Unai Emery is in the news again, and again it’s for offering his opinion on Arsenal, as he reflects back on his time as manager, offering insight into where it all went wrong. The part that you maybe didn’t see coming – or maybe you did – is that his views of the pivotal junctions as Arsenal boss showcase himself as a victim of circumstances beyond his control, mixed with a hint of disingenuous self-blame.
In an article released by The Guardian, Emery did not hold back in walking through his brief stint, including the team’s attitude, losing a Europa League final in Baku, all four captains leaving in the same summer, being overruled by the board in signing Pepe, struggles with Mesut Ozil, and the lack of protection Arsenal offered him. All of these points were very real crossroads that he faced, and all went against him. It would be enough for you to almost change how you feel about Emery, except, the article suggests Emery believes himself to have been “a prisoner to others’ mistakes.” This suggests Unai believes he should be labeled the victim who was made the scapegoat, misunderstood, and unjustly fired.
The idea that Emery was misunderstood, I have no issue believing. Although, likely in a very different way than he has intended for readers interpret that statement. The fact that he believed himself helpless and simply along for the ride is, itself, a problem. He says, “there were things I couldn’t control”, in a job where the best managers are in complete control. Some managers may be a little more obvious in their control than others, – think Pep vs Klopp – but even Klopp, who is known for being a bit freer flowing or hands off than the regimented Man City manager, is ready at a moment’s notice to wrangle things back in when it goes astray. The idea that Emery feels he was left to drift along with little control, actually sheds light on some of what led to his downfall.
In the article, it talks about the first 8 months of his tenure and the success Arsenal had navigating itself to a European final and putting themselves in prime position to make the coveted top 4 – only to fall apart at the end. Emery admits the three defeats in a week to Crystal Palace, Wolves, Leicester, and then a draw to Brighton started the downward spiral that was exacerbated by the devastating defeat to London rivals Chelsea in the Europa finals. Emery offers the insight that, “some players had a mentality that says one day ‘yes’, one day ‘no’, when in football it has to be ‘yes’, ‘yes’, ‘yes’ every day. We lacked that little extra to get through a lot of games in those final weeks. If your application and commitment falls below 100%, you can lose, and that’s what happened.”
While it is defeating to believe your club has players that would react this way with the opportunity to win a major European trophy on the line, is it not a large part of a manager’s job to deal with and change that mentality? Even a young Arteta has faced the challenge of urging his team forward when they felt defeated after losing to Olympiacos in the Europa League knockout stages. Efforts that were rewarded when Arteta saw his team bounce back with two straight wins before the season was suspended. There may be a limited amount a manager can do, but getting the team ready to perform their best falls heavy on the managers shoulders and cannot be passed along.
The article also discusses the challenges Unai faced when all four of the club’s long-standing captains left in the summer before this season. Ramsey went to Juventus, Cech retired, Koscielny moved to the French league after a heated falling out, and Nacho Monreal went to La Liga. It’s true there may have been little he could have done to intervene and convince these players to stay, but we couple that with how he responded by giving the armband and locker room to Granit Xhaka. Again, he washes his hands of the situation by pointing out that he allowed the team to vote for their own selection. “My strategy was 50% me, 50% them. I like to have players’ input, their opinion. There were people with the character to be captain, but you need time and backing.”
As we all know, it was a decision that resulted in disaster. Whether you point the finger at Xhaka, Emery, toxic fans, the club, or all of them — the lack of definitive decision making from Emery cast doubt in his ability to be a presence in the locker room, and when it all went bad, the locker room crashed and burned. After a season with glimpses of promise, the results stopped coming and the issues with his ability to manage players became more evident.
None of the player issues were more glaring than his standoff with Mesut Ozil. It could hardly go unnoticed that the club’s highest earning, marquee player was being iced out from game time. “‘I spoke a lot with Özil,’ Emery says in reflection, ’He has to be self‑critical too, analyse his attitude and commitment. I tried with all my might to help Özil. Throughout my career, talented players have reached their best level with me. I was always positive, wanting him to play, be involved.”
‘In pre-season I told him I wanted to help recover the best Özil. I wanted a high level of participation and commitment in the dressing room. I respected him and thought he could help. He could have been a captain but the dressing room didn’t want him to be. That’s not what I decided; that’s what the players decided. Captains are ones who have to keep defending the club, the coach, teammates.’”
Unai is far from the only person surrounding Arsenal frustrated with the production of Mesut Ozil, but however he spins it, he left Arsenal’s best, creative player out in the cold while the team struggled to perform. That is not to say that Mesut Ozil would have solved all of this problems – far from – but within a week of Arteta taking over, Mikel had Ozil back in the starting side and an attacking identity that caters to getting Ozil on the ball and in spots to help unlock the opposition, albeit, a little deeper.
Everything unraveled fast on Emery, and while he may have shouldered more blame than he deserved from some people, there is no doubt he was no longer the solution to the problems that blazed throughout the club. His relationship with fans had soured, his style of play yielded unsustainable success followed by poor play and losses, and most weeks continued to look worse without signs of improvement.
It’s easy to point to Aubameyang converting his penalty or those final games where Arsenal couldn’t get the job done as a potential, pivotal point in changing people’s views, the club’s financial capabilities, and everyone’s patience with his project – but I struggle to believe that if we had made the Champions League and our performances this season were the same, he would have been given a pass.
He centers his feelings around the idea that the club didn’t look out for him or protect him so he could do his job without distractions, saying, “At every club, I’ve been protected: Lorca, Almería, Valencia, PSG. At Sevilla I had Monchi. At PSG Nasser al-Khelaifi protected me in the dressing room and publicly. At Arsenal they weren’t able to, maybe because they came from Wenger, who did everything. They’d say: ‘We’re with you’ but in front of fans and the dressing room they couldn’t protect me. Truth is, I felt alone. And the results dictated I had to go.”
At some point, in this high stake, cutthroat industry, a manager needs to be able to protect themselves and prove their worth. There were a lot of junctions that could have gone in his favor but didn’t and that within itself tells a story. Similar to the run of bad results the team had – good teams make their own results. Good managers control their own results and shape those around them for the better.
Emery is keen to work again – and he should be. But it’s time for him to move onto the next team, have success, and show them he is focused on their future, not vindicating his own past. Sorry Unai.