the team is on its worst run of form since 1992, and Pepe cannot even get on the pitch, as was the case against Frankfurt on Thursday.

That loss, in front of surely the lowest attendance at the Emirates, will be a defining image of Emery's reign - one of him on the sidelines, his nose upturned, and a scowl on his face, knowing it was over. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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