By Amy Lawrence/The Guardian
Well, that took a very sudden left turn. In keeping with the Arsenal tradition of appointing unexpected managers, it seems the board have lurched from favouring a 36-year-old former player who had never managed a game to a totally new face in the frame which provoked a stunned Ian Wright, former Arsenal striker, to query: “Where’s Unai Emery come from?” As a reaction it is not quite in the realms of Arsène Who? but it captures the mood of curious bewilderment.
A quick flick through the club’s history books demonstrates that unexpected does not always mean bad. In the 1930s George Allison moved from the boardroom to the dugout and won the league. Bertie Mee had been the club’s physiotherapist and engineered the double win in 1971. George Graham came from Millwall in English football’s second tier and collected a cluster of trophies between 1987 and 1994. Arsène Wenger famously arrived from Nagoya Grampus 8 in Japan and, according to the sceptical players, looked more like a geography teacher than a football manager.
The surprise here is that all the signs were that Arsenal were looking elsewhere. Emery’s background is hardly so arcane to make this truly shocking. He brings his own brand of clout and experience. Repeated third placed finishes at Valencia, making his teams the best of the rest behind Barcelona and Real Madrid, were eye-catching.
A hat-trick of Europa League victories with Sevilla enhanced his status enough for Paris Saint-Germain to give him that chance to try to take the team towards their holy Champions League grail. It didn’t quite work out on that front but the current scene at Arsenal, and what is needed, has more of a nod towards the calibre of work Emery did in Spain.
In the post-Wenger world the next appointment was always going to feel pivotal. Loaded. For the triumvirate put together by the chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, to make the key footballing decisions, this process has been a test for a new team behind the team. Gazidis has been working with Raúl Sanllehí (head of football relations) and Sven Mislintat (head of recruitment) for only a few months and they have knocked their heads together and come up with Emery.
He is another football obsessive, a man who references “emotion” and “responsibility” when he thinks about his role – only this one has a different character to his predecessor. Arsenal’s players will return to London Colney for the new season to find an environment with cranked-up demands and expectations.
Emery’s nature is to be meticulous, tactically smart, with a disciplinarian streak. He is minded to push his players. After a long time listening to the same manager, Arsenal’s squad will soon learn that there is no room for any complacency, for allowing themselves to go through any motions. They can also expect to be drilled into a more intense and resilient style. The force of an attitude shock, exactly what they need, will be felt. “Either we all work or let’s just burst the ball,” he says. That philosophy is a bit more George Graham than Arsene Wenger but given the requirement to shake up the comfort zone, to instil some defensive organisation, at this moment in time it’s no bad thing.
Having been around several blocks (Arsenal would represent a seventh job in a fourth different country) Emery offers that weight of experience Mikel Arteta didn’t have. But his career has not pointed to long-term spells, with four seasons at Valencia his longest run in any one club, so that’s another change of pace Arsenal will have to get used to. It is all about building new relationships now, as quickly as possible. As well as getting to know his new players, Emery also has to develop some mutual trust with Gazidis, Sanllehi and Mislintat. There is adjustment to be done on the squad, even with the relatively limited funds available for a club hoping to compete with other teams vying for a Champions League finish. The process of deciding who to target, and who is expendable, is on the agenda during this shortened World Cup summer window. Best get to work, rather than bursting the ball.
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